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Back in 2014, pro climber Alex Honnold gave us a tour of the 2002 Ford Econoline E150 he used as his mobile base camp. That van served him...
Maybe it’s just me, but noisy neighbors, overflowing dumpsters, and smelly bathrooms combine to represent the exact opposite of the experience I’m looking for when I camp. But campgrounds aren’t intimidating and make spending a night outdoors as easy as possible. Is there some way you can leave them behind without sacrificing convenience?
This is my attempt to give you the tools you need to leave crowded sites behind forever.
The other week, I wrote a basic guide to understanding and using all the different types of public lands. The relevant thing to this discussion is that while we’re drawn to the iconic attractions found in national parks, camping is often easier and more fun in the National Forest and Bureau of Land Management acreage that surrounds those parks.
On that less regulated land, camping is typically permitted pretty much anywhere, with some basic guidelines I’ll cover below; you’re free to just go find a pretty spot and camp there.
The trouble is that freedom also comes with a big unknown. What’s up that dirt road? The answer could just as easily be a locked gate or vehicle-damaging obstacle as it could be a beautiful lake. Lucky for you, a new app called OnX Offroad combines in-depth dirt-road navigation data with detailed maps into one slick, intuitive solution that you can use even after you leave cell reception behind.
Empowered with those two pieces of knowledge—freedom to camp on national forest and BLM land, plus the ability to navigate them—your approach to finding an epic site can simply be identifying a general area in which you want to go, asking yourself how far down a dirt road you want to travel, then looking for a cool destination. That’s the approach I use when I’m planning a camping trip, whether it be a night outdoors just outside town, a destination for a big trip, or just a place to crash when I’m travelling.
Camping outside of a designated campground on U.S. Forest Service or BLM land means that you’re doing something called dispersed camping. There are some basic guidelines to doing that in order to minimize your impact.
For further guidance, consult Leave No Trace.
Organized campgrounds provide picnic tables, fire rings, grills, bathrooms, and dumpsters. That probably gives you some idea of the extra stuff you’re going to need to bring along. Let’s start there.
The more you learn about the all of the above through your own experience or by reading reviews and other articles here at Outside, the more comfortable you’ll be. You don’t need to spend a fortune buying the best stuff out there; in fact, I’d encourage you not to. Learn what works for you over time, and scale your gear according to your budget and your own personal needs.
First: you’ll be fine. But you’ll be more fine if you analyze risks and take some precautions.
Critters: You will not be attacked by animals. But bears, rodents, and birds might get into your food at night. By taking care to clean up camp before you leave it or before you go to bed, then storing anything that may contain food odor either in a strong cooler or inside your locked vehicle, you’ll avoid attracting animals to your campsite.
Bad Weather: This is probably your biggest concern. Look up weather reports ahead of time, but realize that in the mountains, weather can be localized, unpredictable, and extreme. Note that you’ll also lose 3.3 degrees for every 1,000 feet you gain in elevation. Prepare for colder, wetter conditions than you expect to face and you’ll guarantee your comfort.
Getting Lost: Practice using offline navigation apps ahead of time, then make sure you take along the ability to charge your device both while driving and in camp. Bring a backup map. Use the buddy system to ensure that no one leaves camp or travels to and from it alone. When group camping, I always rendezvous with friends in a town where there’s cell reception, then travel to the destination in convoy. Radios—or simply a basic group travel plan where every vehicle is responsible for keeping an eye on the one behind it—are great insurance against someone falling behind. Plan on arriving at your destination several hours before nightfall.
Getting Sick: We’re talking about car camping here, so just take a gallon of bottled water per person per day for everyone to drink, plus a little extra for washing up after cooking. If you must drink water you find outdoors, bring it to a rolling boil for at least one minute before cooling and consuming it. Use hand sanitizer after going to the bathroom or touching raw food.
Breaking Down: If you’ll be traveling on dirt roads, potentially way out in the middle of nowhere, then this is something you need to spend a little time on. First, scale your trips so that they’re suitable both to your experience and the capabilities of your vehicle. Then, as you drive, constantly analyze obstacles and conditions, and make a plan for tackling them. There’s no shame in turning around and staying safe if you feel something is beyond your ability. The most frequent problem you’ll encounter is a flat tire. Make sure you know how to change a tire and that your spare is inflated and in good condition. I’d also encourage every driver doing anything to carry both a puncture repair kit and air compressor, and to practice using those ahead of time. When in doubt, travel with at least one other vehicle.
Spend enough time engaged in bicycle-commuting-themed online discourse and complaining about how nobody pays any attention to you and it’s only a matter of time before someone recommends you put some kind of horn on your bike.
There are various models of high-decibel bicycle horns with flatulent-sounding names available on the market—the AirZound, the Loud Bicycle, the BioLogic Blast—and they each have their devotees. Bike horn enthusiasts also love to make YouTube videos depicting the ostensible effectiveness of their noisemakers in an urban environment. One such rider explains the appeal of the bike horn thusly:
“Stepping off the curb looking into your phone is just insane in New York,” Eugene D. says. The horn cures all that—anytime Eugene activates it, it triggers a reaction in people like they just realized they’re walking into the path of a freight train. “It makes me laugh every time,” he says.
Of course, not everybody appreciates being assaulted with soundwaves, to which Eugene has this to say:
Eugene is unsympathetic. “It just hurts when you realize how unaware people are,” he says. “They think I’m the jerk for following the rules.”
Okay, firstly, Eugene is not following the rules. Honking your horn in New York City in a non-emergency situation is illegal and carries a $350 fine. Granted, this law is enforced so seldomly that the city took down all its no-honking signs back in 2013, but it’s the law nonetheless. Secondly, anybody who unleashes 125 decibels of noise upon total strangers on a regular basis and is not a member of a rock and roll ensemble is, indeed, a complete and utter jerk. (Though frankly much stronger anatomically-themed epithets leap to mind.)
In fairness to Eugene and his horn-honking ilk, it’s understandable that they’re compelled to emulate the behavior of motorists; the message that “bicyclists have all the same rights and responsibilities as motorists” is pervasive in American culture. However, that message is also a complete load of shit, and if you’re going to copy drivers when you’re out on your bike, using a horn is probably the dumbest piece of equipment you can appropriate.
The thing is, horns are inherently stupid and profoundly antisocial, and their very existence is proof of their own uselessness. This is because by the time you’re honking at something you’ve already seen it, and you’ve got plenty of time to react accordingly. Whether you’re in a car or on a bike, if a pedestrian steps out in front of you and you honk at them, you’re doing nothing to promote either their safety or your own. All you’re really doing is scolding them with your Claxon of Shame because they made you feather your brakes for half a second.
I know what you’re thinking: “What nonsense! Car horns prevent collisions! Just the other day I honked at someone who pulled out of the Whole Foods parking lot without looking and they stopped! If I didn’t have a horn I’d have plowed right into them with my Subaru!” Maybe so. In a perfect world drivers would only apply their horns when absolutely necessary, and cars would anally electrocute drivers who use them in non-emergency situations. But our world is far from perfect, and these relatively rare legitimate scenarios do almost nothing to redeem the car horn for being a blight on the cityscape. The rest of the time, the horn merely gives voice to the toddler mindset of the typical driver, and it’s nothing more than a loud, annoying noise they make in order to communicate that they’re angry. Or tired. Or bored. Or hungry. Or that they just shit their diaper. For every one warning honk that may have miraculously transformed a collision course into a near miss, there are a million assholes sitting in traffic jams right now, sounding their horns for no other good reason than to scream “I DON’T LIKE THIS” into the void. And like burnt-out parents, we’ve become desensitized to the incessant bleating, and it serves only to make us resent the source.
(And yes, I realize that in the 21st century the primary use of the car horn is now to alert the phone-addled driver in front of you that the light has changed. For this, I propose a far better and considerably more quiet alternative: nudge them with your bumper. Maybe if we pierce the bubble of driver insularity people will start taking their motoring responsibilities more seriously.)
A cargo ship captain in heavy fog needs a horn; some schmuck in a Hyundai does not. As for the cyclist, befouling a bicycle with a loud horn is like putting a distortion pedal on a Stradivarius, or like gluing great big hairy Popeye arms onto the Venus de Milo. And if you must make noise while riding your bike, we’ve got access to this delightfully sonorous auditory warning system called a bell. Like a horn, it too carries over long distances in order to communicate intent, and yet unlike a horn it does not inspire rage in others. When sharing the streets with your fellow humans, you should be taking your cues from Buddhist monks and not from the engineers at General Motors.
Now stop honking and go meditate on that.
You may have seen Nirmal Purja’s photo of the huge line of climbers queued up on their way to the summit of Mount Everest and thought, “Wow, I wonder if I could do that someday?”
Well, you can. Not climb Mount Everest, necessarily, but you can definitely wait in line to do something. Here are eight other epic lines that you can access much more easily than you can that line of climbers in 8,000-meter suits just below the Hillary Step on Mount Everest.
On Monday, four-time Olympic gold medalist Mo Farah won the London 10,000, an annual road race that finishes in front of Buckingham Palace. With no serious international competition in the field, Farah was the clear favorite, but he still took the opportunity to celebrate the victory with his trademark “Mobot” sign as he broke the tape. You can’t blame him. Farah was coming off a rough couple of weeks.
In case you missed it, at a press conference prior to last month’s London Marathon, Farah injected the proceedings with a heavy dose of awkwardness when he decided, apropos of nothing, to announce that he’d had items stolen from his room when he stayed at a hotel owned by Ethiopian distance running legend Haile Gebrselassie. The incident, which sparked off a public feud between two giants of the sport, made Farah come off as vindictive—willing to degrade the ambiance of the world’s most competitive marathon with his personal vendetta. Then again, the marathon itself didn’t turn out to be all that competitive; Eliud Kipchoge trounced the field to win his ninth consecutive Marathon Major. Farah finished a disappointing fifth.
More recently, Farah has been getting trolled for doing a series of paid posts on his Instagram and Twitter feeds in which he promotes a cleaning product called “Mr. Muscle.” Of course, in 2019 there’s nothing unusual about celebrities moonlighting as social media influencers, but the image of “Sir Mo” scrubbing his bathroom tiles in sweatpants was too good for some people to resist.
“Dude is broke AF,” a poster using the alias “mo debt mo problems” wrote in that famed repository of goodwill, the LetsRun message boards.
I don’t know anything about Farah’s pending insolvency, but, for the first time, I feel compelled to write a few words in his defense.
Not that he needs it. Farah’s achievements on the track speak for themselves: back-to-back Olympic gold in both the 5,000 and 10,000-meters. (It’s a feat only accomplished by one other athlete, Finland’s Lasse Viren, who owned the mid-‘70s.) Farah also has won back-to-back-to-back titles in both events at the biennial IAAF World Championships. Nobody else has done that.
When Farah was at the height of his powers on the track, a period that spans roughly from the 2012 and 2016 Games, there was a sense of inevitability to his races: it didn’t matter how many times he drifted to the back of the pack, or even if he fell down in a race—you knew he was going to destroy everybody on the final lap. As is the case with Eliud Kipchoge and his current marathon streak, Farah exhibited a level of mastery and control that defied what is supposed to be possible in a sport where so much can go wrong every time you step on the line.
But while Kipchoge is regarded with near-unanimous adulation, Farah has been scrutinized for his associations with Alberto Salazar and Jama Aden, coaches who have both been accused of doping-related misconduct. (Farah left Salazar’s Oregon Project in 2017. Although he was never officially coached by Aden, Farah mentions him in his 2013 autobiography Twin Ambitions, writing that he and Aden had known each other for years.) Beyond that, there’s also a profound difference in attitude. Kipchoge approaches his profession with zen-like placidity, while Farah is far more brash. Can you imagine Kipchoge dissing one of his competitors on Twitter with a Taylor Swift reference?
To his credit, Farah is not afraid to also make jokes at his own expense. In the midst of the kerfuffle during the lead-up to the London Marathon, the running media world was treated to a viral clip of Farah cartoonishly falling off a treadmill set to Kipchoge’s world record-setting pace. In the Twittersphere, there were murmurs that such slapstick antics were unbefitting of an elite marathoner a few days prior to a major race. For some, it further cemented the difference between Kipchoge the stoic and Farah the publicity-seeking showboat.
It’s certainly true that Farah doesn’t mind a little bit of attention. The “Mobot” was created in 2012 on “A League of Their Own,” a sports-themed game show on which Farah has been a guest four times. A prodigious social media user, Farah has his own YouTube channel and nearly 900,000 followers on Instagram—by far the most of any pro distance runner. His Instagram profile pic captures the moment when he was knighted in 2017.
Does this all amount to a kind of arrogance? Of course it does. But wouldn’t you be arrogant, too, if you were a child refugee from Somalia who grew up to become one of the most accomplished athletes in the world? And whatever you might want to say about Farah, you can’t accuse him of not doing his part for the publicity-starved sport of distance running. Arguably the most impressive aspect of his 10K win on Monday was that he was racing again, not even a full month removed the London Marathon. These days, Kipchoge only competes twice a year.
Speaking of the Boss Man, on Wednesday it was announced that Kipchoge will be writing a blog in the lead-up to his next attempt to run a marathon in under two hours. It’s theoretically possible that this was his own idea. Who knows? Maybe Kipchoge has a burning desire to share his private thoughts with a bunch of nerdy strangers on the Internet. But if I had to bet, I would guess one of his sponsors has asked the world’s greatest marathoner to put himself out there a little more.
Here, for once, Farah can show Kipchoge how it’s done.
Two years ago, the Outdoor Industry Association released a report estimating the national economic impact of the outdoor industry at $887 billion a year. That number has since become a sort of gospel for people looking to push pro-public lands policies across the finish line and invest in recreation economies at a local level around the country.
But what that number didn’t capture was the direct impact recreation has on the local growth of mountain towns and similar outdoor-oriented communities. A new report from Headwaters Economics, a Bozeman-based nonprofit research group, does just that. The report found that a county with recreation attracts more new residents, higher incomes, and faster earnings growth than a county without recreation, particularly for areas designated as rural (less than 10,000 residents) and micropolitan (less than 50,000 residents).
“We already knew that having outdoor recreation nearby brings tourists to your community,” says Megan Lawson, an economist at Headwaters and author of the study. “But what we didn’t have great information on was whether that tourist and those amenities translate into people actually wanting to move to and live in these communities.”
Lawson looked at each county in the U.S. that the Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service designated as a “recreation county”—meaning that the local economy is primarily dependent on entertainment and recreation, as well as the associated hospitality industry—and found that while many tourism-dependent communities are known for their low-paying service jobs, the people moving there tend to be wealthier. And though recreation county wages are lower on average, they are growing at a pace that will soon meet or exceed the wages of non-recreation counties. Places with recreation are seeing a steady trickle of people moving in rather than moving away—something particularly significant for rural America, which is losing more residents than it is gaining.
“Outdoor recreation is being seen as a legitimate economic development strategy,” says Lawson. “It’s not just ski bums and dirt bags any more that are the face of an outdoor recreation economy. It’s the entrepreneurs that are moving to a community, bringing their families and their businesses.”
But this influx of higher incomes and wealthier residents is not without its challenges, as any member of the workforce in Bozeman, Truckee, Jackson, Crested Butte, or any other mountain town could tell you.
Rapid growth in many recreation communities means a higher cost of living, affordable housing challenges, and development encroaching into wildfire-prone and other vulnerable landscapes. If we aren’t careful, the report warns, these risks could outstrip the benefits of a growing recreation-based economy.
“The local government has to play an active role in countering that. It’s not something that will just fix itself,” says Stacy Corless, commissioner for California's Mono County, home to Mammoth.
That can take many forms—from paying for basic needs and services to making high speed internet available to accelerating innovative housing solutions for a town’s workforce. And on top of all that, local governments in outdoor destinations are often the ones who step in to invest in recreation infrastructure when no one else can.
“What we’ve come to recognize is that we need the recreational amenities of our public lands to be in good shape, for our own quality of life, for our communities, but also for our recreation and tourism-based economies,” says Corless. This includes “really basic things like making sure bathrooms get opened in time for the annual fishing season opener. The Forest Service is only budgeted to start doing that stuff on Memorial Day, so we cover the cost and we have our contractor go in and open the bathrooms, clean the bathrooms, and empty trash dumpsters. And I think things like that happen all over the west in rural counties.”
Despite the tradeoffs and active role local governments would have to play to both support and grow and then ultimately deal with the cons associated with recreation economies, the findings from Headwaters Economics show that investing in this kind of recreation infrastructure could be a game changer for many communities.
“There are definitely communities that are looking at recreation, and they want to have those problems associated with too many people moving to town,” says Lawson. “It’s important to recognize that recreation is not a silver bullet for every place. It’s not the case where you build a trail, people will come, the rivers will flow with milk and honey and all of our problems will be solved. It’s one option in the toolbox. But for some places, it might be a good fit.”
By the time professional runner Kate Grace decided to move from Bend, Oregon, to Sacramento, California, in the summer of 2015, she’d become a reluctant expert in the anatomy of the foot and lower leg. She’d endured a metatarsal stress fracture in her foot, a nasty case of plantar fasciitis, tendinitis in her flexor hallucis longus, and a tear in her plantar plate, a ligament-like structure under the ball of the foot. Her new coach at the NorCal Distance Project, Drew Wartenburg, sent her an e-mail before she arrived. To be successful, she would need to stay healthy, he explained, and to stay healthy, she should start making Jell-O.
Wartenburg, a former director of track and cross country at the University of California at Davis, was following the advice of Keith Baar, who heads the university’s Functional Molecular Biology Lab. Over the past decade, Baar and his colleagues have been growing “engineered ligaments” in their lab, then subjecting them to all sorts of abuse to understand what factors affect injury risk. Their conclusion: in our obsessive pursuit of stronger muscles and hearts, we’ve failed to understand how to train and feed connective tissue like ligaments, tendons, bones, and cartilage.
The traditional view is that connective tissue is essentially inert. When Danish scientists analyzed Achilles tendons from cadavers a few years ago, they found telltale traces of carbon isotopes emitted into the atmosphere by nuclear-bomb testing in the 1950s and ’60s—indicating that in the average person, repair and regeneration of the tendon’s core pretty much stops by age 18. That lack of turnover is one of the main reasons tendon and ligament injuries take so long to heal.
But Baar’s petri-dish ligaments, grown from the remnants of ruptured ACLs collected during reconstructive surgeries, suggest there are ways to wake up that inert connective tissue and promote healing. When the ligaments are “exercised” by stretching, they respond by synthesizing new collagen—but the molecular response peaks in about ten minutes and begins to switch off if exercise continues beyond that time. A two-hour workout may be great for your biceps and cardiovascular system, but it’s counterproductive for your tendons.
The engineered ligaments also respond to certain amino acids like proline, a key component of collagen. To figure out the best way to administer proline to humans, Baar did some online research and concluded that the best option was that old-school dinner-party staple, gelatin. He teamed up with the Australian Institute of Sport to test the idea in a double-blind trial. Blood tests of participants showed that jumping rope for just six minutes, three times a day, doubled rates of collagen synthesis. When subjects consumed 15 grams of gelatin an hour before each mini workout, with some vitamin C to help catalyze the reaction, collagen synthesis doubled again.
Since those results first began to circulate in late 2016, Baar has been crisscrossing the world giving seminars to NFL teams, European soccer clubs, Australian rugby squads, and others. In October, he published a case report in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism detailing his work with an NBA shooting guard who had struggled with chronic patellar tendinopathy in his knee since the age of 16. Twice a week, the player drank a mix of gelatin and vitamin-C-rich orange juice; then, an hour later, he did a ten-minute sequence of isometric (no movement) leg exercises. After a year and a half, the damaged core of the tendon—the part that supposedly doesn’t change after the age of 18—looked normal on an MRI done by an independent orthopedic surgeon. The player, Baar says, has kept up the routine as a preventive measure and has convinced most of his teammates to follow suit.
That sort of n-of-one evidence is not enough to convince some skeptics that the collagen you eat will actually be delivered in a useful form to the right place in the body. “Everyone is always looking for the magic treatment,” Jill Cook, a prominent tendon expert at La Trobe University in Australia, says of the gelatin research. “There isn’t one.” And Baar himself acknowledges that, as word of his research has spread, some athletes may be developing unrealistic expectations. For example, just eating gelatin, without doing exercises to help new collagen fibers grow in the right orientation, probably won’t help. “You’ll just build a stronger scar,” Baar says. (The optimal form of exercise depends on what type of connective tissue you’re trying to strengthen. See “Doctor’s Notes,” below.)
Still, the idea is gaining currency. A few research groups in the UK and Australia have started investigating gelatin’s prospective benefits. And Grace, who is now based in Portland, Oregon, showed up at practice for a workout recently to find that one of her Bowerman Track Club teammates had brought packages of hydrolyzed collagen—a form of gelatin that has undergone further processing—to share, from a company she was considering endorsing. (Hydrolyzed collagen is a little easier to use than gelatin, since it doesn’t require boiling and setting. It’s not yet clear whether it’s equally effective for tendons, but some preliminary research in Baar’s lab suggests it probably is.)
Despite the questions that remain about collagen’s effectiveness, Grace is definitely a convert. The start of her gelatin habit coincided with a magical year that saw her break her injury streak, win the 800 meters at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials, and make the final in Rio. “All this good stuff happened, so I’ve definitely kept up the Jell-O thing,” she says. She posted her gelatin recipe on Instagram, and continues to take it—mixed with frozen berries for vitamin C—a few times a week. And she also discovered that her mother, the 1980s VHS fitness icon Kathy Smith, was taking hydrolyzed collagen for her hair, nails, and skin. That gave Grace a more tangible incentive to stick with the program. “It’s like a positive feedback loop,” she says. “I see an effect on my nails, so maybe my tendons are also getting stronger.”
Gelatin alone won’t cure you. According to researcher Keith Baar, its role is to amplify the effects of exercise on the targeted tissue. But you need to optimize the exercise for the connective tissue you’re trying to heal or strengthen.
Tendon Aid: Use isometric holds to allow the healthy part of a tendon to gradually relax, shifting the load—and the trigger to heal—onto the damaged tissue. To help heal an Achilles tendon, for example, stand on your toes on one leg, hold for 30 seconds, and repeat three to five times with 30-second breaks.
Bone Medicine: While tendons and ligaments have gotten most of the attention in Baar’s research, bone is also a form of collagen-rich connective tissue—and thus responds to a modified version of the same protocol. Instead of tension, use jarring impulses to trigger bone remodeling: try six minutes of jumping rope to ward off stress fractures in the foot and lower leg.
Timing: Take 15 grams of prepared food-grade gelatin with roughly 200 milligrams of vitamin C between 30 and 60 minutes before each workout. The workouts should not exceed ten minutes, and should be at least six hours before or after other exercise. For injury prevention, aim for two to three sessions per week. For rehab after an acute injury, start as soon as possible (with a reduced load if necessary) and do up to three mini workouts per day, separated by six hours.
On May 31, Alexandera Houchin will line up with 66 men and 15 women for the start of the second annual Dirty Kanza Extra Large. The 350-mile, invitation-only, ultra-endurance gravel-cycling challenge may sound benign enough—it’s in Kansas, after all—but this year’s race climbs more than 15,433 feet through the state’s often wind-whipped, mud-soaked Flint Hills. It’s masochistic by any cyclist’s standards, but Houchin isn’t fazed.
“I pretty much only eat Snickers and drink Powerade because these shorter races are a solid push-through,” she says. “I don’t bring sleeping gear, and I never wear padded shorts. I’ll just wear my cutoffs and my boots. I always ride with flat pedals.”
Last July, Houchin, who is a member of the Fond Du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa in northeastern Minnesota, was the first woman to finish that year’s Tour Divide, a 2,745-mile race that started in Banff, Alberta, and ended in Antelope Wells, New Mexico, an effort that took her 23 days 3 hours. It’s a big win, but it’s unlikely that anyone who doesn’t closely follow endurance cycling has seen or heard of Houchin. She’s vehemently opposed to social media and can’t post selfies because, as she says, she still rocks a flip phone. To see her speak in person, however, as I did one frigid night last winter at a Duluth Explorers Club meeting, is to know that she’s unlike anyone the cycling world has ever seen.
“Alexandera is a positive force of nature that people gravitate toward,” says George Kapitz, the owner of Broken Spoke Bike Studio in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and one of Houchin’s two sponsors. (The other is the Austin, Texas, custom-bike manufacturer Chumba.) “No challenge is too much. In fact, the harder the better. She has determination and the ability to persevere.”
Houchin’s training, racing, and school schedule is packed. Over the winter she set the women’s course record on Wisconsin’s 80-mile Tuscobia Winter Ultra despite having eight flats; scratched out of the 300-mile Arizona Trail Race in April after a series of logistical snafus; and, two weeks before the Dirty Kanza, crushed the 390-mile course at the under-the-radar Almanzo event in southern Minnesota on her fat bike. All this while finishing a full semester of classes in quantitative analysis, physics, organic chemistry, and American Indian studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth. She hopes to graduate next year.
Despite her frenetic life, the 29-year-old agrees to meet me for coffee on a blustery spring day before she commutes—often by bike—35 miles back to the reservation, where she lives with her mom after having reestablished a relationship with her mother and Ojibwe roots as an adult, to talk about last summer’s win and the upcoming DKXL.
“I can just go, go, go,” laughs Houchin, who is wearing a choker necklace, a nose ring, and a Broken Spoke Bike Studio sweatshirt. “I might not be the fastest person, but I can definitely go longer than you. Doing these races, it’s just you against the elements and the wild. I have this great relationship with the earth and the weather.”
Houchin didn’t always have that bond with nature. She grew up in a trailer park with her divorced single father in Janesville, Wisconsin, and weighed more than 300 pounds when she graduated from high school. Her first experience riding a bike was commuting on a heavy old Schwinn she spray-painted purple and rode 20 miles round-trip to her job at the University Hospital in Madison.
“I was 20 years old and 70 pounds overweight,” she says. “It would take two hours to ride ten miles.”
When her bike was stolen, Houchin searched Craigslist, bought a fixed gear, and rode it home.
“That’s when I realized there were no brakes on my new bike, but I kept riding it because it was the only bike I had,” she says. Her prowess with the fixie impressed a cyclist friend, which led her to getting a bike-delivery job for Jimmy John’s, which led her to lose more weight, which led her to dream up a bike tour from Tucson to Canada with a bike-messenger friend. Her plan was to pedal to Canada, then race the Tour Divide back to Tucson. Instead, Houchin fell in love with her friend, ran out of money by the time she reached Whitefish, Montana, and lost her race mojo.
“It felt so bad to quit because in everything I do I try to live and breathe what I say, and I didn’t, so I had to make a comeback for myself,” Houchin says. She made a pact with herself to compete in eight races in her 28th year, including the Smoke and Fire Ultra, a 400-mile race through Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains, and made another attempt at the Tour Divide, this time with success.
“I had a really big realization this year,” Houchin tells me. “I won the Tour Divide and a bunch of opportunities presented themselves, but I was torn. I could be a better bike racer if I could spend more time on my bike, but it’s pretty important that I make an impact in Indian country by giving back to my community.”
After college, Houchin plans to go to dental school and become the first registered member of the Fond du Lac band to be a practicing dentist on the reservation. According to the Society of American Indian Dentists, there are fewer than 200 enrolled tribal members who are dentists, yet there’s a need for 3,000 nationwide.
“I don’t like the spin that reservations are poor, impoverished places, but I do see people really struggling here,” says Houchin of her own home. “I wouldn’t have been able to go to college without my tribe’s support. We’re still a nation within this big mechanism of the United States after all these years. When I ride my bike, I think about that. We still exist because we never give up.”
A bipartisan bill introduced to the Senate last week promises to bring substantial regulatory relief to an industry—and it's not oil and gas. No, the industry that’s going to benefit this time is outdoor recreation, specifically all the guides and outfitters operating on public land.
Introduced by Senators Martin Heinrich, a Democrat from New Mexico, and Shelley Moore Capito, a Republican from West Virginia, the Simplifying Outdoor Access for Recreation Act (SOAR) promises to do the following:
Coming so soon after the successful passage of the Dingell Act and the introduction of the Outdoor Recreation Therapy for Veterans Act in the House of Representatives, SOAR is both a boon for the outdoor recreation industry and a further sign that its nascent political efforts are bearing fruit. And it sounds like the people running guiding businesses are excited.
“Outdated regulations in the permitting system have made it time consuming, unpredictable, and in many cases-impossible-for outdoor organizations and businesses to provide outdoor experiences for the public on public lands,” said Alex Kosseff, executive director at the American Mountain Guides Association, in a statement. “The Simplifying Outdoor Access for Recreation Act removes old roadblocks to facilitated outdoor recreation and enables more Americans to get outside and enjoy public lands.”
“The outdoor provider community has consistently struggled with the complexity of the federal recreational permit system," stated Rebecca Bear, director of REI's Outdoor Programs and Experiences. “Streamlining the application process will help outdoor organizations more rapidly get people outside and promote an outdoor life.”
Should the bill pass, how will you, the average outdoor enthusiast, benefit? It should lead to more affordable and wider access to guiding services, but perhaps the most important benefactor will be future backpackers, mountain climbers, anglers, and hunters. Youth organizations like the YMCA, Boy Scouts, and even schools will either be able to access guide services for the first time or do so with less expense and red tape.
“Easing the currently complicated and restrictive process will enable youth-serving organizations like the Y to share nature’s wonders with many more kids and families and instill in our youth a lifelong appreciation for the outdoors,” said Kevin Washington, the president and CEO of YMCA, in a statement.
I named my first running watch “Clarence,” as in Clarence Odbody, angel second class, of It’s a Wonderful Life fame. I figured the device, a green Garmin Forerunner 10, would help me find my wings while running the marshy trails of my southern New Jersey home.
Psychologists have a word for this habit of naming or assigning human traits to objects and nonhuman creatures: anthropomorphism. Even if you’re unfamiliar with the term, you’re likely acquainted with the concept—70 percent of us name our cars, and 36 percent of us cop to thinking of them as friends. (Guilty. I can’t part with my sputtery 2008 Subaru Outback—aka “Suby”—despite the 275,000 miles on her odometer and surf wax stains on her interior.)
We also commonly humanize animals, like the Galapagos tortoise who “broke up” with her tortoise partner of 100 years because she needed to firmly established her boundaries, and robots: the death of NASA’s Opportunity Rover made Twitter ugly cry.
Animals, robots, and even cars all move in human-like ways, and they all have faces or face-like configurations, something scientifically proven to increase anthropomorphic tendencies. But humanizing a running watch—or any piece of outdoor gear—is a bit more confounding. And yet plenty of us engage in this weird phenomenon. There are message boards and entire Reddit threads dedicated solely to the naming of fishing rods, bicycles, snowboards, hiking sticks, and (phew, I’m not alone) running watches. Even legendary frontiersman Davy Crockett affectionately referred to his bear rifle as “Ol’ Betsy.”
The practice could come down to loneliness. Research shows that people who lack fulfilling human relationships are more likely to anthropomorphize their stuff. This may hold true even as we head outdoors specifically to disconnect or commune with nature. But don’t go beefing up your Tinder page just yet. “Being human, we know a great deal about human behavior,” says Spencer Gerrol, clinical psychologist, CEO of neuroanalytics/advertising research company SPARK Neuro, and a guy who says “please” when making a request of his Amazon Echo. “So we want to put things in this context we understand. The habit comes partly from wanting to explain the behavior of other things.”
In other words, we humanize our gear when we need to make sense of it. Consider Greg Senn, a New Mexico–based scuba instructor who says he treats his 30-year-old regulators and buoyancy device like “old friends.” When he finds himself speaking with his equipment, it’s typically because he’s trying to figure out what has gone wrong.
“I had problems with my dive computer while in Bonair, just north of Venezuela,” Senn says. “It was telling me my nitrox mix was wrong, and I knew it was lying. It took me five days to figure it out. Turns out I had a setting wrong—a simple mistake on my part. But talking to the computer helped me get to the bottom of it.”
In other cases, we anthropomorphize gear because we’re looking for a sentient, competent teammate who will help us pull through when things get hairy. Melissa Norberg, head of the Behavioural Science Laboratory at Australia’s Macquarie University, points to one study that suggests we humanize belongings when we’re feeling uncertain about our environment. “Someone might anthropomorphize a kayak or surfboard when navigating potentially dangerous waters,” she says.
Or, for Tanja Rosendorfsky, dangerous climbs. The 28-year-old mountaineer has summited peaks in Switzerland, New Zealand, Bolivia, Peru, and Patagonia. In each location, she has spoken to her equipment when she felt outside her comfort zone. “When I climb in snow and ice, I am talking to my ice axes,” Rosendorfsky says in an email. “I imagine them as friends who bite themselves into the ice to help me get up, and that calms my mind, which helps me to make safer, more solid placements. I say my ice axes and crampons are my best friends. They help me get up that mountain and feel what I feel up there.”
But it’s not just scary situations that prompt this feeling of camaraderie with our gear; it’s also the celebratory moments. Without human teammates to high-five, we’re sometimes inclined to invent our own. Jimmy Valm, a surfer in New Jersey, told me he has names for all his surfboards. “I talk to them constantly in the water: ‘That was a great ride. Nicely done, Nesta.’”
Of course, anthropomorphizing isn’t all warm and fuzzy. Humanizing gear also renders it more worthy of “moral care” in our minds, meaning we’re pained when it inevitably gets dinged or scratched, “even if those dings and scratches don’t really affect utility,” says Gerrol, the clinical psychologist. The habit also means we’re more likely to hang on to old gear longer than is practical, which can translate to cluttered sheds and garages.
Humanized gear gives us a window into ourselves. Because we’re more likely to anthropomorphize the things we value or the things that speak to our sense of identity, reflecting on what we’ve humanized can help us determine the pursuits that most light our fire, so to speak. And when we’re overcome with gratitude for having discovered such a passion, humanized gear gives us an outlet for that appreciation.
Kayaker Susan Servos-Sept, based in Half Moon Bay, north of Vancouver, has a 16-foot touring kayak named Daisy that she describes as “fun, cute, and gentle, but a lion when she needs to be.” Servos-Sept frequently takes Daisy into the beautiful waters of God’s Pocket Marine Park, home to many orca whales and a seabird breeding colony.
“Even though I have lots of friends and great family, it’s just an amazing calmness and quality of life this inanimate object gives me,” says Servos-Sept, adding she will pat—or even kiss—Daisy when walking by. “And that feeling, I think, radiates to other people, and it helps them develop that same happiness and joy of sport. It’s all quirky and weird, but it’s also just fun.”
If nothing else, humanized gear gives us an out. A compilation of six studies found that anthropomorphism weakens self-control and makes us more likely to cave to temptation. So the next time you find yourself calling in “sick” to work or bailing on a baby shower because the waves are up or the fish are running, know you’re not entirely accountable. You’ve got friends—er, gear—who can share the blame.
Of course, it’s possible none of these explanations apply to you. In that case, there’s one other rationale that will account for the inside jokes or long conversations you have with your favorite camping tent or carabiner, and it just might be the simplest one: “This habit is innate,” Gerrol says. “You're just being human.”
In his former life, Olympic gold medalist Björn Ferry was a frequent flier. He traveled 180 days of the year between training and competitions, armed with the cross-country skis and rifle characteristic of the biathlon, a sport that orignated in Scandanavia and combines nordic skiing with target shooting. In all, Ferry estimates that he traveled around 25,000 miles per year by plane and another 25,000 by car or minibus. “Back then I emitted 16 tons of CO2 per year,” he says with dismay. “[The] average in Sweden is eight. That doesn’t look so good.”
After breaking down his carbon footprint with an online carbon calculator, and realizing just how much air travel factored in, Ferry and his wife, world-champion arm wrestler Heidi Andersson, decided to change their ways. In 2015, they committed to stop flying and built a greenhouse to grow most of their own food. “Potatoes, berries—and we have a lot of elk, so we stopped buying meat in the store,” Ferry explains. “Altogether we’ve cut our emissions by 70 to 75 percent.”
Ferry and Andersson have been credited—or blamed, depending on who you ask—with provoking the feeling of flygskam, which translates to “flight shame.” The two went public with their commitment not to fly in a letter they coauthored in a Swedish newspaper in 2017 with eight other people, including youth-climate activist Greta Thunberg’s mother, the opera singer Malena Ernman. Thunberg herself stopped flying in 2015. At approximately one pound of CO2 emitted per passenger mile traveled, flying outpollutes all other modes of transit, compared with nine ounces of CO2 emitted per passenger mile by car and 0.79 ounces by train. Furthermore, plane emissions are released directly into the upper troposphere and lower stratosphere, where they alter the composition of atmospheric gasses that contribute to climate change. According to the independent organization Climate Central, every round-trip transatlantic flight emits enough CO2 to melt 30 square feet of Arctic sea ice.
Ferry says that while the term flygskam is associated with his name, he committed to stop flying before it was coined last year. The term has since been employed colloquially by Twitter users in various countries who are looking for help with train itineraries, coming clean about upcoming plans to fly, or calling out high-profile frequent fliers. Ferry says he thinks this social pressure has led Swedes to be more low profile in their travels. “People used to go on vacation and come home, post pictures, and say, ‘I’ve been to Egypt with my family, and I’ve seen these big stone pyres, and it was so great,’” he explains. “Now they go, but they don’t even say that they’ve been abroad.”
Traveling is a status symbol that people don’t know how to separate themselves from, says Maja Rosén of Sweden, who has been working on a more targeted campaign to get people to abstain from air travel, called We Stay on the Ground. Rosén made a quiet commitment to stop flying a decade ago, after facing what she refers to as a long, difficult “climate depression,” once she realized how much damage human-induced climate change has already made. She and her friend, graphic designer Lotta Hammar, are aiming to get 100,000 Swedes to commit to being flight-free in 2020. Last year they convinced 14,500. Now their campaign has spread to Belgium, Denmark, France, and the United Kingdom.
We Stay on the Ground isn’t pushing people to stop traveling. “But I think it’s important to change this norm that you have to go far to have a good life,” says Rosén. Since committing to not flying, she and her family have begun visiting one of Sweden’s northernmost islands, Nordkoster, each summer. “You take a train and then a ferry. And that island is so beautiful,” she says. Going there only emits 22 to 26 pounds of CO2 per person, as compared to approximately 2,200 pounds if they were to travel to Spain, or 6,600 pounds if they visited Thailand. If Nordkoster was situated somewhere more “exotic,” like the South Pacific, Rosén says she thinks it would be a more attractive travel destination for Swedes, who take an average of 1.2 international trips per year, putting its citizens fourth on the list of the world’s most frequent international travelers (Americans take an average of .2 trips a year). “It’s a bit ironic that more Swedes have been to Thailand than have been to that island,” she says. “We have paradise just around the corner, but it’s not something to talk about.... so many people just take it for granted.”
In addition to flight shaming on social media, there’s also a rising culture of making flight-free travel both retro and contemporary. Signs posted by climate-focused accounts like @theclimatecards (“FLY LESS to impress on Insta!”), and random users’ hometown portraits paired with messages to look more locally for adventure, challenge people to flaunt the decision to travel by rail or bus. Calls to action and messages like #smarterliving and #lessismore accompany the thousands of Instagram posts, with hashtags like #flyless, #flyfree, and #nofly.
Although this degree of pressure around not flying has seen more social traction in Europe, the climate conscious in the U.S. have been flying less for just about as long as their European counterparts. Over the past decade, thought leaders like NASA climate scientist Peter Kalmus have given up flying altogether, and others, like climate scientists Katharine Hayhoe of Texas Tech University and Kim Cobb of Georgia Tech, have drastically reduced the number of flights they take each year.
That’s more difficult in some parts of the U.S. “California is currently building a high-speed line, but I’m stuck in the Southeast with really old rail infrastructure and crumbling Amtrak service,” says Cobb. The U.S. doesn’t currently have the market to support continuous, affordable train travel in North America, she says, but it is essential to demonstrate the demand. In 2017, passengers logged 604 billion miles on air carriers, in comparison with 15 billion miles on commuter or light-rail means. “We need to look across the ocean on that,” Cobb says. In Sweden, to continue with the leader in the trend, a cultural shift has resulted in one out of six Swedes opting to take trains over planes. As The Guardian reports, train-centric travel companies like Centralens Resebutik announced an eightfold increase in sales in January 2019, as compared to two years ago.
In the U.S., websites dedicated to public commitments to cut down on air travel, like Kalmus’s No Fly Climate Sci, have targeted climate scientists across the world. But they’ve also attracted fly-less commitments from academics and average citizens, like Ken Garber, a 61-year-old science writer and rock climber based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Garber says traveling has actually gotten more exciting since he’s ditched air travel. Last summer he took a train from Michigan to Sandpoint, Idaho. After hopping off, he hitchhiked into British Columbia and made it most of the way to its Selkirk Mountains. “I never expected, at my age, to find myself pitching my tent by the side of the road when I couldn’t get a ride, or hopping on a train at 3 A.M. and trying to find my way to a place where I could sleep,” he says. “But I’ve met a tremendous number of local people who are fantastically friendly that I wouldn’t have met if I had been traveling in the conventional way.”
Despite the name of the movement, those committed to no flying insist they don’t actually mean to shame people. “I don’t write every day, ‘No one should fly!’ I just do it,” Ferry concurs. Part of the puzzle is to get others to believe there is a sustainable lifestyle that is also desirable. “If the answer is no, then we have no chance to curb emissions,” he says.
“We still travel, we still enjoy life,” Ferry says. It just takes more planning and patience. A recent work trip from his hometown of Storuman, Sweden—just south of the polar circle—to Antholz, Italy, took him about 50 hours by train. The trip was long, but it allowed him time for reading, listening, and thinking, time he never found as a frequent flier. And he says that his commitment is not a sacrifice. “I don’t dream about Mount Everest or anything,” he says. “I just put on some glasses, and I go to my neighborhood. I study the birds, I study the forest. There’s a lot to see.”
Seattle-based brand Outdoor Research opened a new factory in California, bringing its domestic manufacturing workforce to 200 people.
Outdoor Research has built some of its outdoor gear in the United States for decades. That’s in part because it makes a lot of products for elite military, law enforcement, and government agencies. Many of these groups must buy products from domestic manufacturers.
But now it’s expanding its domestic production of performance apparel and outdoor gear by investing in a new manufacturing facility that opened in April. The new factory doubles the number of Outdoor Research staff building apparel and gear onshore.
The new, wholly owned factory in El Monte, California, joins the manufacturing enterprise Outdoor Research has operated for decades at its Seattle headquarters.
Due to its military division, Outdoor Research has often dabbled in tip-of-the-spear technology very early in its development cycle. For example, it used GORE-TEX Stretch fabric in military applications more than a year before pushing it into consumer applications in 2018.
“Outdoor Research has a long history of successfully leveraging the best commercial market technologies to serve the needs of the U.S. armed forces,” the brand said in a press release.
“Innovations developed for the military and tactical markets have, in turn, driven innovations in products for outdoor consumers. Having highly skilled manufacturing located in the U.S. gives Outdoor Research the ability to prototype products on-site, allowing new products to be developed more quickly and to go through more rounds of improvement. In addition, innovations pioneered for the military and tactical markets have been incorporated into outdoor products.”
Michelle Wardian, president of Outdoor Research, said the new investment will allow the brand to accelerate its product-development cycle.
“We’re proud that we’ve been able to bring American manufacturing to the table to accomplish this,” Wardian said.
An Outdoor Research spokesman said that recently imposed tariffs on foreign goods did not affect its decision to open the second factory. But this move clearly positions the brand to manufacture more goods in the States.
Outdoor Research said it conducted a comprehensive review of the U.S. supply chain over the last 2 years. It’s in active development with textile mills and materials providers to expand and elevate the capabilities of U.S. manufacturers to improve the quality of products made solely in America.
The brand also said it made “significant” capital investments in cutting-edge machinery and process efficiency to improve and modernize its Seattle factory, along with hiring more site engineers. Outdoor Research replicated this template in El Monte to significantly increase its U.S. manufacturing capacity.
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On my first bikepacking trip, I spent 3 days in the saddle exploring the Marin Headlands in California. This is the gear I used.
On Friday I left work early, signing off email just after 2 p.m. With a holiday weekend ahead, I was hoping to avoid traffic getting out of San Francisco. Like hundreds of cyclists every day, I rode the bike path along Embarcadero and crossed the Golden Gate Bridge. I then gradually made my way up Hawk Hill, where I diverged from the crowd.
For the next 70-odd miles, I rode exclusively dirt and gravel. For the better part of the 3 days, I pedaled a loop through the Marin Headlands, up to Pt. Reyes, and back to the city. On my return trip, I climbed up Mt. Tam, the highest peak in the area, and down into Mill Valley. That put me back on a paved bike path through Sausalito and across the bridge.
Admittedly a novice, I got lost once and mistakenly added 8 miles to the loop. And I had other small mishaps on my fully loaded, 42-pound bike. I had a couple of minor falls, zero flats, 9,000 feet of climbing (often walking my bike), and countless puddles of mud. Using Trailforks to navigate and camping both nights in state parks, the trip cost me under $100, including a large ice cream cone at the end.
Along the way, I learned a lot about physics. A high center of gravity is detrimental on big descents and, despite wheel efficiency, carrying a lot of weight uphill is brutal. There were a few lessons on hydration as well, chiefly that it’s really important. And I had some revelations about the right gear for bikepacking, explained below.
Just 21 pounds including pedals and water bottles, the Diverge Comp is a carbon fiber gravel grinder ideal for this type of bikepacking. I wasn’t out to set course records or drop into gnarly singletrack. My goal was simply to have a little fun exploring in a new way.
The headset on the Diverge offers 20 mm of travel with a new technology called Future Shock, smoothing out a lot of the bumps and roots. With disc brakes and knobby trail tires, I felt stable on mud, loose dirt, and wet rock. With a lot of slogging uphill, I was thankful for the lightweight frame and fork, helping me move a little bit faster.
I opted to go with a streamlined bag system that fits nicely with the bike itself. Thus, I picked bags made by Specialized. I was impressed with all three bags, using the Specialized Top Tube Pack for snacks and accessories, the Burra Burra Framepack for heavier food and camping gear, and the Burra Burra Stabilizer Seatpack for clothing.
Together, they offered only 19 L of storage, forcing me to pack like a minimalist. If I were to do it again, I would add a handlebar pack to store some of the bulkier things. And I’d possibly place a few small bags on the fork to keep weight low.
Wanting more light in case I had to travel at night, I upgraded to CatEye’s premium headlight model. The CatEye 1600 Headlight gave me confidence in day and night. Not knowing how often I would be able to fill up water, I bought two CamelBak Peak Chill Bottles and a hydration pack, providing at least a half day’s worth of liquid. I always use clipless pedals when commuting. But I assumed I would be on and off my bike a lot, so I swapped my standard pedals out for a pair of Boomslang flats.
Wanting to pack light, I only brought one outfit. Because it was a solo trip, no one was around to tell me I smelled bad. I kept my kit simple and comfortable, using a suite of new products from Backcountry. I was most impressed with the stretch of the Empire Bike Shorts and the versatility of the Canyonlands Wind Jacket, keeping me warm and dry as needed.
The Ambush helmet breathes well, offers a high level of safety, and has visors to keep a little rain out of my face. The ROKA sunglasses kept bugs out of my eyes and helped me see more of the trail in front of me — it’s one of the best purchases I’ve made this year. And last, the Specialized 2FO Shoes are waterproof and sturdy, keeping me dry through puddles and securely hooking with the pedals for a better riding feel, especially on the downhill portions.
I’ve used a variety of hydration packs over the years. CamelBak is my favorite due to the brand’s intuitive design and snug fit. The CamelBak Protector 20 Pack does this and more, offering a back protection plate, 3L water reservoir, rain cover, and 17 L of space for gear, which became crucial for me to make this trip happen. I slept in a Carbon Reflex — one of the lightest tents I’ve ever used — and was impressed with how well it held up to the rain. And I carried a WindBurner stove to heat up water for meals and coffee.
Speaking of food, I feasted on a wide variety of snacks like gels, blocks, bars, and almond butter, with most of my daytime calories coming from GU Energy gels and Bobo’s bars. At morning and night, I ate Good To-Go dehydrated meals, which are delicious and filling even after long days in the saddle.
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