Book Notes: Writing for Story by Jon Franklin

I highlight and take notes when I read nonfiction books. Once I finish a book, I format and edit my notes so that I can easily remind myself of what I learned without having to re-read the book. These notes are not a substitute for reading the book, they only serve as a reminder of key concepts.


Shorter form writing (or presenting, video creating , etc…) is more difficult because every sentence is more valuable and needs to deliver a message.

Basic short story form: conflict, then resolution.

“Chance…favors the prepared mind.”  It’s hard to discover a specific story.  But if you keep opened minded looking for stories, you’re bound to run into good ones eventually.

A story must show a relationship between character, situation, and action.  If any pieces are missing, then it won’t be a good story.

Introducing a complication, internal or external, introduces tension and suspense.  “The world is chock full of complications” – you just need to learn to be aware of them and spot them.

Find complications by looking for action – figure out the motive for the action and you’ll likely find the complication.

Resolutions break the tension that are created by complications.  Stories without resolutions make poor stories.

“Negative lessons are painful and inefficient…What the reader really wants is to be shown some insightful choices that have positive results.”

Resolutions must come from the character’s own efforts otherwise they are unsatisfying.

Outlining a the story.  First, conflict: “Cancer strikes Joe”.  Limit to 3 words, verbs must be string.  Second, resolution: “Joe overcomes cancer.”  Use these 3 word phrases to outline.

Once conflict and resolution identified, write action statements that will help develop the character towards the resolution. Each statement identifies the end of that section.  Eg:

Complication: Ducker gambles life
Development:
1. Ducker enters brain
2. Ducker clips aneurysm
3. Monster ambushes Ducker
Resolution: Ducker accepts defeat

Flashbacks are allowed once per conflict resolution, usually after an interesting complication.  Flashbacks are disorienting, so you have to use them after the most gripping part of the story to keep readers reading.

“The simpler an outline is, the more it focuses your thoughts on the important relationships in your story”

The resolution must always match the conflict – if not, rewrite one of them.

Each of the three actions should be related to the resolution.  They should show the process.  Cut out unnecessary actions.

“Foreshadowing is the technique by which the writer unobtrusively inserts details early in the story that will allow him to conduct his dramatic scenes without the necessity of explaining background details.”  This is what comics do – to give a good punchline, the setup needs to happen early on so the final delivery can be quick and impactful.

Don’t spend lots of time on a rough draft.  Writing you spend lots of time on becomes precious and difficult to cut later on.

Follow your outline.  Add the beggining lines, foreshadowing, at the end.  If you start straying from your outline stop OR adjust your outline and make sure it still makes sense.

Polish is not that important.  Good story is.

Don’t mistake style for substance.  It’s okay to mimic certain styles, but there still needs to be a good story there.

“The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.”

Key points:

  • Use action verbs
  • Show, don’t tell
  • The strongest thought should appear at the end of a section.
  • Cut out unnecessary parts
  • Foreshadow events
  • “Simplicity, coupled with clarity, equals elegance”

NOTE: Links to products in this post go through my Amazon affiliate account so if you use my links to buy something, a small percentage of that sale will go towards funding my book buying habit.

Book Notes: The Art of Readable Code by Dustin Boswell

The Art of Readable Code by Dustin Boswell

I highlight and take notes when I read nonfiction books. Once I finish a book, I format and edit my notes so that I can easily remind myself of what I learned without having to reread the book. These notes are not a substitute for reading the book, they only serve as a reminder of key concepts.


The fewer lines a variable is in scope, the shorter its name is allowed to be. Variables used in larger scopes must be less ambiguous so they are allowed to have longer names.

Don’t use project specific abbreviations — someone new to the project won’t know what they mean. “So our rule of thumb is: would a new teammate understand what the name means? If so, then it’s probably okay.”

“The clearest way to name a limit is to put max_ or min_ in front of the thing being limited.”

“In general, adding words like is, has, can, or should can make booleans more clear.”

“The best names are ones that can’t be misconstrued — the person reading your code will understand it the way you meant it, and no other way.”

“Everyone prefers to read code that’s aesthetically pleasing. By “formatting” your code in a consistent, meaningful way, you make it easier and faster to read.”

“The purpose of commenting is to help the reader know as much as the writer did.”

More comments aren’t necessarily better — the comments take up valuable screen real estate, so if there is a comment in the code “it better be worth it”.

“Don’t Comment Bad Names — Fix the Names Instead”

“Instead of minimizing the number of lines, a better metric is to minimize the time needed for someone to understand it.”

“The simplest way to break down an expression is to introduce an extra variable that captures a smaller subexpression. This extra variable is sometimes called an “explaining variable” because it helps explain what the subexpression means.”

“One technique [to clean up code] is to see if you can solve the problem the “opposite” way. Depending on the situation you’re in, this could mean iterating through arrays in reverse or filling in some data structure backward rather than forward.”

In general, keep scopes short and finish tasks as quickly as possible.

“The more places a variable is manipulated, the harder it is to reason about its current value.”

“The advice for this chapter is to aggressively identify and extract unrelated subproblems. Here’s what we mean: Look at a given function or block of code, and ask yourself, “What is the high-level goal of this code?” For each line of code, ask, “Is it working directly to that goal? Or is it solving an unrelated subproblem needed to meet it?” If enough lines are solving an unrelated subproblem, extract that code into a separate function.”

“Code that does multiple things at once is harder to understand. A single block of code might be initializing new objects, cleansing data, parsing inputs, and applying business logic, all at the same time.”

Break code up into small, easy to understand fragments. This makes understanding easier and reduces potential for bugs.

“do only one task at a time.”

“When explaining a complex idea to someone, it’s easy to confuse them with all the little details. It’s a valuable skill to be able to explain an idea “in plain English,” so that someone less knowledgeable than you can understand. It requires distilling an idea down to the most important concepts. Doing this not only helps the other person understand but also helps you think about your own ideas more clearly.”

“This chapter discussed the simple technique of describing your program in plain English and using that description to help you write more natural code. This technique is deceptively simple, but very powerful.”

“Knowing when not to code is possibly the most important skill a programmer can learn. Every line of code you write is a line that has to be tested and maintained. By reusing libraries or eliminating features, you can save time and keep your codebase lean and mean.”

“When you start a project, it’s natural to get excited and think of all the cool features you’ll want to implement. But programmers tend to overestimate how many features are truly essential to their project. A lot of features go unfinished or unused or just complicate the application.”

NOTE: Links to products in this post go through my Amazon affiliate account so if you use my links to buy something, a small percentage of that sale will go towards funding my book buying habit.

Book Notes: Never Split the Difference by Chris Voss

Never Split the Difference by Chris Voss

I highlight and take notes when I read nonfiction books. Once I finish a book, I format and edit my notes so that I can easily remind myself of what I learned without having to reread the book. These notes are not a substitute for reading the book, they only serve as a reminder of key concepts.


Regardless of all of these techniques, you always have to stay emotionally cool or none of them will work. Let knee-jerk reactions pass and pause in silence instead.

“Contrary to popular opinion, listening is not a passive activity. It is the most active thing you can do.”

“Good negotiators, going in, know they have to be ready for possible surprises; great negotiators aim to use their skills to reveal the surprises they are certain exist.”

You have to stay open minded about a negotiation — best to “[hold] multiple hypotheses” to better understand where someone is coming from.

“Most people approach a negotiation so preoccupied by the arguments that support their position that they are unable to listen attentively.”

“The goal is to identify what your counterparts actually need…and get them feeling safe enough to talk and talk and talk some more about what they want.”

“There are essentially three voice tones available to negotiators: the late-night FM DJ voice, the positive/playful voice, and the direct or assertive voice.” You should use the positive/playful voice majority of the time. Rarely use the assertive. FM DJ voice is downward inflecting and says you are in control.

“While mirroring is most often associated with forms of nonverbal communication, especially body language, as negotiators a “mirror” focuses on the words and nothing else. Not the body language. Not the accent. Not the tone or delivery. Just the words.”

Paraphrasing what the other person just said is another form of mirroring.

“By repeating back what people say, you trigger this mirroring instinct and your counterpart will inevitably elaborate on what was just said and sustain the process of connecting.”

“The results were stunning: the average tip of the waiters who mirrored was 70 percent more than of those who used positive reinforcement.”

Label how someone is feeling — this will make them feel listened to as well as make them continue to talk — either because you labelled their emotions accurately or you purposefully did not.

“In every negotiation, in every agreement, the result comes from someone else’s decision. And sadly, if we believe that we can control or manage others’ decisions with compromise and logic, we’re leaving millions on the table.”

“Saying “No” gives the speaker the feeling of safety, security, and control. You use a question that prompts a “No” answer, and your counterpart feels that by turning you down he has proved that he’s in the driver’s seat.”

“Gun for a “Yes” straight off the bat, though, and your counterpart gets defensive, wary, and skittish”

“That’s why I tell my students that, if you’re trying to sell something, don’t start with “Do you have a few minutes to talk?” Instead ask, “Is now a bad time to talk?” Either you get “Yes, it is a bad time” followed by a good time or a request to go away, or you get “No, it’s not” and total focus.”

“Sometimes, if you’re talking to somebody who is just not listening, the only way you can crack their cranium is to antagonize them into “No.” One great way to do this is to mislabel one of the other party’s emotions or desires.”

“Another way to force “No” in a negotiation is to ask the other party what they don’t want. “Let’s talk about what you would say ‘No’ to,””

The best way to get a response to an email — send a question that you know the response will be no: “Have you given up on this project?”

Don’t strive for “yes” in negotiations — yes means someone is agreeing with you just to finish negotiating. Strive for “that’s right”, where someone is truly agreeing with you.

Use pauses to encourage people to keep talking. Can also use phrases like “Yes,” “OK,” “Uh-huh,” or “I see”.

Use paraphrasing + labeling to try and get a “that’s right”.

NEVER compromise/split the difference: “To make my point on compromise, let me paint you an example: A woman wants her husband to wear black shoes with his suit. But her husband doesn’t want to; he prefers brown shoes. So what do they do? They compromise, they meet halfway. And, you guessed it, he wears one black and one brown shoe. Is this the best outcome? No! In fact, that’s the worst possible outcome. Either of the two other outcomes — black or brown — would be better than the compromise. Next time you want to compromise, remind yourself of those mismatched shoes.”

“We don’t compromise because it’s right; we compromise because it is easy and because it saves face. We compromise in order to say that at least we got half the pie. Distilled to its essence, we compromise to be safe. Most people in a negotiation are driven by fear or by the desire to avoid pain. Too few are driven by their actual goals.”

Don’t think that any negotiation has a deadline — rarely are deadlines hard set.

Acknowledge the other person’s fears all up front: “”I got a lousy proposition for you,” I said, and paused until each asked me to go on. “By the time we get off the phone, you’re going to think I’m a lousy businessman. You’re going to think I can’t budget or plan. You’re going to think Chris Voss is a big talker. His first big project ever out of the FBI, he screws it up completely. He doesn’t know how to run an operation. And he might even have lied to me.””

Make them feel like they have something to lose: ““Still, I wanted to bring this opportunity to you before I took it to someone else,” I said. Suddenly, their call wasn’t about being cut from $2,000 to $500 but how not to lose $500 to some other guy.”

“Instead of saying, “I’m worth $110,000,” Jerry might have said, “At top places like X Corp., people in this job get between $130,000 and $170,000.””

If you can’t negotiate money, start negotiation other things: vacation, work hours, etc…

When talking numbers, use precise ones — $102,378 instead of $100,000 — it makes it seem like you’ve done a calculation.

If negotiating salary, establish success criteria — next time you will then able to negotiate for an even higher salary when you prove that you did well.

Calibrated questions: “queries that the other side can respond to but that have no fixed answers. It buys you time. It gives your counterpart the illusion of control — they are the one with the answers and power after all — and it does all that without giving them any idea of how constrained they are by it.”

Most of the time, calibrated questions use “how”, “what”, and sometimes “why”.

“Another simple rule is, when you are verbally assaulted, do not counterattack. Instead, disarm your counterpart by asking a calibrated question.”

“When someone’s tone of voice or body language does not align with the meaning of the words they say, use labels to discover the source of the incongruence”

Try to get the other person to commit to you three times. After the first commitment, try summarizing (paraphrase + label) to get the second commitment, and then try calibrated (“how”,”what”) questions about success criteria to get the third commitment.

The first time they agree to something or give you a commitment, that’s №1. For №2 you might label or summarize what they said so they answer, “That’s right.” And №3 could be a calibrated “How” or “What” question about implementation that asks them to explain what will constitute success, something like “What do we do if we get off track?”

“At the front counter the young lady asked me if I wanted to join their frequent buyer program. I asked her if I got a discount for joining and she said, “No.” So I decided to try another angle. I said in a friendly manner, “My name is Chris. What’s the Chris discount?” She looked from the register, met my eyes, and gave a little laugh. “I’ll have to ask my manager, Kathy,” she said and turned to the woman who’d been standing next to her. Kathy, who’d heard the whole exchange, said, “The best I can do is ten percent.””

If you are pushed to go first to name a price, allude to what some other high-end client would pay “Harvard business school would pay $20,000 for my services”.

The Ackerman model of bargaining: 1. Set your goal price 2. Make your first offer 65% of goal 3. use empathy and different ways of saying no until the other side counters and increase your offer each time to 85%, 95%, and eventually 100% of goal 4. make the final amount not-round $23,768 instead of $24,000 — maybe the non-round figure is all you have in the bank! 5. At the final offer, offer a non-monetary item to prove you are at your limit.

“A more subtle technique is to label your negative leverage and thereby make it clear without attacking. Sentences like “It seems like you strongly value the fact that you’ve always paid on time” or “It seems like you don’t care what position you are leaving me in” can really open up the negotiation process.”

“But the moment when we’re most ready to throw our hands up and declare “They’re crazy!” is often the best moment for discovering Black Swans that transform a negotiation. It is when we hear or see something that doesn’t make sense — something “crazy” — that a crucial fork in the road is presented: push forward, even more forcefully, into that which we initially can’t process; or take the other path, the one to guaranteed failure, in which we tell ourselves that negotiating was useless anyway.”

NOTE: Links to products in this post go through my Amazon affiliate account so if you use my links to buy something, a small percentage of that sale will go towards funding my book buying habit.

Building our Garden: Part II

A couple weeks back Renee and I started building a garden in our backyard. We plotted out the dimensions with stakes, cut up the sod, and tilled in two truckloads of good soil to compensate for the dense clay that naturally exists in our yard. Renee had applied for a permit and we were stuck waiting for city hall to grant it to us.


A week later the permit was issued and we began really getting things done. First on the list of things to do was to dig some post holes. Since we didn’t want to spend an entire weekend digging holes, we once again rented some heavy duty equipment to help get the job done.

George digging holes with the hydraulic auger.

Once the 11 post holes were dug to a two foot depth, we cleaned out the bottoms of the holes with a manual post digger and added gravel so the poles would all be a uniform height.

Renee cleaning out the bottom of the holes with a manual post digger.
Gravel time!

With the holes prepared, we triple checked our measurements and put the posts into place to make sure they would align. Once we were sure everything was lined up as planned, we went ahead and added cement.

We were all about convenience for this project and used the mix in the hole style of concete.
We added some forms towards the top of the concreted portion to save money on concrete and have a uniformly circular post.
Renee bracing the post so it stays level.

By the end of the day, we had all posts in the ground and braced. We let them cure overnight so that we wouldn’t have to worry about any of them moving on us when we were working on the next steps of attaching the fencing.

Letting the posts cure in the cement.

The next day we dug trenches between all of the posts so that our fencing could be buried underground. Our hope is that a foot of buried fence will deter rabbits and groundhogs from tunneling into the garden. With the trenches dug, we stapled up some black fencing.

Fenced in.

After the fence was up, we added some additional wooden borders to make the fencing a little sturdier. My mother happened to be visiting for the weekend so she helped us build a gate and then Renee tilled the soil for a third time.

Renee planting a currant bush.

Finally, we were ready to plant. Renee and mapped out the garden based on sun exposure and we decided that this year we are going to try and grow the following plants:

  • Red currants
  • Blueberries
  • Raspberries
  • Peppers
  • Tomatoes
  • Pole beans
  • Cucumbers
  • Lettuce
  • Carrots
  • Onions
  • Garlic
  • Beets
  • Chives
  • Lavender
  • Herbs
  • Some decorative plants for the outside

We are not expecting everything to grow in this year, but hopefully things will get established and next summer we’ll have a big harvest!

The garden!

From City to Full — Entry Level Coffee Roasting

I used to hate the taste of coffee. I loved the aroma of roasted coffee beans and fresh brewed coffee, but the taste of the black liquid was too bitter for me to want to drink. One time I was really desperate for caffeine and coffee was my only option, so I learned that mixing in a hot cocoa packet into the coffee made the taste tolerable. After that, I followed any new coffee drinker’s procedure of pouring in a cow’s worth of milk and 10 packets of sugar into my morning cup of joe. Eventually my taste buds adapted and I finally grew to like the taste of black coffee. The big turning point for this was when I went to Europe and would drink espressos multiple times throughout the day. After I returned to the United States, I chased the espresso flavor at home, trying to improve my morning cup of coffee by moving from a drip coffee pot to multiple French presses (they break easily), an AeroPress, and eventually I gave in and got an espresso machine.

Now I was finally happy with my coffee drinking habit, but I realized I kept chasing new flavors by getting coffee beans from around the world. I tried out all of the different styles I was interested in at the local grocery stores and decided to buy some beans from a local coffee shop that roasts their own beans. The beans themselves were fine but the thing that put me off was that the coffee roaster was selling these beans for $25 per pound! They were good, but definitely not good enough to be paying that price.

Coffee roasting became my new focus. How much do green (unroasted) coffee beans cost? Where do I buy them? Do I need special equipment to roast the beans myself? Is it worth the effort to roast them myself?

Fortunately, I found that a lot of coffee drinkers were roasting their own coffee at home with pretty inexpensive tools. At the most basic level, coffee beans could be roasted on a stove top in a frying pan or in the oven although they would generate a good amount of mess. By far the most popular way that people roast beans at home is with a $20 popcorn air popper. I bought myself a Nostalgia popper from Bed, Bath, and Beyond and ordered a 4 pound sampler pack of Kenyan coffees from Sweet Maria’s for less than $8 per pound shipped.

What is roasting?

The basic principles behind roasting beans is simple — heat the beans while constantly moving them until they reach your desired roast color. They need to be heated to about 450 degrees Fahrenheit and the constant movement ensures all of the beans are evenly roasted. The roasting process can be more complicated than that — holding beans at different temperatures for different amounts of time to develop flavors, improving the speed with which you cool the beans, etc… — but at its most basic level roasting only involves heating the beans evenly until they reach their desired color.

A popcorn air popper does a great job with roasting because the hot air keeps the beans constantly moving, ensuring a mostly even roast. When coffee beans are roasted, the chaff from the beans separates and the chute on the popcorn air popper does a great job redirecting the mess into the sink.

How to roast

1. Measure out your green coffee beans.

I use a scale to weigh my beans, but a measuring spoon will work too. For my air popper, 50g of raw beans is a good amount. At this weight, there are too many beans to zoom around the popper but there are enough so that the air pushes them at a slow crawl. Finding this “not too fast, not too slow” amount of beans for your popper is crucial for an even roast. The point of measuring out this amount is so that you can get consistent results every time.

2. Put the beans in the popper and watch them spin.

It’s good to have a bowl of water outside of your popper’s chute because a lot of airy chaff will float away from the beans. After a few minutes the beans will reach the “first crack”, an audible cracking sound (similar to popping popcorn). This first crack denotes the earliest lightest roast you can have with beans, called a City roast. At this point you watch the beans until they reach the desired color you are shooting for. After another few minutes, the beans will reach an audible “second crack” which means the beans are reaching a Full City + roast. At this point, a lot of steam might be released from the beans and your smoke detector might protest. You can continue roasting pass this stage for a Vienna or French roast, but since I don’t have any fancy equipment at the moment I have always been stopping my roasting at the first sounds of the second crack because it is an easy way to achieve consistency. This roasting process can get really complex (if you want it to), and I highly recommend doing more reading about it if you are interested: Sweet Maria’s Coffee Roasting Theory.

3. Cool the beans.

Immediately after your beans reach a desired roast level, quickly dump them out onto a metal baking sheet, colander, or sieve and jostle them around. We want to give the beans as much surface area as possible to allow them to cool as quickly as possible — using something metal also helps transfer some of the heat away from the beans. The reason we want to cool the beans quickly is because they just came from a 400 degree Fahrenheit popcorn popper and if they aren’t cooled quickly they may actually continue roasting outside of the popper.

4. Patiently wait.

After the beans cool you should ideally wait at least 4 hours before grinding and making coffee with them (this lets some of the CO2 dissipate). I like to store my beans in glass mason jars. For the first day, I screw the lids to the jars on all of the way and then unscrew them a quarter turn — this leaves just enough room for CO2 produced by the roasted beans to escape from the jar.


Roasting coffee beans is as simple as that. I’m able to setup, roast about .5 pounds of beans, and clean up in about 20 minutes. The coffee made from the beans is on par with the best coffees I can buy at any store or café, and being able to purchase raw green coffee beans online means the variety of coffees I can try is almost limitless. Although the process outlined above has given me great results so far, there is a lot of tweaking that can be done, like holding roasting temperatures between first and second crack for longer periods of time in order to produce different flavors in the roasts. Over time I plan on exploring some of these more technical options!

Building our Garden: Part I

Our little plot. This actually marks the mulch border, the fenced in area will be smaller by about 1.5 feet.

Renee and I decided we wanted to build a garden in our backyard. Although I do not like gardening, I do like building things and eating fresh fruits and veggies. Renee likes gardening and she also likes fresh fruits and veggies. We could totally make this happen.

The biggest obstacle for having a backyard garden where we live is the suburban deer population. These things are always hungry and we watch them eat everything from the presumably delectable tulips to the absolutely desperate tree leaves. We know that if we plant delicious produce in our backyard, the deer will eat it long before harvest time. Our solution? A fence.

Our plan is to build a six-foot high fence that will surround the garden to protect the yummy things that deer like to eat and use a mulched fence border to grow things that deer shouldn’t bother with like garlic and lavender.

Tilling up grass doesn’t work

Our first step after marking out the plot with some stakes was to get the grass up and till the soil. We tried at first to just till the grass in — obviously looking to get this done the easiest way possible — but that didn’t work. The thought of then shoveling out all of grass by hand with a sod shovel seemed like a nightmare, so we rented this 300-pound monster of a sod cutter:

George manning the beast

In 45 minutes, George and I were able to cut, roll, and move the sod off of the 16′ x 24′ foot plot. Using that sod cutter made you feel like Tim Allen on Home Improvement.

Having the rolls of sod was nice because we were able to use them to fill in some low and bare spots around the house. Now we just need to waste a lot of water the next few weeks by watering the sod until the grass roots reestablish themselves.

After all of the grass was up, we tilled the dirt and clay and then added a few layers of Sweet Peet mulch/soil and tilled some more.

From nutrient deficient dirt and clay to fertile rich soil all in an afternoon

And that’s basically where we stand today. Renee applied for a fence permit with city hall a few days back, so now we are stuck waiting until that gets approved. Once that’s done, it’ll be time to put up the actual fence and then plant everything delicious inside its borders.

Roadtrip: Shenandoah, MD, DE, DC

Looking west during a cloudy Shenandoah sunset.

Monday

We drove all morning to reach Shenandoah by early afternoon. As soon as we entered the park we took a quick hike to a Shenandoah family cemetery and to look at some old mountain roads.

The first of hundreds of rock piles we saw. It’s amazing that people farmed these mountain sides.
Fox hollow cemetery.
Old mountain road turned hiking trail.

Shenandoah was established after thousands of people were already living in the Virginia mountains. The U.S. government had to purchase/seize the land to build the park after it was already inhabited, so remnants of the previous owners still exist in the forms of farm field rock piles, rock fences, cemeteries, roads, orchards, and a few cabins. Before going on our trip, I read Shenandoah: A Story of Conservation and Betrayal and this allowed me to appreciate the hardships of the people, many who had spent their whole lives growing up in the park, who were forced out of their homes when the park was created.

Being car tourists.
Home sweet home.

We eventually made our way to Big Meadow campground and set up for the first night. We cooked ourselves dinner and then went out on some short trails to scout locations for watching the sun set and stargazing.

Orion in the bottom center, partially obstructed by some wispy clouds.

Tuesday

We woke up at 6am on Tuesday, planning to drive one and half hours to the Old Rag Mountain trailhead. It was extremely windy outside all night though and the wind had not let up by the time we awoke. We decided it’s probably not a good idea to hike on top of an exposed mountain top when there are 50+mph gusts of wind, so we opted to sleep in a little longer.

After eventually waking up, the wind continued and we decided we’d be better off doing all of our shorter hikes that day. The highlight of the day was definitely the hike to the top of Bearfence Mountain where lots of rock scrambling was involved to get to the panoramic views at the top.

The trail up Bearfence. Those blue splotches are the trail markers.
Selfies.
Views from Bearfence Mountain.

We took a few more short hikes that day before ending in Shenandoah’s Big Meadow.

Big Meadow is pretty big.

Walking through the meadow we got to see plenty of deer and birds. We ended the day with another sunset and some stargazing.

Wednesday

After a quiet night of sleep, we woke up again at 6am and headed for Old Rag.

Early morning sunrise, looking at our climbing destination for that day.

Although Old Rag Mountain is inside of Shenandoah National Park’s boundaries, the trailhead to hike the interesting part of the mountain starts from outside of the park. We drove the hour and half to the parking lot, cooked and ate some breakfast, and started our hike at 8am. The reason for getting to the trailhead so early was two-fold 1) hiking in the morning is nice because the trails are open and not many other people are out 2) more importantly, there are not a lot of parking spots at Old Rag and the lot gets filled up by early morning every day — we didn’t want to drive so far for a hike only to discover there’s no place to park.

Thea peak of Old Rag, through some binoculars.

The hike up is basically switchbacks to climb the 2400 feet of elevation to reach the top. There are some interesting giant granite boulders to look at, but it’s mostly an endurance hike. We did however catch sight of a pileated woodpecker and heard the howls of a coyote that howled back in response to Renee’s howl.

Those rocks behind me are our trail to the top.

The last three-quarter miles to the peak is where the real fun with the Old Rag trail begins. The dirt trail ends and the remaining climb is all over boulders. Some of these seemed impossible at first (“How are we supposed to climb down 9 feet on this sheer rock face?”) but eventually with some thinking and maneuvering we made it. This experience of climbing over all of the rocks was definitely the best part of our time in Shenandoah. After having finished it, I was especially glad we started as early as we did because I could see how during peak hiking times lines can form to get over certain rock formations.

The only way through.
This granite boulder that fell in the crevice was a perfect photo opportunity.
Precarious looking boulders
Looking back over what we just climbed up.
More trails up over the rocks.
Opferkessel at the top of the mountain.
The view from the top. This hike is definitely more about the experience of climbing up.

We ate lunch at the top and prepared for the long hike back down. Although the hike up to the peak is only three and a half miles from the parking lot, the hike back down is easily over seven miles. We eventually finished though and drove back to the park for a night of stargazing.

Creek crossing on the hike down.

Thursday

I did not feel rested after waking up — the wind had come back and was so loud that it was difficult to sleep. Upon touring the campground in the morning, we found lots of people sleeping in their cars with the tents ravaged by the wind. As this was our last day in the park, we packed up pretty quick and drove out of the park as quick as we could!

The first item on our itinerary this morning was the Luray Caverns. We made it in time for the second tour of the day, which we (and the tour guide) were grateful for because it was a really small tour group of about 20 people. I guess the tours get to be around 80–90 people by midday. The caverns are amazing and we really enjoyed seeing all of the different formations.

Luray Caverns.
Reflecting pool.

After the caverns we made our way to Annapolis. We stopped at Chesapeake Light Craft and got an excellent tour of how to build stitch and glue and strip kayaks. Afterwards we spent a little bit of time looking at osprey at Quiet Waters state park.

In the evening, we visited some friends Jess and Sid (Sid owns Mobtown Fermentation and he makes delicious Wild Kombucha) and they showed us some of Annapolis’s best food. We had such a good time that I forgot to take any pictures.

Friday

Friday morning we drove to Milton, Delaware to visit Dogfish Head brewery. I’ve been a fan of Dogfish Head for years, so it was really exciting to finally be able to visit their facilities. We got a tour of the brewery, sampled lots of beer, and even tried out some of their homemade gin. It was the best brewery tour I’ve ever been on.

Drinking beer at 10:45 am.
Where the magic happens.
That is a lot of beer.

After Dogfish head we headed over to Washington D.C. and spent some time walking around Georgetown. Later that evening we met up with and had dinner with my brother-in-law Matt.

Saturday

The next day Renee, Matt, and I were D.C. tourists. We visited the Smithsonian American History Museum, the Hirshhorn Museum of Modern Art, and the botanical gardens, all while taking in the views of all of the historical D.C. monuments. The cherry blossoms had bloomed the week before, but unfortunately storms and wind had knocked off most of the flowers by the time we arrived. After a full day of sightseeing we went out to dinner and then called it a night.

Renee showing us her BAM!
Renee, Matt, and very few remaining Cherry Blossoms.

Sunday

Sunday morning we visited Great Falls National Park, which I had never heard of until Renee found it the night before. In addition to finding a park so close to where we were, we were especially lucky because the power had gone out in the park and so our visitor’s fee was waived.

Not a lot of height, but definitely a lot of volume.

The park focuses around a large volume waterfall in the Potomac river as well as the canal and locks that used to exist in order to allow ships to get around it. The falls are pretty impressive but the park is overall very small. It was still fun to see though.

Matt exploring the rocks.
Down river from the falls.

After hiking around for a little bit, we drove Matt to the bus station so he could make his way back to Philadelphia and we concluded our trip by driving back to Ohio.

What You Need to (Comfortably) Survive in the Woods

As Renee and I plan for our trip to Shenandoah I thought it would be a good time to go through my pack and make sure I have everything I need. We are only planning to go backpacking for three days so I can get by without some amenities but it’s better to prepare and find out I’m missing something now when there’s time to still go buy it rather than the first night we set up our tent in Virginia (we did remember the tent, right?). I am not an ultra-light backpacker — someone who tries to bring as little with them as possible — but I am also lazy and don’t like carrying extra weight unless it is going to significantly make my life in the woods better. I’m also fortunate to have Renee go with me so we can split the weight (Regardless if I go alone or with someone, I’m stuck taking shared use items like a tent, cooking gear, etc… so going with a friend means weight savings!) With that said, I’ve organized my list by how essential each item is. All loaded up, we have about 70 lbs of gear (minus water) to take between two of us.

Tent — 6 lbs 6 oz

Having a good tent is probably the most important thing in my bag. This is what is going to keep me dry and to some extent warm. Renee and I have a small two person tent and it has served us well through Yellowstone National Park, WY, Allegheny, PA, Ohiopyle, PA, and Mohican, OH. This is actually my favorite tent that I’ve ever owned — it is thin and light weight, but it has also been extremely durable. Plus, it was a fraction of the price as other backpacking tents ($120 I believe compared to the $400-$600 you can easily spend).

Food — 11 lbs

Our trips are usually short enough to where we can plan each meal out in advance without getting exhausted. We prep as much as we can at home and portion food out into baggies to make it easier to cook when the time comes. We also try to plan meals and alter recipes to make cleanup as easy as possible because 1)no one likes cleaning up after cooking to begin with but 2) it’s a lot more difficult to do if you are following Leave No Trace practices (swilling pasta water…yum). Meals don’t have to be bland and tasteless though. We love using the NOLS Cookery book to plan meals. During this time of year we plan for 1.75 lbs/person/day, but in the summers we drop down to 1.5 lbs.

Water Purifier — 12 oz

When hiking I easily drink more than a gallon of water per day plus I need water for cooking food. There is no way Renee and I are going to carry in all the water we need for three days so we plan on replenishing our supplies from springs and streams along the way. Although people have lived in Shenandoah for hundreds of years have been drinking unfiltered water from springs and wells, contracting an infection from giardia or some other parasite is not something that I want to risk. Some people like using tablets, drops, or UV light, but personally I like using a filter. A filter protects against anything we would encounter in a pristine wilderness setting with good water sources and it produces the best tasting water.

Water Carriers — 8 oz

Water carriers are still something I am figuring out. Up to this point I’ve always used a 3 liter hydration bladder to carry around a larger quantity of water and then a couple hard plastic Nalgene bottles for water that’s easier to access. The issue I have with the bladder is that the water always tastes funny; that’s not a huge deal if we are talking about survival, but I believe backpacking can be fun and comfortable without having to sacrifice all of life’s conveniences. The hard Nalgene bottles I struggle with because they are too big to fit in any of the water bottle holders for my bag. Additionally, once they are empty, I have to make a conscious effort to fill them with something so they aren’t just taking up wasted space in my bag. For this trip I think I’m still going to use the water bladder (going to give it a good cleaning beforehand) but also I’m going to try a collapsible water bottle since it will hopefully save space once empty and be easier to shove into any bottle carrier/pocket/wherever there is space.

Fire Starter + Tinder — 3 oz

Although camp fires are not allowed in Shenandoah, that doesn’t mean I won’t bring fire starting sticks, a lighter, and tinder (dryer lint). Although I don’t plan on using any of this stuff, it’s a nice safety measure to have in case we get stuck somewhere or need to get warm.

Clothes — 5 lbs

Packing clothes is what I struggle most with when backpacking. I have the tendency to over pack, causing me to carry around extra weight and then never end up wearing the clothes. It’s a fine line between making sure you always have dry, warm clothes and packing way too many clothes that you never use them. Regardless of trip length, I basically pack two of most things — two pairs of socks, two pairs of underwear, two pairs of zip-off pants/shorts, and two shirts. Those clothes basically get me through the daytime’s hiking. I also pack an extra shirt and shorts to sleep in, a pair of camp shoes, and a water proof jacket. If it’s supposed to be a wet trip, I’ll pack a third pair of everything so I always have something dry to wear, but I really hate doing this since clothes take up a ton of space in my pack. This time of year, Shenandoah is in the low thirties in the mornings, so I’ll be taking a down jacket and some extra layers to keep me warm in the mornings.

Sleeping Bag — 3 lbs 10 oz

This one is critical because it’s what keeps me warm at night. We usually backpack somewhere in the mountains, meaning cool nights. I’m a fan of down filled bags because of their warmth and compressibility and I don’t mind having to protect them from getting wet.

Sleeping Pad — 2 lbs 5 oz

Sleeping on the ground doesn’t have to be uncomfortable. For the first few years that I camped I didn’t know this though and every morning I would wake up sore. Then at some point I learned that a thin foam sleeping pad could be put under a sleeping bag to make laying on the ground more enjoyable. After this discovery I sleep like a baby and wake up rested every single time. I would even argue that I get better sleep on my sleeping pad out in nature than I do on my bed at home.

Backpack(s) — 6 lbs

I need a container to carry all of my gear in. When car camping, it used to be boxes and rubber totes. With backpacking, it’s a large backpack to fit all of my stuff. On trips where we will be doing lots of day hikes and coming back to our same campsite at night I also like to bring a small daypack to carry essentials like water, food, and a jacket.

Compass and Maps — 5 oz

These get surprisingly little use since trails are usually so well marked, but they are helpful for identifying water sources and flat spots for campsites. I’ve always been aware of my surroundings enough to not get lost, but the compass is a nice extra safety measure.

Headlamp — 3 oz

This might be one of the best purchases I have ever made. Not only is it great for camping where you frequently need your hands for cooking a meal or setting up a tent, but I use this headlamp for everything outside of camping as well. Stargazing? Check. Working under my car? Check. Using it in a crawlspace or when the power is out? Check and check. Honestly, everyone should own a headlamp — they are way more functional than a flashlight.

Cooking Stove and Fuel — 2 lbs

I don’t follow the philosophy of camp food should taste bad. Some people are able to subsist on powdered meals and candy bars but I like to eat as well as I can when I’m out backpacking. Having a good stove helps cook everything from pad Thai to cinnamon rolls. Although temperature control has to be maintained by how much you pressurize the fuel bottle, this stove is versatile and easily repairable. It also doesn’t use a lot of fuel and is durable.

Pot and Mess Kit — 1 lb 10 oz

Having a light-weight pot with a multi-function lid is important. Not only can I boil liquids and fry foods in the pot, the lid doubles as a second frying pan as well as a lid to make water boil faster (important when trying to conserve fuel). A couple of water tight bowls with lids are great because not only can can they be used to eat/make a meal in, they act as great storage containers in the backpack (don’t want the oil or butter leaking all over your clothes!). The mess kit is pretty simple, mostly utensils for stirring/turning food and cleaning supplies. I like to do as much food prep work while at home before the trip so most meals can be made by just combining and cooking ingredients in the field — leave all of the chopping and cutting for the large chef’s knife and cutting board at home.

First Aid and Sewing Kits — 5.5 oz

This one needs little explanation; it’s important to be able to fix yourself if you are relying on yourself in the outdoors. Fortunately, the only thing I’ve had to use from our first aid kit is some headache medicine. Our sewing kit is basically a needle, thread, and extra buttons.

Bag Cover + Extra Bags — 12 oz

Rain is one of a backpacker’s biggest enemies. It is essential that all of your gear stays dry and the way I accomplish this is with a pack cover to water proof my whole bag when it’s raining. I also bring lots of extra bags to water proof individual items (camera, food) if it’s really wet. Having extra bags is always useful since they are so versatile as well — besides waterproofing they work great for carrying out trash, portioning out food, and compartmentalizing your pack.

We also use one of these bags to store our food in. Animals can easily break into it if they are able to reach it, so we have to do a good job of hanging this from a tree. The alternative of packing something like a bear canister seems like a pain because of the amount of space it takes up. I’m imaging at some point we will go camping somewhere that requires canisters so maybe once that happens my opinion of them will change. Until then, we’ve become pretty good at hanging bags from trees.

Nylon Cord — 2.5 oz

This one is pretty versatile. We always use it to hang up our food bag, but it also works great for a clothes line, tying items to your bag, replacement shoelaces, replacement guy lines for the tent, etc… Definitely don’t want to go anywhere without it.

Shovel and Toilet Paper — 4 oz

Not necessary, but is worth the weight. Using a shovel to dig a cat hole is much cleaner than having to get your hands dirty. The toilet paper is nice in case everything is wet and finding dry leaves to use isn’t a guarantee.

Hand Sanitizer — 3 oz

Much easier to use than soap and water.

Book — 5 oz

Whatever I’m currently reading. Usually now I try to bring a book for my Kindle app on my phone so that I have less to carry.

Camera, Single Lens, and Tripod — 4 lbs 8 oz

I like taking photos so taking a camera is extra weight worth taking. I only take a single fixed length lens to save on weight and I don’t bother with extra batteries or anything else. All other camera extras, with the exception of a cloth to wipe down the lens with, stay at home.

Camp Shoes — 1 lb

I like bringing these water shoes because they are great to wear after a long day of hiking. I also like them for crossing streams where I think I’ll get wet because they dry out really quick.

Personal Items: Toothbrush, Contact Solution, etc.. — 2 lbs

Just because I’m camping doesn’t mean I throw away all concepts of hygiene. Included in here are all of the regular items you’d put in your TSA quart size bag plus a pack of playing cards and bug spray.

Pillow — 13 oz

This is always an optional item. I always sleep better when I bring a collapsible pillow instead of just sleeping on a sweatshirt/bag of clothes, but I realize it is not essential and I only pack it if I still have lots of room in my bag.

Bear Spray — 13 oz

I used to be terrified of bears. After learning more about bears though, I am not scared anymore. Shenandoah has a large black bear population, however I would never go out and buy bear spray to take to an area that only has black bears. We already had this bear spray from previous trips though so I figured we might as well take it.

Espresso Machine — 8 lbs

Just kidding. Although it would be nice…

Building Quickly and Iterating

How I break down projects to increase the chances of success.

Starting on a new project often feels like having to scale a huge canyon.

I am about to start working on a new programming project and I’m trying to think about what I can do to try and guarantee as much success as possible. For me, the most important time during project creation is the first few days or weeks while I am still extremely excited about what I am doing. During this time, I am able to work happily on the project and not get distracted by other ideas or activities. Therefore, I’ve determined that in the first period of excitement it is critical for me to get the minimal viable product fully built out and coded. If I don’t, rarely will I be able to create any additional excitement to keep the project going. If I’m able to get a working version built early on however, my excitement doesn’t wane and I can continue working on the project, adding features over time.d

Until recently, I never gave much thought to prioritizing the most important features of a project; sounds dumb, I know, but basically I would work on whatever I felt was “sexiest” — meaning using some new language, framework, or concept that I haven’t used before. This has been my downfall many times because when learning something new, there is inevitable frustration. This frustration always lead me to give up on the project before it even was built. This is why I now have switched my focus to building the minimum amount of features as quickly as possible to get my minimum viable product working, using techniques that are mostly familiar to me, so that I can get it done quickly. This way, I hope I can keep the excitement momentum going.

Plan, plan, plan

The key for me in building a successful project (meaning one that gets finished) is by first planning everything out on paper. This planning is never incredibly detailed, but it does provide me enough of a roadmap to help identify what my biggest challenges will be. Some upfront planning also helps me solidify things like program and database design, and lets me think through multiple options. Going through this iteration of different designs while on paper is much easier and faster than building out a version in code and then realizing it has to be scrapped because it doesn’t work well.

Trim the fat

Once I figure out the rough design of a program, I try to identify all of the features that are critical to get it functioning as quickly as possible. For example, if building a to-do list application, I might consider building a user registration and login system so people can manage their own checklists. Is this critical though? No, I can build the app so it only works for one user initially and worry about a multiple user scenario later on. I could use some new and popular animation library to work on animating the checklist items on the screen — but is this important? Definitely not — this kind of stuff causes many hours of frustration to occur with very little final product to show, so I skip it initially. Do I want to build basic functionality to let the user add and delete items on the checklist — YES! This is definitely highest priority. Once I figure out what features are critical to get the application functioning, I work on those first.

Just Do It

Just like Nike’s slogan, at this point it’s go time. I set my deadline for getting the first version of the program built as quickly as possible. The sooner the better. This is critical for me because initial project excitement is short lived and I know I have to create a functioning app before that giddiness runs out. I’m much more likely to get through road blocks in this phase as long as I’m still making noticeable progress and I need to get a working version of the program done before I hit a major road block.

Is it still worth it?

This is the question I ask myself once I get my minimum viable version of my app done. At this point the app will still look extremely ugly, usually all black text on white backgrounds, but I should be able to navigate through actions and get a feel for how the final product will work. Does the process to perform an action seem clunky or too complicated? I go back and fix it — good thing I didn’t waste hours on making a nice looking design. I can afford to lose what I built because at this point I simply don’t have enough invested in it to care; I can think a lot more clearly about it if I can emotionally separate myself from the work I put into it. If things are working well and I’m happy with the basic app functionality then it’s time to keep going.

The reprioritization and build cycle

At this point I keep adding the most essential features. After every feature I add, I try to reevaluate if I am still working on the most current feature. I might hit some stumbling blocks along the way, like realizing I need to modify my database design sooner rather than later, and so those items get prioritized higher on the list of features that need to get completed first. But by constantly reevaluating and reprioritizing the feature list, I guarantee myself that I am working on code that is adding immediate value, is satisfying to work on, and is bringing the project closer to completion. Becoming discouraged or disengaged is difficult when you set yourself to succeed frequently so early on in a project.

Get feedback

Launch the project before it is done. This could just be to a couple friends or it could be public. Getting feedback from others early on will help steer you in the direction of the most important features, as well as give you that instant gratification and encouragement to keep pushing forward. Don’t be afraid to show the world your unfinished baby.

Reprioritize, iterate

With each version that you release you will be able to decide 1)is it worth continuing to build this app and 2)what are the next most important features. If you like how the app works and you get feedback of other people saying they like the app, then that is good motivation to keep working. Feedback will also tell you what is most important to add to the program next. Eventually you will get through your critical list of functional features and you can work on some of the more of the less important things like design, animations, etc… At this point if you get frustrated on trying to learn something new it’s not as big of deal — you already have a functioning program that is being used. If you can’t animate the to-do list item additions/deletions slike you originally envisioned, that’s ok — at least you can still add and delete items! Maybe you can find an alternate way to make the design better. The point is, by the time you have a functioning app, these types of roadblocks will not be as discouraging and you will still feel accomplished with a job well done.

Finish it up

Eventually you need to decide when your app has enough features and you can switch to marketing/using the app in the real world. That doesn’t mean you won’t ever modify the program again, it just means that real world use and feedback will help you determine what changes to make in the future, if any. It might also turn out that your app works well enough without the need to iterate any further, and you can decide to then start on the next project idea that has been bouncing around in your head.

How Not to Die While Hiking

Safety in the Back Country

To get to the bottom of the Seven Mile Hole at Yellowstone National Park, we had to avoid bears, thermal vents, and dehydration.
A young grizzly bear. Out of view is the mama.

I used to be terrified of bears. Seriously, I thought if I went into the backcountry, I would be hunted down by a bear and get eaten alive, a scenario where I would have my intestines hanging out of my belly as I watched the bear ponder whether she wanted a dessert course of my left leg or not. And although such a scenario is theoretically possible, it turns out that between 1960–1980 there have only been 82 major attacks by grizzlies and 35 major attacks by black bears against humans in National Parks (major meaning requiring serious hospitalization or death; black bear attacks seem so high because there are many more human encounters with them). That works out to about 6 major attacks per year. Comparatively, you are “45 times more likely to be killed by a dog than by a bear, 120 times more likely to be killed by bees than a bear, and a whopping 250 times more likely to be killed by lightening than a bear.” And when comparing driving to lighting “The odds of being hit by lightening are about 1 in 4.2 million. The odds of dying in a motor vehicle accident are about 1 in 20,000.”

Instead of continuing to worry about bears, I’ve learned that there are other more realistic dangers that I should be prepared for when hiking and camping. I’ve also learned that driving to my hiking destination is far more dangerous than actually hiking itself.

Stupid humans

Given how amazing and intelligent the human race is, we also do some of the dumbest things. If you are going to get hurt out in the wilderness, whether it’s on a short afternoon hike in a local park or a multi-week backpacking excursion, it’s most likely going to be due to something stupid you did. Do you know what the number one reason for a premature end to peoples’ backpacking adventures? Blisters. With that said, here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Drowning is responsible for the largest number of fatalities in National Parks. If you don’t know how to swim, then don’t swim. If you aren’t familiar with currents of a river or open body of water, don’t go into it. If you have children, actively watch them to make sure they are doing ok. If you are kayaking or rafting, wear a life jacket. Drowning is something that is 100% preventable but unfortunately it is the number one reason people don’t come back from their trips to the parks.
  • Ice and rain makes smooth surfaces, like the rocks you frequently hike over, very slippery. Use caution when on slippery surfaces and don’t fall off rock ledges. Take your time, make sure you are balanced and have a firm steadying grip with a hand on a wall, and you will be fine.
  • Watch where you are going. You are in the woods after all, so gnarly tree roots and gopher holes will exist in your walking path. Tripping on or falling into these obstacles and twisting your ankle is a serious concern, so pay attention to where you are walking. Additionally, if you commonly find yourself rolling your ankle, maybe it’s a good idea to wear some boots that go above the ankle so it reduces your chances of injury.
  • Bring enough water for your hike and be aware of where you can get some more if needed. I’ve seen plenty of unprepared people set off for a mountain hike with a little 12oz bottle of Poland Spring. I don’t know if these people ever reach the top of the mountain and die of thirst up there, or decide to call it quits early after they realize they’ve drunken all of their water halfway up and decide to turn around, but you need to bring enough water for the trip you are taking. Hiking, and backpacking especially, are very physical activities. You will sweat and you will need to replenish your body’s water supply. Bring an adequate amount of water and be sure you know where streams/springs/rivers are so that you can filter some more water during your trip.
  • Don’t bite off more than you can chew in terms of trail difficulty. If it’s your vacation and you want to go hike Half Dome (and you made reservations) and the last time you went hiking was 10 years ago, you might want to reconsider your trip. Hiking can be strenuous and the easiest way to injure yourself is to not be in shape for the type of hike you are planning on taking.
  • And avoid blisters. Wear comfortable, broken in hiking shoes. Flip flops are bad (I’m looking at you unprepared tourist who thinks they can climb down into the Grand Canyon with flip flops and your 12oz of water). New hiking shoes that you bought for your trip and haven’t broken in yet are almost as bad. Also wear comfortable wool socks that fit well so they don’t rub and cause blisters. If you do start getting a blister, put some duct tape or a blister strip on it; don’t just keep walking, it will only get worse.

Weather

Tut-tut, it looks like rain.
  • During the spring and summer, lighting can be a serious concern to hikers. Whether you are above the tree line on a mountain top or walking through a large plain or valley, you should always be aware of the weather and know what to do in case of a lighting storm. In short, find a grove of smaller trees to hide in and crouch down onto your toes. If you are with a group, spread yourselves out to reduce chances of all of you getting hit. Caves and rock overhangs might look dry and safe, but you are better off staying outside of them since lighting can jump across shallow cave openings — only deep caves will offer protection. For more information about staying safe in a lighting storm while hiking, read the Hiking Dude’s guide to lightning safety.
  • Rain and snow shouldn’t stop you from going on a hike, but if you intend on becoming wet and cold during a hike, make sure you have dry clothes to change into afterwards. Whether it’s back at your car or once you set up camp for the night, you will want to change into something warm and dry so you don’t get hypothermia.

Plants

  • Trees will kill you — if they fall on you that is. Don’t take a lunch break under a dead tree or a tree with a dead limb. A sudden gust of wind can make that dead wood fall right on top of you. Also, setting up your tent under the cover of trees is nice, especially when it’s raining, but make sure those trees aren’t going to fall over and crush you in your sleep.
  • Know how to identify poison ivy/oak/sumac. The last thing you want is to dig your cat hole in a patch of poison ivy and not find out until you start itching later. Avoiding these plants is your best bet, but if you do think you came in contact with them just wash up with soap and water to try and get the skin irritating oils off of you as soon as you can — if you wash them off within a few minutes of contact it is likely you won’t develop a rash.
  • Trails should be mostly clear of stinging nettles, prickers, and other sharp plants, but be aware of and avoid them anyway. They are not fun.

Animals

  • Ticks can carry Lyme disease which is something you want to avoid. Wear long sleeves and pants if the weather is cool enough to avoid them landing on you and biting into your skin. If you do find a tick on you, remove it immediately. As long as you remove the tick within the first 12 hours of contact, you should avoid contracting Lyme disease. After hiking or before going to bed, do a tick check to make sure you don’t have any on you.
  • Mosquitos suck. Bring bug spray, especially something with DEET. If you want to be all hippy about it and use only natural products, that’s fine, but maybe you are not the kind of person who gets eaten alive by mosquitos. But if you are like me and the mosquitos are determined to drink your blood, then use something with DEET in it.
  • Speaking of bears, although I mentioned that bears should be the least of your concerns you still don’t want to be stupid around them. Always make your presence known while hiking (shouting “hey bear” every once in a while seems to be effective status quo message) so as to not sneak up and startle a bear. Bells around your ankles or on your bag don’t work as well. Wild, non-habituated-to-humans bears will attack you if they feel threatened, like if you sneak up on them while hiking. If you do spot a bear in the distance, be loud and make your presence known. Slowly back away and give the bear room. The bear will probably do its own thing and walk the other way. Don’t ever run from a bear, because 1)they are faster than you and 2)by running you are initiating a game of cat and mouse. 99.99999% of the time this is all you need to know. For more information, read a book on the subject — I highly recommend Bear Attacks Their Causes and Avoidance by Stephen Herrero. The author has lived among and studied bears his whole life and hasn’t been injured by a bear yet. Also, this book is really fun to read on a plane — people will most definitely ask you questions about what you are reading.
  • Poisonous snakes, mountain lions, and other predatory animals: these animals probably aren’t interested in you as a food source. Make your presence known, heed any warning signs, and stay out of their way.

Safety precautions

In addition to being aware of the above scenarios, it’s also good to take a few additional safety measures when going out into the backcountry.

  • Let someone know when and where you are going and when you should be back. If you aren’t back on time, they can inform a search and rescue team to go find you.
  • Know where the closest hospitals are and have their phone numbers handy. If you do need someone to take you to get medical attention, or you need to take someone yourself, at least you will know where to go.
  • Always talk to rangers about where you plan on hiking. They will let you know of any dangerous conditions, or if certain areas are closed due to washed out trails, fire danger, animal activity, etc… Listen to these warnings/closures and don’t get upset if you have to change your plans. If you do end up hiking somewhere that you aren’t supposed to, then you are dumb. This is how people get eaten by bears.
  • Finally, know some general first aid skills and carry a first aid kit on longer hikes/overnight trips. Usually the worst injuries you will receive are a cut or a blister. Being prepared to treat these are important though, otherwise infection will spread and you will not be a happy camper.