The worst things about Montana

Necessary companion to yesterday.  Feel free to take offense.

1: The food


I irritate friends and coworkers almost weekly on this subject, but the thing I lament most often about Montana is not being able to get a decent Avocado for less than $1.25 and being able to count the acceptable eating institutions in a valley of 100,000 on both hands, with fingers left over.  The former is a function of distance, and I presume lack of demand, but the later* is less easily explicable.  The prominence of the exceptions to Montana = shit restaurants, and the fervor with which they are upheld by their devotees, only proves my point.  With a few exceptions (Bernice’s, Sportsman’s Lodge, the Polebridge Merc under the previous owners) my most memorable meals have all been at home or in the field, and centered around wild game or fish.  So go suck it Montana, and let me know when the 20th century has made it over from Wyoming.

*It should be noted that this does not apply to Montana breweries, of which there are many good ones.

2: The distance


As I noted yesterday Montana wins much by being far from population centers.  The somewhat inexorable corollary to this is that a substantive change of scenery, when for instance the rainy fall doldrums have set in, is often a very long way away.  6-8 hours, or in the grip of winter even more.  Lower latitudes provide more diversity of opportunity, especially when they’re associated with more drastic changes in elevation than most of Montana provides.

It also requires more time, money and effort for folks to visit you when you live in Montana, which can be both a blessing and a curse.

There is no way to have your cake and eat it with this one.

3: The dark


These last two are somewhat specific to our corner of the state, which has both the short days of early winter along the 48th parallel and occasional spells of Pacific-influenced drizzle and cloud.  We also, in the valley, are frequently blessed with inversions of mist and fog off Flathead Lake, which during severe temperature gradients can be thick enough to necessitate fog lights and sub 40 mph speeds on the highway.  In short, late fall and early winter can be tough, especially when all daylight hours are spent at work and the snow has yet to fall in earnest.  Getting into hunting has made this much easier to bear, as by the time the season is over I’ve generally been so tired that I’m quite content to stay home in the dark, reading and cooking.  Nonetheless, we miss southwest sunshine, when a cloudy day is so rare as to be an afterthought.  Having it again will be a welcome return.

4: The white people


Of which I am of course one.

The Flathead Valley is sufficiently remote and uninviting (see above) that one needs a compelling reason to be here in residence.  The most obvious, and in my book most trustworthy, reason is any permutation of hiking/skiing/boating/hunting/fishing.  Most of the truly enthusiastic participants here are transplants, do more than one outdoor activity at a dedicated level, and are white.  The second reason, and in my book the least trustworthy, is those who moved here “for the view.”  I’d like to deport any Flathead residents who don’t drive east beyond West Glacier at least six times a year, it’d doubtless sort out the sprawl, hilltop eyesores, and continue degradation of the wildland/urban interface nicely.  These people are also majorly white, and much more likely than average to be from California (an easy slur, but a true one).  The third reason, which will be addressed in a forthcoming valedictory post concerning my professional life over the last six years, is that the folks in question were born and raised and due to the cathection of choice and circumstance cannot leave.  Again, most of these people are white.

The dark side of all this is that the Flathead is an insular, insulated, often out of touch place.  There’s a reason Richard Spencer chose to move to Whitefish a few years ago, and that reason does not do the area credit.  I’ll miss the Flathead, I’ll miss the mountains in all directions, I’ll miss the clear rivers and the larches changing in October and the deer behind every third tree, and the many friends we’re leaving behind, but I will not miss the cynical utopia which is much of the valley, halcyon uncritical of a daily world which never was.  The more I think about it, the stronger my conclusion that it probably isn’t the best place to raise a child.

Bye bye Montana, we’ll visit often but I doubt we’ll ever be back for good.

Cowboy Coffee redux

Two years ago I detailed my preferred method of making cowboy coffee in the field, and advocated for it as the all around best method.  Plenty of articles about backcountry coffee have come out since, but there is still no new news here.  Via is convenient (especially as it is quite palatable cold), but expensive and for all Starbucks work still has an aftertaste suitable for taking paint off car hoods.  The Aeropress and various french press accessories work well, but for me will always be unacceptably bulky for true backcountry (save something like a canoe trip).  There is also, in my mind, a lot to be said for applying technique to create something beautiful, rather than buying yet another gadget.

The main difficulty with cowboy coffee is cleanup.  If you’re not camping near a water source it’s difficult to not have a big mess to sort out later.  Given my serious coffee habit, and the serious performance-enhancing benefits of caffeine, I never skimp on coffee, and that often means bringing both Via and fine grounds.  The former is for quick mornings and mid-day breaks, the later for sit-down breakfasts and extended stops mid-day.

Regardless, don’t faff about with backcountry coffee.  Bring plenty, and do it right.  Below the photo is my original text on making cowboy coffee, updated.

I grin a little everything some new gadget comes out for making good coffee in the backcountry.  As with many things, the original method is still the best, and in this particular case has the added benefit of requiring no equipment at all, aside from the pot, stove or fire, and ground coffee you already have.  Like pitching a tarp so you’ll stay dry in a storm, digging a cathole, gutting a fish, navigating off-trail, or building a fire after an all-day rain, making cowboy coffee may seem intimidating at first, but is actually quite simple.  Unlike those other things, you can get 90% of the way from cowboy coffee newb to expert without leaving your house.  It’s a skill that, given coffees performance enhancing qualities, should be considered as essential as knowing to piss downwind.

First start with a generous amount of grounds and some cold water.  As many wise folks have said, you don’t need nearly as much water to make coffee as most people think.  Fine grounds are advantageous when making cowboy coffee, they saturate faster and easier, which is the key to their reliably sinking.  I bring espresso ground beans, but there is nothing wrong with turkish either.

Combine grounds and cold water and set it to boil.  You want to give the grounds as long as possible to saturate and get heavy, as well as impart good flavor to the liquid.

Bring to a roiling boil, and keep it there for 10-15 seconds.  On most camp stoves doing this without boiling over will require a less than full pot, as well as hovering the pot over the burner using a grip, pliers, or a glove/sock.  Consensus seems to be that coffee ought to be brought to 200F (+/- 5F) for best results. Given that 200F is the boiling point at around 6000 feet, and the 5 degree margin of error encompasses the boiling point between 4000 and 9000 feet, we hikers appear to be in good shape. The length at which coffee should be held at said temp comes down to personal preference. I have a strong affinity for bitterness, so I go longer. If a triple espresso is not your normal mid-afternoon snack, as it is mine, you might want to boil only briefly or not at all.

Let the pot rest for a minute.  There are many ways, like adding a squirt of cold water or tapping the edge, to help the grounds settle, but if you’ve done the above and have a bit of patience this issue should take care of itself.

Drink.  You can decant from the pot into mugs/cups/bottles, or drink straight from the pot.  Obviously, don’t swirl or otherwise seriously disturb the coffee, or attempt to pour or drink the last ounce at the bottom.

This is the best, and simplest, and lightest, way to get a solid cup of coffee in the backcountry.  And often a good way to impress friends and neighbors.  Practice a bit at home, and you’ll be set to go.

Ultralight backpacking for assholes

Four years ago I published one of my most read (non-gear) posts, equal parts misunderstood by others and a personal favorite.  The most salient point, and one which readers found and still find hard to swallow, is that the content of small, banal activities has cultural import.  My example back then was that backpacking dreams too long unrealized or at least unpracticed poison the soul and thus, by proxy, the soul of others.  Another example would be that those who enjoy watching Avatar (2009), one of the more notably racist movies in recent memory, are themselves racist, albeit in a likely tiny and almost certainly subconscious manner.  Multiply little, unintended evils by many millions and something significant will inevitably come to pass.

R0013094A year later I discussed that too directly translating the expectations of civilization to the backcountry is a recipe for disaster, or at least disappointment.  Backpacking is fantastic because of the intimacy it demands, with the land and ultimately with yourself.  While I wouldn’t advise going out without a sleeping pad, sleeping soundly in the backcountry is a process which involves campsite selection, a pad suited to your anatomy, enough but not too much insulation, and practice.  Nothing in the world is free, and consistently nailing all of the above and sleeping better in the woods than at home would be robbed of most meaning if it merely happened by accident.  My best guess is that it took around 300 nights in the woods before I slept well almost all the time.  In the 13 years since I spent half a year sleeping almost entirely outside, between working wilderness therapy and sleeping in the dirt next to my home (Subaru), I’ve been firmly on the dark side and look forward to every night outdoors.  Sleeping near water and having a nice breeze in my face make a good thing even better.

M, above, still struggles with this a bit, and has hips which require a much thicker pad.  We’re still collectively fighting her bearanoia, thermal regulation issues, and leaky Big Agnes pads.  Little Bear, so long as he has a few snacks in the night, sleeps as easily in a tent as he does anywhere else. For the moment.  It’s remarkable how far an eight year old can walk, provided there are interesting things to see and she’s never been told that doing it should make her tired.  And it’s remarkable how cold and wet a seven year old can be without either being unsafe or uncomfortable, provided he’s never been fully enlightened as to what uncomfortable is supposed to mean.


Heavy packs are both worse and not as bad as they seem.  Just as with sleeping outside, hiking shouldn’t be easy, immediately.  No one expects to play a violin well, or even acceptably, without years of practice, but plenty of folks are mystified that their legs hurt after a 15 mile day of hiking, or butt hurts after 20 miles of cycling.  Part of this is laziness and the contemptible desire to not put in the time before the rewards.  Part of this is the persistence of myths; that more padding makes both saddles and pack hipbelts more comfortable.  Part of it is the massive amount of nonsense the internet has cultivated concerning the subject of the backcountry.  No doubt people have always heard what they want, but the internet amplifies this by rewarding flash and the warm fuzzies over substance.  Being unwilling to be a bit miserable is both a personal flaw, and evidence of good planning.

DSC01245In short, while backpacking is supposed to be hard, thoughtlessly making it more difficult than necessary is something to be condemned.  Everyone, no matter how experienced, pack their fears, and having a kid and thus getting out a bit less has in the past year given me a renewed appreciation for just how big a cluster backpacking can be when it’s been months since the logistics and routines have been last practiced.  These are excuses, but not necessary and sufficient reasons for either failing to embrace the process or just being bad at something with which you’ve been consistently fascinated.

A lot of bullshit has been written about how difficult attaining a given pack weight may have been a decade ago, before preferences in fabrics and changes in design philosophy became as widespread as they currently are.  I speak pejoratively because what is really meant here is that attaining a certain pack weight previously required growth in skill and accumulation of experience, which engendered both a more intimate knowledge of what terms like “necessary” and “safety” actually mean, as well as changes in mindset and physiology.  There’s a gap between being so cold at night that you cannot sleep well, and being warm enough at night that you feel immediately comfortable and secure, and when measured in ounces and dollars and insulating garments that gap is larger than most can fathom.

So, does the recent profusion of 30 oz, “double wall” and “two person” 500 dollar tents enhance the backpacking experience?  Or does this do little more than further build the elitist reputation of outdoor pursuits, and allow those practitioners to get further and longer without being obliged to learn anything they didn’t plan to in the first place?

I ask mostly, rhetorically.


Lifestyle bullshit: Yeti Rambler 18oz


Yeti, the reigning king of lifestyle, is a good place to begin.  Like Starbucks and Red Bull, Yeti created a broad market where none existed before, for something almost no one knew they might want.  Like Red Bull, but unlike Starbucks, Yeti has grown and sustained themselves with social media content that is both entertaining and makes a substantive contribution to the world.  Like Starbucks, but unlike Red Bull, the folks in Yeti’s virtual world (and real world) actually use the product itself.

The smallest Rambler bottle holds 18 ounces of liquid.  It is an exceedingly well-built and handy container.  It retails for 39 dollars.  In short, it has all the hallmarks of a lifestyle item; aesthetic appeal, everyday utility, and just enough expense to be attainable for many yet still exclusive.

I bought my Rambler a few weeks ago, when I had some unexpected and ill-gotten funds (selling shed antlers) and a coupon for a local store.  As a spillproof coffee container for driving to work, and for lounging around the house with a one-year old, it has performed as well as I expected.  It has exceeded my expectations in just how long and well it keeps things cold and hot.  Returning to a hot car after a full summer day to find one’s coffee still full of ice cubes is a very nice thing.  The Rambler handle even makes it a convenient kid toy, and there are plenty of youtube videos which will explain exactly how tough it is, and can more than withstand being hit against rocks for the amusing ting.


While the Rambler is light for the performance it provides, it is too heavy for the backcountry.  It would make a nice thermos for day trips, when it isn’t left in the car.  The screw lid is easy to drink from, but isn’t spillproof over rough roads like a good travel mug.  The threads and dual o-rings also gather a lot of condensation, which can drip coffee on ones nice shirt.

Overall, an expensive but worthy upgrade over the 16oz widemouth nalgene and beer coozy which has for the past decade been my standard.

Outdoors and Lifestyle

Apgar permit office, 10 minutes after opening, July.

Visiting Outdoor Retailer a few weeks ago brought it home to me just how huge a percentage of the outdoor industry is given over to what I’d call lifestyle gear and pursuits.  As a dedicated elitist asshole since my teenage years I find it hard to say “lifestyle” without a permasnear, but having Little Bear around as well as trying to be more broad and ecumenical in my outlook has tempered that, a little.

I define lifestyle outdoor gear as something optimized for everyday city or front country activities, rather than backcountry or a specific sport.  Some sports, like downhill/area skiing, are almost inherently lifestyle sports, which explains the cross pollination between the two.  Another example is SUP.  I still find it’s existence outside tidal environments the height of absurdity, but when LB and I are at the local beach of an evening the appeal of being able to cruise around after work is obvious.  They’re the water version of an Electra cruiser, and on a societal level are surely a better use of hundreds of dollars than a PS4.  Therefore lifestyle outdoor stuff gets a pass, even if it isn’t just a gateway to proper, backcountry outdoor pursuits, and even if the hipster car campers and dayhikers have this summer made Glacier more crowded than ever.

IMG_0382LB, car camping, Many Glacier.

All of this is to say that we all, hopefully, spend a lot of lifestyle time blending the outdoors into daily life.  Hikes before work, bike rides and floats after, dinners picnics, even walking or biking the long way to the pub rather than driving counts.  Life is more fun this way, sneaks in more exercise, and is a way for those of us who take a functional paycut to live in certain places to maximize any given season.

So, as a way to kickstart the celebration of this blogs 10th anniversary (coming in early December), sell out, and kill more innocent pixels I’ll take the next few days to highlight a few awesome lifestyle items which have over the next few years made my life a little better.  Exciting.

Packrafting’s zeroth law

We didn’t make it to the Packrafting Roundup this year, something I’ve regretted ever since, but babies get sick a lot.  Thankfully Moe Witschard took a video of Luc Mehl’s presentation of packrafting safety, so all of us who were not there can hear it.

I could not agree with Luc more.

Canyoneering is comparable to packrafting in that it’s a sport which doesn’t demand skill to get into serious situations.  Canyoneering has grown faster, I’d assume, due to the relevant terrain being so close to big population centers, and because the cost of entry is considerably less.  There have been quite a few canyoneering fatalities in the last decade or more, most of which have been preventable and/or in retrospect stupid.  If folks don’t do what Luc suggests, namely slow down and learn at a sustainable pace, more packrafters will almost certainly die.  This is especially relevant with packrafts becoming less expensive and more widely available.

In a wilderness context swimming is often an unacceptable risk.  Just like with backcountry skiing, I’d like to see the dominant narrative transform from how do we do ___ with as little chance of dying as possible, to how do we maintain an almost nonexistent possibility of dying, and still do ___ ?  I’ve only had two semi-close calls* packrafting, which I attribute to being very afraid of moving water, and very unafraid to admit it and act accordingly.  The later is easy, or easier, solo or in a very small group, which is almost the only way I’ve ever packrafted.  It can be tough to, for example, univite someone with bad judgment from a wilderness trip, but sometimes that needs to happen.  This example is a digression from Luc’s central point, but is a complimentary example of the tough topics packrafting needs to talke about with itself.

Thanks Luc.

*First was a hasty log portage on Rattlesnake Creek in the first month I had a boat, second was Spencer’s (excellent) swim on the South Fork in 2014.

Concerning broification

Broification: a trend in outdoor adventure sports/activities, which results in an increase in the perceived average level of mastery within a given pursuit, thus dissuading novices from pursuing any nascent interest.


If you don’t already read Hansi Johnson’s Universal Klister I’d suggest you start, as it’s one of the most authentic outdoor blogs around.  Mr. Johnson does a bunch of stuff outside, from skiing to biking to fishing to hunting, and is deeply involved in trail and recreation advocacy and local politics (in Duluth, MN and the upper midwest).  He has a longitudinal, multifaceted perspective on the industry, and a habit of telling things as they are, which makes him an ideal candidate for inventing and disseminating the term broification, which I attempted to define above.

Johnson views and pursues broification from the perspective of an access advocate, and I would assume, as a dad.  He sees the artificial inflation of things like skiing and biking as a wedge which will separate current practitioners from future ones, and make city and town governments less likely to see outdoor pursuits as future assets.  When the predominant vision of mountain biking involves 1% terrain* and a riding style which exacerbates erosion it understandably ceases to be an example, both for many new riders and for towns who might be looking to build trails as part of a development strategy.  That >2000 dollar mountain bikes have become commonplace, and that quality <1000 dollar bikes less common, only underlines this problem.

That problem being, a significant part of the appeal here, from fishing across to overlanding, skiing, and backpacking, is being a member of an exclusive group.  Not exclusive because others are excluded intentionally or because of socioeconomic factors, but because membership is gained via skill.  That skill is had from time invested in learning the activity, and with that skill comes an enlightened perspective on the world.  You’ll hear it everywhere in the outdoor realm; ____ (cyclists, hikers, etc) are better people.  More trustworthy.  Easy to get along with.  Kinder.  The  depth of friendship with a new acquaintance is often pushed years forward if said acquaintance is made on a backpacking trip or 100 mile ride or powder day.

Johnson’s original post got a big boost last week when it was picked up by Adventure Journal.  There’s a not inconsiderable amount of irony here, as A-J would make about any top-ten list of broifying publications.  Johnson’s post led with a photo of snow-caked blue jeans, A-J a group of mountaineers way the hell up on a snowy peak.  Two decades ago living the dream entailed an old pickup and 50 dollars from the lumber yard.  Today it’s a Sprinter and “custom” mods, starting at 50,000 dollars.  The perception that things of this nature are essential, important, or even the end goal of outdoor activities is probably good for selling stuff to the initiated, but I agree with Johnson that a secondary effect is putting off a certain percentage of newbies.  Why this is a problem is another subject entirely, but I do think it is a problem.


I’m far from convinced that the language of advertising in the outdoor industry is the most important factor.  Public land access and the structural/societal reasons why outdoor recreation remains a white and affluent world are far more significant, long and short term.  That said, broification is real.  It is real because it is a problem, and it is a problem because people lie.  They lie in advertising, and they lie on social media.  They, meaning me, lie right here though I try to not do it too often.  Outdoor sports are awesome precisely because of their accessibility.  Anyone reading this, baring significant disability or medical issue, could with a few years of hard work climb iconic, cool stuff.  Probably not 5.14, but definitely hard 5.11.  Anyone with the inclination to learn and the motivation to get out and progress could within 4-5 years do a trip like this one, as pictured above.  Anyone with a decent bike and a year or two of hard riding can go out and ride the Whole Enchilada, walking only a handful of places.

Publications and companies who artificially inflate reality may ultimately be shooting themselves in the foot, both by reducing their potential market, and by radness fatigue.  Authenticity is in the social media age a precious commodity, and broification is if anything inauthentic.

*Both in terms of skill to ride and more significantly the distribution of said terrain across the planet.