Archive for the ‘Outdoors & Scouts’ Category

Big Bend Ultra 2013 – A desert ultra-marathon

Friday, January 25th, 2013

See the video at 

Over the weekend of 19-20 January 2013, I was an amateur radio communications volunteer for the Big Bend Ultra, a 10, 25 and 50 kilometer desert run along unpaved roads in the Big Bend National Park.  There were over 200 runners in all, spread along the three courses.  Ham operators from the local area (which actually means from hundreds of miles around, since the distances are so huge out there), San Antonio and Austin provided communications support. I think I was the only Houston area ham to participate.  Since the drive was 11 ½ hours each way, perhaps this should not be a surprise.  However, given the opportunity to combine several of my hobbies (ham radio, off road Jeeping, emergency preparedness, Wilderness First Aid, camping, etc.) into one event, I could not resist volunteering.  The other hams, many of whom have volunteered for this event for many years, graciously welcomed me to the team and accommodated my request for the most remote duty on the roughest road possible. 

Ham Campsite at Rio Grande Village

 Charlie Land from San Antonio, KC5NKK, tactical call “Rio Grande Village,” coordinated voice ham activity from his camper, above.  The Rio Grande was about a hundred yards or so behind his trailer.  Charlie is also quite a cook and prepared excellent meals for the volunteers on Friday and Saturday evenings, as well as breakfast on Saturday.  Although I did not arrive until late on Friday night, I think a number of the hams arrived on Wednesday and Thursday and spent a good bit of time setting up the mesh network discussed below.

 Another View of the Ham Campsite

Another view of the campsite in Rio Grande Village, looking the other way at the mountains.  This was the group camping area and was set aside for hams and other race volunteers.  A few of the racers set up camp here too.  They tended to be a bit noisier than the ham crowd. 

One interesting aspect of the ham effort for this race was the use of an HSMM Mesh network to stream video from the finish line to the race headquarters at Rio Grande Village. I did not see the entire setup and failed to photograph what I saw, but this is how it was set up.  There was a camera on a tripod at the finish line.  It was connected to a Linksys router with Mesh firmware that was powered by a surplus Belkin UPS.  It was linked to another router at the edge of the finish line site that was connected to a wire dish antenna that looked a bit like a curved BBQ grill.  This dish was pointed to a Mesh node on a ridge between the finish line and Rio Grande Village.  I understand this node was around 10 miles away.  This node connected to the system at the race headquarters.  My understanding is that they had a projector there that allowed the friends of the racers to watch as they crossed the finish line.  A group of hams from Austin worked the Mesh system (and did double duty as voice operators too).  I wish I had more time to learn from them, as they clearly were experts in this new mode.

Voice communications were via a temporary repeater set up by the Big Bend Amateur Radio Club.  Although there is a repeater in the Big Bend area, it apparently does not offer coverage for all the race areas, so the portable repeater was set up on a hill on the Old Ore Road, just off the paved Road near Rio Grande Village.  Although I was a bit scratchy into the repeater on some parts of the Black Gap Road (there was a mountain between me and the repeater), communications were pretty good for the rest of the course and most aid stations were able to communicate via HTs, although some required longer range antennas than the standard rubber ducks.  I was able to raise the repeater on my HT using a rubber duck antenna and high power from Glenn Springs, but for race day, I elected to set my mobile radio and HT on low power and  used the mobile to cross band into the repeater.  This allowed me to move around as I wished without having to worry about hitting the repeater and also ensured that my battery lasted through the day.  I never had to break out my spare.

The Course. (See the race map at

The starting point for the 25 and 50 kilometer courses was the origin of the Glenn Springs Road where it departs the paved road just a few miles east of Panther Junction, the Park Headquarters.  The Glenn Springs Road is a maintained “high clearance vehicle recommended” unpaved road that starts near Panther Junction as described above and runs through Glenn Springs, where springs provide a reliable source of water in the desert, and continues to the River Road, where it terminates.  At Glenn Springs, the 25K course continued along the Glenn Springs Road to the finish line, which was at the River Road intersection.   As the name implies, the River Road generally follows the course of the Rio Grande from one side of the park to the other.  Although it is considered a maintained road, it has some very rough sections, especially on the west end.  Luckily, the areas of the road used for this event were in pretty good shape and appeared to have been freshly  graded.  The 50K course turned onto the Black Gap Road at Glenn Springs, then continued Southwest to where that road intersects the River Road.  Runners went one mile west on the River Road, then turned around and took the River Road east to the finish line at the Glenn Springs Road intersection.  The Black Gap Road is an unmaintained “high clearance four wheel drive required” road and is one of the roughest in the park.  It goes up and down steep inclines and has a section that requires a climb up or down a ledge about 2 feet high, although people have stacked rocks at the drop off to make it passable.  There is also a section where the road narrows and requires that you drive at about a 45 degree incline from side to side for perhaps 100 feet or so, so as to avoid a number of boulders that litter the flatter surface.  . 

The Jeep.

 The Jeep

Parked at Glenn Springs for the Saturday Communications Check.

I drove to Big Bend in my 2006 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon.  It has a 4 ½ inch lift, Body Armor bumpers, a Warn 9.5 ti winch, and Goodyear 33X12.5X15 Wrangler MT/R tires with Kevlar sidewalls.  It is a great off road vehicle for areas like this, but it is not a comfortable road vehicle.  The tires are noisy and the ride is rough.  It is very tiring to drive it all day.  At 70 mph, it gets about 13.5 mpg.  At 75, it gets less than 10.  Either way, you never pass a gas station in West Texas without filling up and when you hit Fort Stockton or Alpine headed toward the park, depending on which way you are going, you fill up the two 5 gallon Jerry cans that mount on the spare tire carrier.  Although there is gas available in the park, if for whatever reason they ran out, you could get stuck there.  For ham radio equipment, I have a 3/8 X 24 threaded antenna mount centered on the spare tire carrier.  I mount my High Sierra Sidekick screwdriver antenna with a 5 foot whip to this mount.  Above each rear turn signal is an NMO mount.  For this trip, I had a Larson dual band antenna on one side and a Larson 5/8 wave 2 meter antenna on the other side.  I had my Yaesu FT-8800 connected to the dual band antenna and my Icom 7000 attached to the screwdriver and the 2 meter antenna.  I also had my Yaesu VX-6 handheld and as noted above, by using the crossband repeat feature of the FT-8800, I was able to use the handheld radio in my vest pocket with its speaker-mike and relay to the race repeater through the Jeep.  One item to get for next year is a trailer so that I can pull the Jeep out there and back from the quiet comfort of my Expedition EL. 

My job. 

 Aid Station 2

Race day at Glenn Springs. The runner on the left is headed down the 25K course.  The 50K course went to the right of the mountain in the background, then around it and met back up with the 25K course.  A simple 25K detour.  There is a lot of nothing in this part of the desert.

I was assigned to maintain communications and log runners at Aid Station 2, which was located at Glenn Springs.  I was positioned at the split in the course and although there were signs, I was supposed to ensure that runners turned the correct direction and to note the number of each runner and which way they went.   After the last runner cleared the intersection and the sweep vehicle for the 25K course went by, I was assigned to “sweep” the 50K course, so I set off down the Black Gap Road to do that. 

Typical Scene on the Black Gap Road

Perhaps this photo gives a sense of what a drive down the Black Gap Road is like.  At this point, the Jeep is pointed steeply downhill, with flatter ground at the top of the photo.  There were lots of washes and rocks along the way.

I did not catch up with the last runner until I reached the River Road.  There was an aid station where the Black Gap Road met the River Road and I had heard them report that the last runner had come through their station.  Nevertheless, I elected to head west on the River Road to the turnaround one mile down so that I could say that I had swept the entire course.  I was glad I did, as I encountered a runner on this segment.  He was the last runner on the course and I later learned from monitoring the radio that he was about a half hour behind the next to last runner.  I did not want to crowd the runner by following him to closely, but did not want to be too far away from him if he became distressed and needed help.  At that point, he was walking most of the time rather than running.  I cannot criticize him in any way, because he was doing something I certainly was not prepared to do and he was not giving up.  I would pull up about a hundred yards behind the runner and stop, trying for a place that would let me watch him for some distance.  I would then read a chapter in a book I had bought at the visitor’s center, then drive until I caught up with him, then repeat the process.  He eventually reached the finish line after 9 ½ hours.  The winner crossed the line in 3 hours, 40 minutes. 

 I visited with the last runner at the finish line as he was sitting and resting for a bit.  I told him that I was the guy in the red Jeep and that I did my best not to crowd him.  He said that he appreciated that, but jokingly said he still viewed me as the vulture that would periodically land on a tree behind him to see if he was going to die.  I did not have the heart to tell him that the book I bought in the visitor’s center was called “Death in Big Bend” and each chapter was devoted to somebody who bought the farm or came close to doing so at the park.  Thankfully, no chapters were added to the book during this event.

After reaching the finish line and being dismissed from my communications duties, I still had to drive back down the River Road to Rio Grande Village and my campsite.  It is a three hour drive from there to Fort Stockton, which was the first town likely to have a hotel room, so the question was whether I wanted to break up camp and drive for three more hours that night.  I decided to have a quiet dinner, stay the night at Rio Grande Village, then hit the road the next morning, which I did.  I got up, broke camp and was on the road by 7.  I reached Houston around 6:30 that evening, having stopped only for gas and food I ate in the Jeep as I drove.  It was a long, but great weekend.  I look forward to doing it again.

First Aid Kits

Wednesday, January 26th, 2011

People often ask me what they should include in their first aid kit.  The unfortunate answer is “It depends.”  In this post, I will discuss a number of factors that can influence what you want to put in your kit and in subsequent postings, I will talk about kits for various purposes and scenarios and what I think they should contain.  To briefly summarize, the contents of a first aid kit depend on:

  • What is your level of training and comfort level using certain equipment?
  • What is your role in the first aid/EMS/medical response tree?
  • How many people you need to look after with this kit?
  • What levels of injury do you want to be prepared to handle?
  • How long you will be using the kit before it can be restocked?
  • What other resources are available?
  • How long will it take until professional or para-professional help arrives or you can get to professional help?
  • What legal or policy requirements or limitations apply to your situation?

I live in a city where the average EMS response time is around 3 minutes.  If I am stocking a first aid kit for home, I will need the dressings, bandages and other materials to deal with issues like minor cuts that will be solved in the home with no outside medical care.  I also need to have the materials on hand to deal with serious emergencies for maybe 5 minutes or so, since EMS will take over by then. 

 If I am putting a first aid kit in the car, I will again want to deal with minor cuts and scrapes, but recognize that I may come upon an accident and need to deal with more serious trauma until EMS arrives.  I should have plenty of sterile dressings on hand.  However, I don’t need any really fancy dressings or bandages, since anything I put on somebody at an accident scene will be cut off and thrown on the floor just as soon as they get to the hospital.

 For a weekend car-based camping trip with a scout troop, I am going to be prepared to deal with cuts and scrapes, bites and stings and non-trauma items like tummy aches, dehydration and homesickness.  I will also need to be prepared for trauma and sustaining a victim for the longer response times associated with more remote areas.

 For a backpacking trip, the kit becomes more complicated, especially on a longer trip to a remote area.  I have to deal with minor injuries and prevent them from becoming major ones.  I will want to sustain care as needed to keep somebody with a minor problem on the trail as opposed to ending their trip.  That may mean multiple dressings over a period of days for a single laceration.  I have to be prepared to deal with severe injuries when help may be delayed for a significant time.  On top of all of this, I have to minimize the bulk and weight of my kit.  This calls for the inclusion of some of the high tech tools now available, like waterproof but permeable dressings that can be left on a wound until it is healed, fancy dressings for blisters and hot spots and the like.  One should also think “outside the kit” about other items in the backpack or crew gear that could be of use in an emergency.  The kit also needs to be ready for medical issues – stomach aches, fevers and the like.  For older guys like me, pain relievers for muscle and joint pain are a must.  While I believe in a  crew kit that has the materials needed for an emergency readily at hand, I think the size of the kit can be reduced by having each member of the crew provide their own personal kit for minor issues and spread out the stuff that you do not need to access instantly, like the acetaminophen and NSAIDs. 

More to come on this subject…

Background on Dry Wicking Fabrics

Wednesday, August 18th, 2010

Here is a link to an interesting article on Dry Wicking fabrics:  “Designers sweat the details to let athletic clothes breathe” from the Washington Post:

“All Purpose” Paper versus Baby Wipes

Saturday, January 2nd, 2010

Some use all purpose paper (AKA toilet paper) in the outdoors.  Others advocate baby wipes.  I have tried some of the wipes marketed for outdoor use to clean my face and hands, but not to replace AP.  I know a few guys who swear by them for all of their “business.”  One complaint about the wipes is that they tend to dry out during storage, so you need a new pack for every trip.  I was hunting doves today and sometimes when you have multiple birds down and you are helping the dog out, you get your hands covered in blood and feathers handling the birds.  I wished I had some baby wipes to clean my hands off so that I could keep the mess off my gun.

Weigh in.  What is your prefererence: AP or wipes? 

Where to save money and where not to skimp

Friday, December 4th, 2009

At a recent presentation on gear choices, a parent asked a very good question:  “If I am buying backpacking gear for my son, where should  I invest in better gear and where can I cut some corners to save money.  I have tried to address these issues in a lot of the posts here, but I will attempt to briefly summarize my thoughts in one place.  For more details, start with the article on that particular type of equipment.  These comments are appropriate to weekend type camping and backpacking trips.  For extended backcountry trips or  “bet your life on your gear” adventures, the answers might change.

Don’t Skimp items: 

Backpack.  I like the Kelty Coyote, which is a mid-priced option.   A durable, well fitting backpack is a must. Rain gear/shells.  Lightweight waterproof breathable raingear, like the Marmot Precip makes a difference.  GoreTex is the best, but is costly.  My thought is that they will outgrow some of the lesser options, like the Precip, before it stops working.  Get full zip pants that can go on over boots and be donned while standing.  If they can’t get them on quickly while standing up wearing boots, there is little reason to have them. Be frugal by buying them large so a growing boy can wear them longer.  Water container.  I am a huge fan of the Camelbak products.  Nalgene bottles were indestructible before they took the BPA out.  We will have to see how the new ones hold up, but get a good water container.  I carry both the Camelbak 3 liter bladder and a Camelbak flip top bottle for use in camp.  It is easier to flip it up and drink from the “straw” than it is to unscrew the top of the Nalgene bottle every time I want to take a sip of water.  If I need another container for more water,  I would add in a nalgene or a platypus.   Save some money on these items: “Warmth gear.”  For backpacking, I like the polar fleece jackets.  There is not a huge difference between a $10 jacket and a $110 one.  Save some money here. Sleeping bag.  You need the right bag, but you don’t need to pay a fortune for it.  A highly compactable, lightweight synthetic bag can be had for $75 or less.  I like the Thermolite fill, but there could be other materials that are just as good or better. Mess Gear.  You don’t need a titanium spork.  A plastic one will do just fine.  The lightweight plastic bowls at Walmart are lighter than anything you will buy at REI, if not as durable.  Buy two and have a spare if you break one.  Get a polycarbonate bowl at Academy if you want to be sure it will not break.  Cheap cups are fine. Boots.  Again, you need good boots, but don’t have to buy the best available, especially when they will outgrow them soon.  An exception is Philmont.  If  you are headed there, better boots are probably warranted.  Get them well enough in advance that they will be broken in, but not so soon that they will be outgrown before you get there. Hiking sticks.  You can save weight and maybe add some durability by spending a lot of money, but my $15 or so a pair from Walmart have served me quite well in a variety of venues.  I would not buy an expensive pair for a young man.  For a Philmont trip, I might consider an upgrade to a midrange set if I could find some on sale.  There may be a few more items that could go on either list.  If you have a concern that is not addressed here,  or if you disagree with me, leave a comment.

How To Stay Warm and Dry in the Outdoors

Sunday, November 29th, 2009

How To Stay Warm and Dry in the Outdoors  (Word Document – Opens in new Window)  This is an update of a guide I prepared several years ago that talks about clothing choices that will help you stay warm (or cool) and dry in the outdoors. 

Backpacking Gear Packing List and Analysis Spreadsheet

Tuesday, November 24th, 2009

Backpacking Gear Packing List and Analysis Spreadsheet This is a link to an Excel Spreadsheet that I got from a fellow Assistant Scoutmaster and modified to suit my needs.  It is filled with actual data for a scout going to Philmont.  In the first set of columns, enter in the gear you have and what it weighs (use a postage scale).  In the columns to the right, enter any lower weight alternative gear you are considering for each item.  The sheet will give you a running tally of what your pack and clothing weighs, how much weight you would save through using the alternatives and how much it will cost you to buy the alternatives.  For example, substituting Platypus bottles for Nalgene bottles saves a lot of weight for a relatively modest cost, as does trading a Z-fold Thermarest for a traditional inflatable Thermarest. 

How a sleeping bag works (and how to stay warm in one)

Monday, November 16th, 2009

Sleeping bags keep you warm by retaining your own body heat, while passing moisture through the bag to the atmosphere.  Most experts say that the body does not release as much heat during sleep, so the warmth your body gives off between the time you enter the bag and go to sleep has to help keep you warm through the night.  One activity that causes your body to release heat is digesting food.  On a cold night, drinking a cup of hot broth or cocoa can help you warm up your bag and lead to a comfortable night.  While retaining heat is good, sweating is not and is to be avoided at all costs.  Once you become sweaty, you are likely to become cold and miserable.  It is important to recognize when you are building up too much heat and ventilate the bag before sweating starts.  Underwear, and especially cotton underwear, retains moisture and if you get in your sleeping bag wearing the same t-shirt and underwear you wore all day, you are asking for a miserable night.   Smart campers will put on their fresh underwear for the next day as they are getting into their sleeping bag at night.  They will also put their clothes for the next morning inside their sleeping bag so that they can put on warm clothes in the morning rather than clothes that are cold.  (Yes, I know real men don’t carry “fresh” underwear for every day of their trip.  I wore the same clothes all week at Northern Tier too, but if it is really cold, you should swap underwear every day.  Air out the pair you are not wearing to make sure it is dry.  That is what I mean by fresh.  I don’t care if it is clean.)

Sleeping Pads

Monday, November 16th, 2009

A sleeping bag is designed to shield its user from the cold air that surrounds him, not the cold ground below him.  Thus, a proper sleeping pad is not a luxury that provides comfort, it is a necessity to retain warmth.  There are a variety of choices available and just like everything else in backpacking, you have to balance weight, comfort, durability and cost.  Thermarest is a leading brand of sleeping pads.  REI has a house brand and there may be others.  I will discuss the Thermarest pads because I am more familiar with them, but other similar pads may work just as well or better.  If you are focused on keeping your pack weight down, you can shave a pound or two on your pad.  The Z-Lite egg crate style Thermarest is very light.  It may not be as cushy as the inflatable styles, but it clearly wins in the weight category and is less expensive too.  Also lightweight, but costly, is the Pro-Lite line Thermarests.  One way they shave weight is by trimming the dimensions, including the thickness, which impacts comfort.  I use the rectangular green Trail-Lite Thermarest pad.  It is big enough that I am not likely to roll off of it at night, even as I roll from one side to the other and it is nicely padded.  I am willing to accept a bit of extra weight in order to be comfortable.  Another plus of these is that there are accessories that allow them to be used as a chair or even a lounge seat.  My son has a Trail-Lite pad just like mine.  He also has a Z-Lite for occasions when weight is a compelling factor.  He carried that one to Philmont.  I have not studied the other brands and would welcome comments from anybody who has.

Sleeping Bags

Monday, November 16th, 2009

A comfortable sleeping bag will make the difference between a comfortable night in the outdoors and a miserable experience that can turn a scout against camping.  As with virtually all other types of outdoor equipment, choosing a sleeping bag entails tradeoffs on a variety of factors.  These include cost, weight, durability, warmth, bulk, ease of cleaning, performance when wet and others.  There are very light, warm sleeping bags, but these are costly and not as durable as more mainstream bags.  Inexpensive bags are often bulky, heavy and may not keep you warm.  Down bags are light and warm, but they are costly, difficult to clean and worthless if wet.  The discussion below is designed to help you weigh the various factors, apply them to your own situation, then make a good decision. 

For purposes of this discussion, we are assuming you are choosing a bag for use in Troop 641.  We are located in Houston, so we generally do not experience weather much below freezing.  However, a scout in Troop 641 should expect a couple of nights of below freezing weather during his scouting career and should be prepared for it.  We have frequent rain.  Summers are hot and muggy.  Because of the wide extremes of weather, it may not make sense to look for a “year round” bag.  The better practice is to focus on a bag that will provide proper cold weather performance, then simply use a sheet, fleece blanket or sleeping bag liner in warm weather. 

Bag design and size.  Only a mummy type bag is going to adequately hold in body heat in cold weather.  Rectangular bags with open tops are fine for a slumber party, but when it gets cold, you need to be able to hold in all the heat you can.  Mummy type bags can be hard to get used to, especially for the claustrophobic.  Remember that you do not have to close the top unless the weather requires it.  Bigger bags are more comfortable, but have more volume that your body must keep heated and weigh more.  If you opt for a more expensive bag that is going to be a lifetime investment, make sure your scout will not outgrow it. 

Bag fill material.  Down is a wonderful fill material for a sleeping bag.  There is nothing as light, fluffy, warm and compressible as down.  Unfortunately, down is costly, difficult to properly clean and is absolutely worthless when wet.  This means that if you have a down bag, you (and your tentmates), have to be careful and disciplined not to get it wet and dirty.  One of the most common synthetic materials is polarguard  It is not as light, warm or compressible as down, but it retains its loft when wet and is more washable.  Another less common fill material is Thermolite, which claims to provide equal heat retention as other synthetics while requiring less loft.  This means that Thermolite bags can be fitted in a similar size stuff sack as a down bag.  They are also machine washable.  Having watched scouts for many years and having been one myself, I think the best option for a young scout is a synthetic bag.  Younger boys simple do not have the level of appreciation for their gear to take good care of it.  Even a careful boy is likely to share a tent with a boy who has not yet learned the proper respect for the property of others.  The chances that the boys will fail to properly secure their tent against rain or will let a bottle of water (or worse juice) leak in the tent and get their sleeping bag wet are fairly high.   Indeed, it is through these experiences, and the discomfort that arises from them, that young boys grow into young men and learn to be careful and appreciate their gear.  By the time they reach high school, most scouts are much better at caring for their gear.  For an older boy heading to Philmont, I recommend the investment in a down bag if he needs a new bag and you can afford it.  For a new scout, I would stick to a synthetic.  A moderately priced, lightweight and compact bag is the Coleman Exponent with Thermolite filling.  It is rated at 25 degrees.  My son has used one since he became a scout.  He has never complained of being cold, even though we have camped in freezing conditions on several occasions.  Sadly, this bag has been discontinued and is now hard to find.  I found a similar Thermolite bag at Academy and bought one for Northern Tier.  I still have and use my down bag that I got before my second trip to Philmont as a scout 30+ years ago, but decided I did not want a down bag on a canoe trip to a place where it can rain every day.  The new Thermolite bag is very compressible, lightweight and kept me quite toasty on those cool Canadian summer nights.  I will test it in colder conditions this winter, but from what I have seen so far, I think it is a winner.  For more discussion about fill options, here is a page I have found that details the pros and cons of a number of materials:  Seeing all the products they have listed and all the modifications to the old standard products tells me there are a lot of options, not all of which I have seen, so don’t limit yourself to the fill choices I have listed here. 

I have never seen a bag at REI that was of poor quality.  If you buy a bag there, it will be more costly, but it probably can be trusted.  When you buy the cheaper bags at other outlets, you need to be careful to ensure that they have good zippers and sound construction.  Avoid the tendency to overbuy.  Don’t think you need a zero degree bag just to be on the safe side if you have no intention of camping in that type of weather.  You will pay more than you need to pay, and your son will carry the excess weight and bulk of this bag everywhere he backpacks.  My recommendation for people whose camping expectations do not extend beyond being in the troop, including Philmont in the summer, is to get a bag rated for temperatures no lower than 20 degrees.  If you find yourself taking a trip where the weather will be colder, you can generally get an additional 10 degrees of temperature rating by using a liner in the bag (and you can use the liner alone in the summer).