How many lumens do you need?

Photo Courtesy of Campco Photos
Photo Courtesy of Campco Photos

While browsing the aisles of a local sporting goods store yesterday, I was reminded of a growing and ridiculous trend in flashlights, headlamps and other personal lighting devices. “Why would you spend that on a flashlight?” a woman said to her partner.  “Because it’s got 300 lumens.  I need all the lumens I can get for hunting season this year”,  the misguided man retorted.  I pretended to look at something close to them and giggled to myself as he explained the 5 different strobe settings, 3 different color lights and all the other whiz bang features that would obviously not have anything to do with his hunting success.

The trend in question here is the use of high powered tactical lights in the great outdoors. Lets face it.  Anything labeled “Tactical” is going to sell nowadays. We all have overweight, middle aged buddies who sit on their tactical couch every night, playing with their tactical gear, stuffing their face with tactical food, drinking tactical beer and thinking of what they will do if they ever get into a tactical situation. It’s silly but true.

For those unfamiliar with the design, I’ll describe.  They are small, very high powered flashlights that can be handheld or weapon mounted.  They use a type of Cree LED bulb that puts out a much brighter light than traditional models.  They’re designed to illuminate a target for fast acquisition and momentarily disorient the target with the ultra bright beam or a series of rapid strobes that some models feature. Most feature some sort of sharp scalloping on the edge for use as a hand to hand weapon.  Current models range from 200-800 Lumens, which is a measure of light by the way.  In a defensive (or offensive for that matter) scenario, they might serve admirably but…

These high performance units come at a substantial cost and have many other downsides for general outdoors use.  It’s not uncommon to see the latest, greatest models sell for $250-$400.  The high powered LED system drains batteries like The Energizer Vampire when used on any but their lowest settings.  CR-123a batteries are considerably more expensive than their AA or AAA counterparts.  Most models don’t dim when the battery is getting low, going directly from bright to off.  Changing modes / programming involves an annoying and confusing series of taps on the switch and the scalloped edges hang on everything they touch and tear up your pack.

I fell victim to this craze a few years ago.  It didn’t take long for me to learn my lesson on a Whitetail hunt in Central Texas.  Driving from my stand to pick up a buddy for the ride back to camp, I received a text message that he had arrowed a nice one just before dark. We entered the woods with our fancy new lightsabers to retrieve his prize.  Every tick and blade of grass was illuminated as if it was daylight… for a little while.   It was a long tracking job and his light died an hour into it.  Mine had fresh batteries and held up a little longer but not long enough.  By the time both lights died, we were closer to camp than we were the truck.  It was a brutal walk to camp in the dark to retrieve batteries and extra lights.  We were a bloody mess from fighting a losing battle with the thorny vines inhabiting that region of the state.  Those terrible thorns could have easily been avoided if we were able to see them before walking into them.

For my money, I’ll stick to more reasonable (in both light output and price) models.  My personal favorites being the AA Mini Maglite series.  At 97 max lumens, they put out plenty of light for anything I’ve ever needed and 11 hours of burn time on high (32 hours on low) is good insurance that you won’t be walking home in the dark.

P.S.  Bring a few spare batteries… just in case.


Ski Trip

“Let’s go skiing”, she said over dinner on evening.  “Sure”, I replied as I fiddled with whatever happened to be on my plate at the time, hoping this was a passing idea that wouldn’t come to fruition.  “You do know how to ski, don’t you?”,  she asked.  “Of course I do”, I said.  I had actually spent quite a bit of time in the mountains and had been on a few ski trips.  The fact that I’d never actually had skis attached to my feet seemed academic. I had always been more of a sleep till noon, have some drinks at the lodge and go to the tube hill kind of ski vacationer.   I had seen people skiing.  It didn’t look hard.  Besides, YouTube is my friend and I was sure there would be plenty of useful information available on the subject if this turned into a reality.

A few days went by without any mention of our previous conversation.  Just when I thought I was in the clear, a box arrived.  This is common at our house.  Between Cecily’s home business and my never-ending projects, boxes arrive daily.  This one was big but didn’t weigh much.  I assumed it was some sort of packing materials and sat it on the coffee table.  Minutes later, she swarmed over the package like a plague of locusts.  Devouring the tape and cardboard and holding up her prize like Mufasa in The Lion King.  This was not packing materials.  This was a ski suit.  “Damn.”

After a small amount of consideration, I resigned myself to the fact that there was no way I was getting out of this trip.  “Maybe I’ll like skiing”, I thought.  That night in bed we booked flights, rented rooms, bought lift tickets and took care of all the other pre-trip necessities.  Copper Mountain had the best rates on lodging and lift tickets at the time and became our destination.

This is probably as good a time as any to point out that Cecily has literally been skiing since she was able to walk.  There’s a picture floating around the house somewhere of her thrashing fresh powder like Mikaela Shiffrin at about 5 years old while wearing a skunk skin cap.  As much as I would like to use that photo in this post, it’s probably in my best interest to refrain from doing so.

I spent quite a bit of time over the next few weeks reading and watching videos about skiing.  I was becoming much more confident that I wouldn’t have any trouble.  I’d watched a short series of beginner videos before I moved to the more technical things like ski jumping and back country skiing.  The latter holding my attention more firmly than the prior.

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Arriving in Denver, we rented a car and drove the 80-ish miles West into the mountains toward Copper.  For those that have never been, Copper Mountain is divided into three “villages” but has a great network of busses that constantly go back and forth between them.  West Village (Where we were staying) is where the more difficult slopes are.  Center Village is where most of the intermediate trails are found and East Village is the bunny slopes.  We rented our skis and made our way to the condo to get rested up for our adventure the next day.

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A short bus ride the next morning brought us to Center Village where we made our way up slippery steps to the lift area in what I can only describe as the most uncomfortable footwear ever designed.  Whoever invented ski boots was a masochist at heart.  Comments like “your toes are supposed to touch the front” and “they’re not supposed to flex at all” have no place being uttered in an establishment that sells or rents footwear.  Stepping into my skis, I muttered to myself “you’ve got this”.  I did not have this.  I fell twice on flat ground in the 20 yards between the stairs and the lift.

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For those intelligent people that have chosen to never get on a ski lift because they’re death traps, I’ll explain a bit about how they work.  They don’t stop.  There constantly going round and round, scooping people up.  When you get to the top of the mountain, you’re supposed to hop off just before the thing makes its turn and ski down the mountain.  This whole situation looked very dangerous to me at the time but no one else seemed concerned and we were next in line.

The couple in front of us had gotten on their lift and we had a few seconds to get from where we were to a red line where you’re supposed to stand in order to get lifted.  I pushed off with my poles and started shuffling my feet toward the spot.  Cecily was already in position.  It became apparent that I was not going to make the few feet needed to reach the chair as it swung around the corner toward our mark.  At the last second, I dropped my poles and lunged toward the contraption.  Clinging for dear life, I dragged myself onto the chair.  I could tell I had done well by the clapping that had erupted behind us.  “Someone buy that guy a beer!” I heard the lift operator say as we were being swept up the slope.

Now I’m a big, tough outdoorsman.  Spiders, snakes, the dark, being alone in the woods, redheads and other dangerous game do not scare me.  Heights are a different story.  I’m not really scared of heights as much as I am scared of falling.  I know how clumsy I can be and I know what happens when people fall from tall things.  I found myself sitting on a rocking park bench that swivels, attached to a wire rope 40 feet in the air.  To say I had a white knuckled death grip on this thing would be an understatement.  All the while, trying to remember what the video I had watched said.  Something about pizza slices and falling backward if you get in trouble.

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“What happened back there?” she asked as we slowly made our way up the mountain.  “It’s been a while.  Might take me a little time to get the hang of this”, I said.

As we neared the top, I watched other people exit the lift.  We passed a sign reminding us to keep our ski tips up.  This didn’t look too bad.  There was a mild slope that culminated in what seemed to be some sort of staging area where people waited for their companions or got their things together.  I exited the lift fairly uneventfully and made the short distance to the staging area without falling.  The group behind us had brought the poles that I had lost at the base.  Maybe I was starting to get the hang of this.

I pushed off from the staging area and made it about 15 feet before I fell.  Got up and tried again.  I made it another 15 or 20 feet and fell.  Got up and tried again.  This went on for what seemed like a mile until it happened.  I was skiing.  I had figured it out.  I made it 50 or 60 feet and had built up quite a bit of speed before I realized I didn’t know how to turn or stop.  I tried the pizza thing and my skis crossed, causing me to fall forward, hard in an abrupt stop.  The tip of one of my skis (neither of which were attached to my feet anymore), caught me right in the chest and knocked the wind out of me.  “Are you ok!?” Cecily yelled up from a position below me.  “I’m fine!” I replied.   “You go ahead.  I’ll meet you at the bottom”.   I was not fine.  I’ve had broken ribs a few times before. I know what they feel like and that they feel like that for weeks.  This was going to be a long trip.

I sat on a log at the edge of the tree line for a few minutes to collect myself and make sure I wasn’t coughing up blood.  As I sat there, a ski patrol guy came whizzing down the trail and pulled up short where I was sitting, followed by a few others and a stretcher of some sort.  “Are you ok”, he asked.  “I’m great.  How are you?”, I replied.  He told me that someone had called from a ski lift and said that I guy in a blue jacket was in big trouble up here.  “That must be the buddy I’m waiting on” I lied.  “He doesn’t really know how to ski.”  They fanned out down the trail and might still be looking for “my buddy”, for all I know.   I hated to fib but there was no way I was riding down the mountain in one of those little stretcher/sleds they were pulling behind them.

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Once the coast was clear, I hoisted my skis over my shoulder and walked the rest of the way down the mountain where I found Cecily waiting for me at a coffee shop.  I told her about my ribs, that I was done for the day and would hang out in town while she was skiing.  As soon as she started back toward the lift, I called the ski school that we had passed during our bus ride.  They asked a lot of questions about my experience level and recommended a group class for 8-12 year olds that was starting in a few hours.  Negative.

I inquired about private lessons.  They had an opening the next morning which I gladly accepted.  I was starting to get pretty sore and wanted no more to do with skiing that day.  I found a liquor store and went back to the condo to lick my wounds and medicate myself.

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By the next morning, it hurt to move, it hurt to breathe, it hurt to think about moving or breathing.  We still had several days of this though, so I sucked it up and met the instructor at the designated spot.  He arrived and I explained most of yesterday’s story.  I left out a few non-vital details. “You sure you wanna try again today with broken ribs?” he asked.  I did.  We entered an area with a sign proclaiming it the Rug Rats course.  It was full of little kids that were skiing much better than I had thus far.  The course had a very gentle slope to it and is marked every 10 yards or so with a strip of carpet to stop you so you didn’t build up enough speed to hurt yourself.  I liked that idea.  I’ll save you the uninteresting details of the next few hours.  Basically, he made me practice stopping and turning until I had the basic idea.   Once he was confident that I wasn’t going to rocket off the side of the mountain like Chevy Chase in Christmas Vacation, he said “let’s go skiing!”.

We got on the lift and he lowered the safety bar.  What?  Safety bar?  No one told me these things had safety bars.  I relayed that information and he said… You should have a talk with your girlfriend.  It was very unsafe for her to take someone that had never been skiing before down one of those blue runs.  She should have known better. “Yeah, she should have” I proclaimed.

I made it a point to go very slow for the rest of the day.  Mostly because I knew how bad falling again was going to hurt.  I ate it a few more times but wasn’t going fast enough to do any damage and remembered to fall backward.   On the second or third trip down, Cecily came flying down the mountain and pulled up next to us.  “How’s it going, guys?”, she asked.  “Great, but I need to have a talk with you ma’am”, the instructor said firmly.  I grinned sheepishly as he chastised her for toting someone who’d never been on skis up an intermediate trail without even showing him how to get on the ski lift or stop.  She held up her hand and in her loudest teacher voice said “WAIT!  This idiot told me he knew how to ski.  He watched a couple of  YouTube video on it and thought he was a professional.  He didn’t tell me it was his first time until last night!” By this time they were both looking at me like I should be wearing a football helmet and finger painting.  The rest of the way down the mountain and into lunch I was relentlessly (maybe even deservedly) picked on by both parties.

The next few days were uneventful but fun.  A little painful at times.  We found some good eats.  I made a few more runs.  Cecily skied quite a bit.  We had a great time at the tube hill and did some shopping.  Getting on the plane in Denver she asked, “Can we go again next year?”.  “Sure”, I said.  “You do know how to ski, don’t you?”, she asked.

Of course I do.


 

Is pre-trip planning really that important?

“I’m not coming to get you unless you’re legs are broken” I heard the melodic voice of my sweet, sweet girlfriend (an avid adventurer and international traveler herself) say over a sketchy but hard won phone signal.  “I told you that was a bad idea”, she persisted.  To my credit, I had not asked for an extraction but she could obviously tell by my whimpering tone of voice that I was not having a good time.  Picturing her smug grin of satisfaction at having told me so,  I downplayed the day’s formidable challenges and signed off with “goodnight, I’ll see you tomorrow”.  I wasn’t so sure.  You see, I had thoroughly screwed up.

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A few weeks earlier, a buddy and I had decided to make a 20 mile hike through Davy Crockett National Forest.  Quite a bit of planning and preparation had gone into mapping our route, planning meals and all the other necessities that go along with a multi day hike.  We planned to take two vehicles, leave one at our intended stopping point, take the other to the trail head and drive back to it when we finished our trip.  A good half way point was selected for an overnight camp.  I’s were dotted, T’s were crossed and everything was in order.  Then the plan changed…

My buddy pussed out last minute.  I can only assume he developed an acute case of Vagisitis or his monthly bleeding of the nose started early (ok, ok… he didn’t really.  Something unexpected came up and work and he couldn’t take the weekend off but I know he’s going to read this, so we’re going to stand by my original statement).  A little bummed, I thought about it for a minute and decided no big deal, I’ll go by myself.  This normally wouldn’t be a problem except for the fact that our intended route had required the use of two vehicles.  “No biggie”, I thought to myself.  I’ll start at the destination, hike to the mid way camp, get up the next morning and hike back.  Problem solved.

There is no potable water on this particular stretch of trail, so water needs to be carried or cached along the route.  Taking a quick look at the map, I found a spot where a Forest Service road crossed the trail near where I was planning to camp.  “Perfect spot to stash water”, I thought to myself.

Being eager to enter the wilds, I left the house Friday evening. I navigated a maze of Forest Service roads until I found the crossing I was looking for. I stashed a few gallons of water for a wet camp and the return trip at the road crossing I had marked on the map and made my way back to the new trailhead/destination.   Making camp as darkness began to flood the picturesque woods on a bluff overlooking the Neches River, I thought about how glad I was to be there instead of working all weekend and how I was going to rub that in a bit when I got back.  After dinner, a bit of snakebite medicine around the campfire and an interesting encounter with a sheriff’s deputy ( a topic for another post) I slept soundly to the familiar tune of crickets and coyotes.

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Waking bright and early the next morning, I quickly packed camp and hit the trail.  Birds were chirping, the sun was shining, it was a beautiful day to be in the woods.  I’ll save the details of the 4-C National Recreation Trail for an entire post as there just isn’t enough room to do it justice here but suffice it to say that it’s an awesome hiking trail.  Well marked, well maintained, scenic and in a very historic area,  It’s a gem that any hiker visiting the area shouldn’t overlook.  It’s not as flat as most of the Pineywoods are and herein lied my first problem.

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Ten miles a day on flat ground is pushing it for me.  I’m 35 years old, a bit overweight and have a tendency to over pack.  I can do it but I prefer a more leisurely pace.  Eight miles into it, I was starting to feel the burn and my pack was getting heavier by the step.   “Only two more miles to go” I thought as I crested a hill.  “Food, water, flip flops and a cocktail await” I said as I drained the last few drops from my canteen.

I arrived at my intended camp site which was marked by a permanent shelter.  I took my pack off, looked around and noticed there was no road within sight.  Pulling the GPS out of my pack, I realized that the road where I had cached my water supply was not as close to the camp as I had imagined but a mile or so South of my current position.  I drudgingly shouldered my pack, and pressed on.

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What seemed like 3 weeks and 500 miles later, I rounded a bend saw a road.  I can honestly say, I’ve never been so glad to see a dirt FS road before in my life and will hopefully never be so glad to see one again.  It was a joyous moment but it didn’t last long.  This place didn’t look familiar at all.  This was clearly not where I had cached my water supply.  To say I was devastated would be an understatement.  I was starting to panic.  I took my pack off, sat down and tried to rationally evaluate my situation.  Even in the spring, the Pineywoods of East Texas are warm and humid to say the least.  I had been losing precious liquid all day faster than I had had been replacing it and hadn’t thought much about it because I knew I had plenty of water cached at the end of the trail.  Or thought I did anyway.

I pulled out my map and GPS, in hope that there was an easy and close solution to the problem.  There wasn’t.  My route had started along the Neches River with streams and running water aplenty.  I had passed a pond but it was several miles back.  There looked to be streams and creeks ahead and the 20 mile trail culminated at a lake but that was at least 8 or 9 miles to the South.  My sore feet had escalated at this point to what I could only assume was the beginning of a stress fracture in my left and I was in no shape to cover that kind of distance.  I was in no shape to cover any more distance at all to be perfectly honest and it would be dark soon.  I only had a few choices.  I could make camp where I was and hope tomorrow would bring better things.  I could walk several miles back to where I knew there was water (Potable water be damned at this point. While heavy metals and contaminated water can certainly be dangerous, the threat of dehydration was a more immediate concern).  My last option and the one I luckily chose was to press forward in hopes of coming across the water I’d left or some natural source.

From the looks of my GPS, there was another road three miles distant that had to be where I had left two gallons of the glorious liquid that I so desperately needed.  I can’t think of a adjective to accurately describe the way I hobbled the next few miles.  Moving at half the speed of smell, I had a lot of time to think about how this had gone wrong.  “Austin… you retard.  This is a simple hike and you’re a very experienced outdoorsman.  How could you have f**cked this up so badly. ” I also had a lot of time to think about all the useless things I had brought with me instead of extra water.

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It was miraculous.  All of a sudden, there it was.  This was the place I had been looking for. I recognized this spot.  I saw the road.  I saw a dozen camp fires burning on the other side. “This place is popular”, I thought as a second wind kicked in.  It was practically dark by then.  As I took a long, hard draw from a gallon bottle I had left behind a log I gazed across the road.  This was not a popular spot.  The bloody, damned woods were on fire.  At least the brush underneath them was.  There was a prescribed burn taking place across the road.  I had seen a few of the signs over the last few miles but hadn’t paid much attention to them.  The signs give a large window of when the area is supposed to be burned.  I had checked the website before I left for notifications and warnings for the area I had planned to hike (the USFS does a great job of posting up to date warnings and notices) but i had wound up going much farther than I had intended.   With the fire’s dying out and the wind pushing smoke and possible spread the other direction, I wasn’t too concerned with the fire.  I was happy to have found my water supply and glad to be done for the day.  I set up my tent, built a small fire, ate a hand full of vitamin I (ibuprofen) and cooked a bit of supper.  I never did eat it.  I was too spent.  This is where the story started.  I checked my phone for the thousandth time that day and I had a bar of service.  Hot damn! I called my beloved and told her what a great time I was having and that I’d see her tomorrow.

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Waking in the morning to what ominously looked and smelled like a storm brewing, I made a quick decision.  I took the small day pack off my pack frame and dumped everything inside my tent.  I loaded the day pack with the rest of the water, a GPS (that I used to mark the location of the tent) and my phone.  I put my Swiss Army knife in my pocket and made what will forever be considered, in my mind anyway as the death march on Neches Bluff.  My Jeep was a welcome sight and I didn’t waste any time heading back to last night’s camp to collect my gear before the rain started.  I made the hike back (well hydrated and carrying substantially less weight) in less than half the time it took me to get there.  Maybe there’s something to the ultralight backpacking craze?

Looking back on that experience, it could have been a great trip.  A series of mistakes, all caused by poor planning and last minute decisions, condensed to form my hardships that weekend.  I was carrying too much weight.  I was out of shape for my intended mileage. I thought I knew where I was and didn’t mark my water supply on GPS. Most of all, in my excitement,  I zigged when I should have zagged while caching my water supply and wasn’t paying enough attention to notice.  All honest mistakes but mistakes that could have potentially had severe consequences.  The 4-C Trail is an awesome place and a very safe destination.  What if I had been in more remote country?  Things could have been different in a very bad way.  I passed several people on the trail and any of which would have been more than happy to help, if I was really in trouble.  The truth is, I was so pissed at myself for making such rookie mistakes, that I suffered through it as penance for being a dumbass.

Is pre-trip planning as important as it’s cracked up to be?

Hell yes it is.


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