Busting Nature Myths: Moss Edition

The Pacific Northwest is a mossy place.

It’s a wilderness survival myth as old as the trees, purported to be as navigationally significant as the north star and the directionality of the sunrise. When you’re disoriented in the woods, you can find north (or south, in the southern hemisphere) according to the growth of moss on trees.

MentalFloss lays out the logic:

The idea that moss grows on the north side of trees is an old one, says Dan Johnson, Assistant Professor of Forest Biology in the College of Natural Resources at the University of Idaho, “and it makes a lot of sense. Since the north side of a tree gets less sunlight than the other parts of a tree it should be cooler, more damp and have more shade—perfect conditions for mosses.”

Since the primary factors that contribute to the moss-on-the-north-side pattern are temperature, shade, and lack of direct sunlight, this pattern breaks down in woods with deeper cover, and regions with perpetually overcast skies. The forests of Oregon and Washington (where I’m training for the PCT) are deeply shaded by the tall growth of fir and spruce trees, and in some places–like the Olympic rainforest–direct sunlight is scarce and moss is everywhere.

Everywhere. By Doug Kerr from Albany, NY, United States.

Everywhere. By Doug Kerr from Albany, NY, United States.

It would be like trying to navigate by starlight in the middle of the day. Sure, there may be some directional variation in moss growth, but it’s not a significant enough difference to navigate by.

The verdict? It’s not a complete myth, but not something to count on.


Don’t You Know That You’re Toxic? A hiker’s guide to antagonistic plants

You’re dangerous/ I’m lovin’ it

Poisonous plants are the constant companions of any hiker, and, conveniently, you will learn about them whether or not you do any actual research. Any time you veer off an established trail or cut your way through a less-traveled one you run the risk of brushing up against something highly evolved in the art of chemical warfare.

Roger Temple [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

This would be a roll-your-socks-over-your-pants situation.

I do most of my hiking in western Oregon, so the biggest bane of my hiking existence (beyond blackberry thorns) is poison oak.

Poison Oak. By Franco Folini from San Francisco, USA (Pacific poison oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum)) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Franco Folini from San Francisco, USA

According to dummies.com (yep. keeping it simple here) here’s how to identify this beast:

Poison oak leaves cluster in sets of three. The edges of the solid green leaves, while reminiscent of an oak tree, are less dramatic. Poison oak is most often seen in shrub form, but it can also grow as a vine.

The easiest poison oak characteristic to spot from a distance is the shine of its leaves. Unfortunately, this is caused by a resin the leaves produce, and the amount of resin (and thus shine) changes seasonally. It’s also important to note that poison oak can range in color depending on the season and the health of the plant–from green to yellow to bright red.

The general rule is to stay away from anything you even suspect of being poison oak–it’s a pain in the butt for most people and seriously dangerous for some. The poison resin is also transferable–I have heard stories of people petting cats that had gotten into poison oak, and later getting the rash on their hands. The poison is easily spread around, which is an excellent reason not to rub or scratch if you believe an area of your body has been exposed

Poison ivy is less common in my area, but it’s a very common scourge in the Midwest and eastern US:

from botanygifs.tumblr.com

Its leaves come in sets of threes, just like poison oak, and in my area it’s more commonly seen as a tree-strangling vine. The leaves are not as shiny as poison oak, and the shape (seen above) is more pointed. Just like poison oak, poison ivy comes in a range of fashionable colors.

Poison sumac produces the exact same irritating compound as poison oak and ivy. It’s called urushiol, and it’s also present (fun fact!) in raw cashews. You can find sumac trees and shrubs chiefly in riparian zones.

Source: Robert H. Mohlenbrock @ USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database / USDA SCS. 1991. Southern wetland flora: Field office guide to plant species. South National Technical Center, Fort Worth, TX.

Poison sumac. Source: Robert H. Mohlenbrock @ USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database

Stinging Nettle is a very common annoyance in my part of the world. It’s unique on this list, because it does not contain urushiol:

Stinging nettle. By Anthony Valois and the National Park Service

Instead, according to naturelabs.com:

This obnoxious weed uses its needle-like hairs to shoot irritating chemicals into your skin that can cause a burning feeling that can last as long as 24 hours (although it generally lasts for an hour). These stinging hairs are hollow, allowing them to contain a small amount of toxic chemicals inside. These chemicals probably include acetylcholine, histamine, 5-hydroxytryptamine, and formic acid.

The irritation nettle produces is nowhere near as unpleasant as the first three offenders on this list. Still, stinging nettle can seriously irritate your skin, causing bumps and blisters in severe cases. You’ll notice its effects right away, and, as long as you don’t scratch the place where you were stung, the irritation fades quickly. I have treated my own nettle stings with ordinary hydrocortisone ointment, but NatureLabs has some more specific treatment recommendations on their site.


Treating the urushiol-based irritation of poison oak, ivy, and sumac is less straightforward. According to Oregon Troop 247, you might not develop a rash for up to 48 hours after exposure. Here’s the treatment the scouts recommend:

Change clothes immediately and rinse or shower with large amounts of cool water to rinse off the poison as soon as it is discovered.  Some sources advise against using soap.  Keep clothes in a plastic bag to wash separately.  Watch for allergic reaction.

You can treat a rash with calamine lotion or a solution of baking soda and water.  These will provide comfort but not actually cure the rash.

The more you know about the poison plants in your region, the less likely you are to have a bad encounter. Stay aware of your surroundings, don’t improvise your own shortcuts, and you’ll be fine.

How to pack for Europe

Somewhere between the Pinterest boards, the Buzzfeed lists of travel “hacks,” and the blogs of hardcore career world-travelers, it’s easy to get confused about what you need and don’t need to bring to Europe for an extended trip.

There are extreme variations in gear recommendations (do you need to shell out for packing cubes, or will ziploc bags work as well?), hard-and-fast rules (can I keep my wallet in my purse, or should I ditch it entirely and wear a money belt?), and DIY projects galore (seal vaseline in drinking straws with a lighter and a pair of pliers, they said! Why bother? I said!). An inexperienced traveler might conclude that most of the travel tips out there aren’t actually worth the internet pages they’re printed on–that experience is the only way to nail down what any individual needs and doesn’t need.

A lot of travel articles are written by people with an axe to grind or a product to sell. I find that reading too much advice on the internet actually heightens my travel fears. Will I be a laughingstock if I wear a baseball cap to shield my face from the sun in Paris? What if I stick to American mealtimes in Italy? Is it okay to wear shorts in Spain? What if I speak too loudly–like a typical “loud American”–without realizing it? What will become of me if I take the wrong train, or lose my phone, or my entire bag is stolen?

We talked about “what-ifs,” people. In travel, as in life, you can’t plan for all of them. Bad things will happen, and good ones will too–that’s the reason you left your home to begin with, right? So things would happen!

In my last post, I discussed how to keep your backpack light for a stint abroad, but what about the basics? There is much disagreement about what kinds of clothes will mark you as a tourist and what kinds of weather you should anticipate for any given season. The best comprehensive guide I’ve found for packing a bag for a European vacation (or any place with a moderately conservative culture and mild climate) is this video of a talk by Sarah Murdoch.

She worked for years as a Rick Steves tour guide, which means she brings a lot of practical experience to the table. Hers is a packing list evolved over years of jockeying tourists along on her tours while also keeping herself clean, clothed, and good-looking. The video is long, but extremely worth the time. I recommend opening your backpack or suitcase, pouring a glass of wine (or whatever beverage helps you clear your mind of “what ifs”), and looking through your closet and dresser while Sarah’s advice plays in the background. If you want to follow her tips exactly, you’ll need a kitchen scale to weigh your clothes, and a set of packing cubes.


I do have two criticisms of this video–which may not be worth much, since Sarah is a more experienced traveler than me by far, but they seemed worth noting for the sake of discussion:

1. She stuffs about four pairs of shoes into her bag. Though a tour guide may have different needs when it comes to footwear flexibility, it’s hard for me to imagine that any efficiently-packed bag could require quite so many options.

2. Her claim to fame is that she can travel for several weeks at a time without wearing the same outfit twice. Her technique involves very lightweight fabrics (some of which don’t appear to travel very well) and layering (which can result in some complicated and fussy-looking combinations). I would rather opt for fewer articles of clothing that pair well with everything and are durable, even if that means my outfits are simpler and each individual garment is heavier. Your tastes may vary, but I find that many of my favorite clothing choices for travel (my all-purpose heavyweight black skirt, for instance) would not meet with Sarah’s approval.

High-efficiency packing tips for backpackers

Whether you’re packing for an urban hostel tour or a remote backcountry hike, there are a million reasons why packing light will save you time, energy, and hassle.

For Josie at Travelista, it’s all about flexibility:

Packing light means you will not be horrified when you realize that the cute little pensione you’ve booked in Florence is on the 5th floor of a building with no elevator.

Going light is easier said than done. Some travelers trim down their pack size by simply bringing less, while others scour shops for the lightest possible gear to meet their needs.

Though I’m planning to through-hike the Pacific Crest Trail next year, I’m also heading to (mostly western) Europe soon for a three-month trip on the Busabout circuit. Traveling by bus will mean a lot of walking, and lots of time spent carrying my bag along unfamiliar streets to new hostels. Keeping my bag light and manageable is key to staying happy and safe. I don’t plan on trimming down to an extreme ultralight pack, but I have learned a few tricks that could save anybody some precious ounces:

1. Expand and Contract

Over the course of a long trip, your storage needs are going to change. One day you may be carrying a packed lunch, a raincoat, or an extra water bottle, while other days you’ll want to leave all that extra weight back at your hostel and move unfettered. Instead of packing an extra purse or backpack, consider super-light sacks and bags that fold up tight.

Caroline over at HerPackingList recommends a stuffable daypack, but, depending on your needs, you may find that a simple compactable grocery sack, like a baggu shopping tote, does the trick. Larger-size baggu totes can be worn as open-top backpacks–particularly useful for short treks to the beach.


A simple drawstring backpack might be all you need. Picture source.

I can also recommend drawstring backpacks–available at most dollar stores. They don’t offer much security from thieves*, but if you need an easy way to carry a scarf or raincoat on unpredictable weather days, they’re an easy option that packs away tiny when not in use.

*As a general rule of thumb, never put valuables in any back-worn daypack.

2. Just one pair of shoes

If Dorothy can make it through Oz with just one pair of shoes, you can do it too.

Shoes seem to be the Achilles heel (heh) of any effort to pack light. Even those who are religious about weighing every item in their pack may find themselves bargaining that that one pair of high-heeled sandals or spare running shoes deserves to be in their pack just in case or just because. Resist temptation! You only have one pair of feet, so bringing two pairs of shoes means you will always be lugging at least one pair on your back. One simple, comfortable, understated, lightweight pair of walking shoes is all you need to travel with.


My choice for my upcoming trip is these Skechers Go Walk slip-ons. They’re understated enough to be welcome in museums and sacred places, and comfortable enough to handle long days on cobblestone streets or the occasional short alpine jaunt. They seem durable enough for the length of my trip, but I’ll keep you updated on that front once I put them through the ringer.

An exception to the one-pair-of-shoes rule: You might also throw in a pair of Flipsters or other lightweight sandals to use as shower and beach shoes. These will be useful for times when your regular shoes need to air out. You can also simply buy a cheap pair of flip-flops at your destination–It’s one more souvenir, and one that you’ll actually use!

3. Everything matches everything

Ladies, you know that shirt you love? The tricky one that you can’t really wear with a skirt, and which is thin enough to require a camisole underneath, and which looks best when belted? I’m sorry, but you’ve got to leave that shirt behind. Every piece of clothing you bring has to be opaque enough to be worn on its own and versatile enough to be paired with every other article of clothing you bring. You’ll get a lot more day-to-day outfit variety this way, and you’ll never be stuck with only ridiculous-looking options when you’re getting close to laundry day.

My packing list includes one pair of black pants, one black skirt (long enough to be worn as a mini dress), and a pair of black shorts that are comfortable enough to sleep in. Keeping a monochromatic bottom half makes selecting tops a snap! One t-shirt, one dressier top, and one comfortable tank are all I’ll need to make nine different outfits. Throw in a cardigan, a lightweight dress, a camisole, a sarong, and an extra tee bought somewhere as a souvenir, and suddenly I’ve got a whole wardrobe forming without an enormous investment in packing space.

4. No “what if” items

What if your backpack falls apart and you need a roll of duct tape to build a whole new one from scratch? What if your journaling pen dies and you need five spares? What if you run out of clean underwear or socks or shirts in a place where laundry is 15 euro per load? What if?

“What if” is the absolute heaviest thing to pack on any journey. You’ve got to be brave, and leave it behind. Yes, some items are more difficult to find or more expensive in some parts of the world than they are at home, and yes, you might be grateful for that roll of duct tape if your shoes explode while you’re hiking the Cinque Terre. Is it worth lugging a few pounds of “what if” weight through your entire trip just to avoid hypothetical discomfort on one or two days? No! It isn’t! Except for first aid items, medications, and other health-and-safety-related tools, you can always ask fellow travelers or local strangers for help if there’s something you desperately need to borrow–you might even make a friend in the process! Bring an extra twenty bucks in cash as your all-purpose “what if” item, and leave the duct tape at home.

5. Take advantage of amenities

Look into linens, towels, locks, and kitchen facilities while you’re booking your accommodation.

Before your trip, research your accommodations and consider the amenities they offer. Will most of your hostels have kitchens, rental linens, towels, and book exchanges? If so, you can trim that extra gear from your pack.

The towel: Douglas Adams’ advice notwithstanding, paying 1-3 euro for the use of a fresh towel is much nicer than toting your own and waiting for it to dry each day. There are plenty of packable towel options, but in my experience they aren’t absorbent enough to be worth the effort. For hostels without towel rental, I bring a small microfiber washcloth paired with a sarong (which works double-duty as a beach cover-up, picnic blanket, headwrap, scarf, emergency sling bag, emergency dress, shawl, and all-purpose modesty muumuu). I squeeze the extra water out of my hair in the shower, use the microfiber wash cloth to get cursorily dry, then wrap up in the sarong for mirror time or the walk back to my dorm room. The wash cloth wrings mostly dry if I need to use it again, and the sarong, though cotton, is thin enough that it never stays damp for long.

Sleeping gear: Travel blankets and pillows are fairly common and, in my opinion, not at all necessary. Your hostel bed will have some kind of linen on it, and you can always ask for another blanket if what you’ve been provided with is dirty or not warm enough. If you’d rather not take the risk of sleeping among hostel insects and germs, opt for a sleep sack with enough headroom to cover the pillow, or a simple bedsheet sewn closed. I made mine by buying a set of microfiber sheets on sale at target (check their dorm-style bedding at the beginning and end of the school year for deals). Simply fold the flat sheet in half and sew two of the three open sides closed**. Most sets also come with a pillowcase. The result is lightweight, easily stuffable, and smells like home.

**If you get stuck buying a full sheet set for this project, like I did, you can use a seam ripper to pick the elastic out of the fitted sheet and use the extra fabric for stuff sacks or a spare sleep sack.

Check out these ultralight packing lists for more inspiration:

Jeremiah Rogers (an 18 liter pack for long-term hotel-based traveling)

Erik the Black (He’s a PCT through-hiker with an ultralight ethic)

T.D. Wood (Author of the REI guide to ultralight packing)

FitBit Zip Review: Two years of counting

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I bought my Fitbit Zip more than two years ago, as a way of motivating my hermity grad student self to spend more time on my feet and in the sunshine. Since then, the high-tech pedometer industry has exploded with options, styles, and degrees of gadgetry intensity. The Zip is cheaper and has fewer bells and whistles than most, and for that reason I feel it is often overlooked when people give an overview of popular pedometer options.

Though it was languishing in a drawer before I recently decided to begin training seriously for the PCT, my Zip meets all of my casual hike-tracking needs, and includes some less-essential features that are nevertheless nice to have.

Favorite Features:

1. Longevity

Unlike my old favorite workout robot, my trusty green IPod Nano from the stone age, my FitBit is still working well and looking good after more than two years of intermittent use. I’m not afraid to leave it in my jewelry box for a few months, nor to bust it out every day for two consecutive months, accidentally throw it in the washing machine (not recommended!), and drop it on the floor. It’s a seriously tough piece of gear, and the silicone sleeve it comes with will shield it from most mistreatment.

2. Battery-powered

My dad has a FitBit of a different model that needs to be charged via usb at least once a week to continue operating. The Zip is battery-powered (a 2025 coin battery), and I have only replaced the battery once in its two-plus year lifetime. Because it runs on a battery, the Zip is always ready to hit the trail when I am. I don’t have to fret about whether I remembered to plug it in before I go to bed at night, and that’s worth the ($3-$5) dollar expense of a new battery every now and then.

3. Self-contained

A lot of people use their phones as their primary fitness tracker. I love the idea of this, because a smartphone is hugely customizable, and it can do so much more right out of the box than most fitness trackers could ever aspire to do. The trouble is, most phone-based fitness tracking apps are not pedometer-based, but gps-based. Your phone uses cell towers to figure out your location and report it to you as distance traveled. This is great as long as you have a cell signal, but hiking in more remote places could leave you with gaps in your data or no data at all. The Zip has no gps feature–it can’t tell me where I’m going, but it can always tell me how far I’ve gone, simply by counting steps. Because this mechanism is self-contained, it’s easy to rely on and very straightforward to use.

4. Simplicity

Using the FitBit means I don’t have to record all of my relevant stats on a spreadsheet, or spend any time thinking of ways to use my collected data to self-motivate. When you sync your FitBit, all of your data becomes accessible on the website, and is presented as a series of brightly-colored charts. There are also food-logging, weight-tracking, and calorie-deficit features that take your calorie expenditures and reported consumption rate into account–I don’t mess with most of that stuff, but the tools are there and very user-friendly.

As for actual operation, all you have to do is clip the Zip to a secure piece of clothing (I usually use the center-front of my bra) and start walking! There’s nothing to remember to turn on or off, and no fiddly bits to worry about.


1. Emotions

One of my biggest complaints is that the Zip pretends to have feelings. The screen displays a happy face, bored face, tongue-out face, super elated face, and a variety of less-common expressions to tell you how you’re doing over the course of the day. These faces are next to useless as a measure of anything –I’d rather replace the faces with a computation of my average pace or something similar. It would be the same idea, but I could decide how I felt about a raw number instead of trying to decode the Tamagotchi smirk of a tiny computer. Other models of FitBit tracker swap the faces for a scrolling display of words and/or an image of a flower that grows and blooms. Frankly, I’d rather they save me the extra tap and dispense with these fluffy screens altogether.

2. About those batteries…

20150418_182209 (2)

The outside of the battery chamber looking not-so-hot.

The battery chamber on the back of the Zip is tricky to open with out scarring the plastic on the outside of the device (use a nickel!), and the batteries themselves are not always easy to find (try the camera section of your local drugstore). The cost of batteries also adds up over time.

Personally, I would rather hunt down and pay for a battery every now and again than be saddled with the requirement of charging the device between hikes, but that might not be your best bet for reasons ranging from the economical to the environmental. The battery powered vs. usb-chargeable decision might be the most important one when making a pedometer purchase. Get a system that isn’t convenient for you, and you’ll end up with a chronically dead device.

3. Missed opportunities

There are a lot of little features that would make the Zip even more indispensable to me as a hiker and a traveler. I have often wished that the display had a backlight, and that the clock had integrated features like an alarm clock, stopwatch, or lap counter. An option for audio feedback every mile would also save the need for clothing re-adjustment when I want to check the FitBit’s (extremely reliable) distance tracker against physical mile markers or ticks on a map.

The verdict:

Despite its flaws, I get a lot of use out of my Zip, and it’s been the ideal companion for my recent training efforts. I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who wants to keep track of their exercise without a lot of fuss.

And then there were hills

By Eric Jones [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Yesterday’s hike–twelve miles worth of hilly Oregon trail–taught me one thing: despite all my conditioning, I had never properly encountered hills before. Hiking up a prolonged steep grade is extremely different than spending hours on a flat surface. One very steep incline had me stopping repeatedly, gasping for air, and feeling so desperate to finish the hill that I developed tunnel vision and stopped enjoying the scenery. Not good.

Oof! Right in the cardiovascular system!

I also encountered my own stubbornness. While climbing the hill, I was focusing on keeping my cadence steady, slow, and trying to take very long strides. My reasoning was that if each stride covered as much ground as possible, I would be hiking at maximum efficiency. My hiking partner, a certified personal trainer, gently pointed out that this was wrong, but it was a while before I was willing to listen. An article on Well.com titled “How to Hike Up a Hill,” explains the optimum technique:

Whatever the conditions, set a steady rhythm that you can maintain over those conditions and try to stick to it. If the trail gets steeper, shorten your stride rather than slow down the cadence; if it gets steeper yet, slow the cadence down, but avoid making constant adjustments.

Why are shorter strides better? When you take a long stride, you have to push much harder on your back foot to move your body up the hill. Shorter strides require you to take more steps, but each step is significantly easier than it would be if the stride were longer. The result is that you can stick to a quicker, lighter cadence and keep all of your energy pushing you forward. When I was taking longer strides, I was lumbering over each step, swaying a little to find my footing, and bending forward so much that I put a lot of strain on my back. Longer strides also encouraged me to grab my pack straps for support and balance, which added to the strain. It may be counter-intuitive (to me, anyway), but shorter strides make hill hiking much less painful.

I plan to repeat this hill once I get my hands on some hiking poles–I know they can be a knee-saver when going downhill, and I imagine they would bolster my confidence on tough climbs. A steep hill might suck while you’re in the thick of it, but you’ll never regret the effort once you see the view from the top. SDC11764 (2)

Why did the deer cross the road?

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These two beauties hopped out into the trail ahead of me a mile and a half into Wednesday’s hike. They dashed from the left side of the road to the right–first the mom (on the right) then the fawn–and turned to check me out for a minute before continuing on their way.

My thought process: Wow, deer are enormous and beautiful! I want to be friends with them! I wonder how close they’ll let me get before they get spooked. Could I pet them? I wonder if they have parasites. The one on the right doesn’t look super happy to see me. Could they hurt me? Am I in danger right now?

And, finally, once the deer dashed off into the woods: Holy shit. What were they running from in the first place?

Yep. The journey from awe to fear took all of ten seconds. I went from feeling totally in tune with my new furry friends to feeling extremely alone. There are signs at the trailhead warning of bears and mountain lions, and, as I walked on, I was imagining something big and scary watching me from the area the deer had fled. Obviously I was not eaten by a predator over the course of the following hours, but I was very glad to run into a few other hikers about a mile further up the trail. Sometimes when that feeling of fear and isolation sets in, it can be hard to shake.

In a post about overcoming solo hiking fears, Kristen Bor of BearfootTheory.com emphasizes the value of solo hiking, but acknowledges that fear is an issue–and something to be accepted, not ignored. It’s important to have faith in yourself and confidence in your abilities, but it’s also important to trust your instincts if something seems off:

If something doesn’t feel right, then it’s probably not. Think it’s getting too late to keep going? Then turn around. Feeling nervous about some creep who gave you a weird look? Be on the defensive. Solo hiking is not the time to take risks. Trust your judgement.

On the face of it, this might not seem like an encouraging sentiment, but it actually really put me at ease. Some crap in the woods is legitimately scary! Pretending not to be afraid is not a solution. Fear is a useful emotion, and it’s not something you should discard–it’s something to respect and pay attention to. The deer I saw probably weren’t running away from anything that wanted to eat me, but being aware of the situation, keeping my guard up, and doing so without panicking–in other words, striking a balance between situational awareness and abject terror–is the right way to handle scary situations, especially when you’re far from help.

I’m still in the early stages of my training, and I can’t help but wonder: If this is how I react to two charming deer who popped out to say hello, how will I react to a bear?


Chewing the scenery, or, How to eat the wilderness

20150415_125554 (2)Any post about foraging wild foods needs to begin with a disclaimer: I am not an expert at foraging, or a botanist, or a chef, or anybody you should remotely trust when it comes to decisions about what you put in your mouth. No matter where you’re hiking, you will find growing things that can kill you. If you’re not certain something is safe, don’t touch it!

Because I’m training in Oregon, today’s post will focus on edibles of the Pacific Northwest. Foraging for wild munchies is, unfortunately, not as simple as looking up a photograph on your phone and identifying basic shapes. As Danielle Centoni of the Oregonian puts it:

There are lots of toxic look-alikes in the world, and they’re not only limited to mushrooms and the Olsen twins.

In fact, a lot of plants make mimicry a way of life. Delicious edibles will sometimes closely resemble a toxic counterpart in an evolutionary bid not to become lunch. From a human perspective, this makes separating the delicious from the deadly particularly tricky. (I, for one, still can’t tell the Olsen twins apart.)

If you’re new to foraging like me, here are a few basics to get you started:

1. Go big or go home:

I really like this picture, but no, I am NOT advocating that you take a bite out of an old growth fir tree. When I was at an outdoor-school-type-thing in Bodega Bay California, one of our guides encouraged us to chew Doug fir needles while we walked. The taste was good, but the fibrous parts don’t exactly go down easy. Still, conifer needles are a great way to get your foraging confidence up. Instead of getting hung up on scary mushrooms and a confusion of little leafy green herbs, keep things simple. You can eat the needles of most conifers, which are high in vitamin C. A quick and easy way to avoid getting scurvy on a long hike is to make tea out of Doug fir needles–just steep in hot water. Danielle Centoni recommends choosing new growth (the brighter green tips at the ends of branches). Check out her full article for in-depth info and some really good book recommendations.

2. Find a familiar friend

When I was in New Zealand in 2010, I did a tiny amount of wwoofing. One of my hosts tasked me with harvesting and cleaning up his household garden. When he saw me pulling dandelions and discarding them in the compost heap with all the other weeds, he quickly pulled them off the heap, and promised to demonstrate their deliciousness to me at dinner that night. I haven’t looked at those obnoxious yellow flowers the same way since.

As Leslie Kelly of SeriousEats.com puts it:

[Dandelions are] everywhere, delicious, and so dang nutritious that they make super foods look like wimps. The tender leaves can be sautéed like kale, and the flowers are prime for dipping in tempura batter and frying or baking into a sunny loaf of bread. Even the root is edible, making for a coffee-like drink or base for ice cream.

What more could a hungry hiker ask for? Be sure to choose young leaves (the older ones can be tough and bitter), and stay away from landscaped yards and areas where herbicides might be a concern.

3. Berries!

Blackberries, by Scott Bauer, USDA ARS


Red Huckleberry by By N C (Nyanna)

Salmon Berry, by By N C (Nyanna)

If you time it just right, you can hike on almost any trail (or drive on any freeway) in Oregon and find blackberries and likely several other types of edible berry. I have found huckleberries and salmonberries in Corvallis, Astoria,  and Woodburn, so I assume they’re ubiquitous, at least in the western parts of the state. I have eaten wild blackberries from Seattle all the way down to Oakland, California (they’re actually an invasive pest, so watch out for areas that may have been sprayed with herbicide). There’s no trick to selecting good berries as far as I know. As long as you know what color your desired berry is supposed to be when ripe, you’re in good shape.

Though I consider edible berries fairly safe if you’ve done your research and know what you’re looking for, an article on WildEdible.com offers a good caveat for prospective berry-pickers:

Learn which parts of a wild edible plant are safe to use. Just because a wild plant is considered edible doesn’t mean all parts are edible. For instance, while the ripe cooked berries of elderberry are safe to eat, the bark, stems and roots are considered poisonous. It’s also important to note that some plants are only edible at certain times of the year. For example, stinging nettle shouldn’t be used after it goes to seed.

As a rule of thumb for survival situations, I have heard that red and blue berries are generally safe, while white, green, and pink ones are generally not. I can think of several exceptions to this rule right off the bat, so I’ll reiterate: never put anything in your mouth unless you’re certain it won’t kill you. Delicious-looking berries included.


Fir Broom Rust and the T-shirt of Death

I just want to be cool like Abbi.

For today’s hike, I got well out of my comfort zone. Not geographically–I stuck to local hiking trails for today’s solo nine-miler–but aesthetically. I’m a t-shirt wearer. I like them soft, durable, stretchy, and 100% cotton. If all I had to do to prepare for the PCT was choose a comfy outfit from the stuff I already own, I could leave tomorrow.

Alas, every sane voice guiding me toward the wilderness (and most of the insane ones too) assures me that hitting the trail in a cotton outfit will lead to extreme discomfort at best.

Spotting a brightly-colored sale rack at Kmart last week, I thought I’d found a way to have my cake and eat it too: 100% polyester v-necks by Everlast! I snapped one up for just over six bucks and believed, for a few fleeting moments, that I had found the one.

SDC11719On paper, this is everything I was looking for in a hiking top. It looks like an ordinary v-neck T-shirt, but is made of super-sporty polyester that dries quicker and wicks moisture away better than regular cotton. The knit is also denser than most cotton tees (so, more sun-proof), lighter, and doesn’t wrinkle or lose its shape. Plus, it has crazy sporty seams on the sides and back to make it look like superhero loungewear.

I loved the idea of this top at first sight, even though the color isn’t my favorite. It’s a shade of purple someone named Margaret would wear. Don’t get me wrong–I’ve known some awesome Margarets, but I’m not a Margaret. Get me?

I paired Margaret (That’s what I’m calling the shirt now, keep up.) with some leggings and took to the trail to make some very unscientific observations:

The good:

  • Performance:

This is an extremely un-fussy garment. It layered well under my trusty windbreaker and didn’t trap sweat or heat. I honestly didn’t think about this top once while on the trail, which is a good thing. The less I’m messing with my clothing, the more attention I have to spare for the beautiful and confusing things nature has to offer — like this mysterious ball of branches way up high in this fir tree:

SDC11730 (2)

Turns out it’s fir broom rust–a sign of disease in the tree. Thanks, Margaret!

  • Bells and whistles:

The logo on the back of the shirt is printed in reflective ink, which will make me easier to spot at night. Since the PCT (like most other enormous through-hiking challenges) requires some hitchhiking, having reflective bits on clothing is a smart thing I hadn’t considered. (Having said that, obviously hitching at night is not smart. Don’t do it!)

The not-so-good:

  • Aesthetics:

This top may look like a normal cotton tee on the hanger, but the fabric does not hang and stretch like cotton, so does not look like a normal t-shirt when worn. (Obvious? I didn’t think it through!)

I bought a size that fits baggy on me (as I would for a normal cotton t-shirt), but the fabric clings to body-lumps in a deeply unflattering way. I’m a larger-busted lady who’s still sorting out my hiking bra game, so this was particularly annoying. The slight sheen of the fabric combined with the weird clinginess makes the overall look problematic.

In Margaret’s defense, I get the sense that this kind of top is meant to be worn skin-tight over yoga pants, not loose and breezy. For normal hiking, I honestly don’t care about being flattered by my clothes, and I’ll keep wearing this top (under my windbreaker, where I keep all my darkest secrets). However, when I’m hiking the PCT, I’ll have one or two tops (tops!) to get me through six-ish months of trekking. I need to unconditionally love the way I look in everything I bring so I can feel good about myself while hitchhiking, pooping in the woods, tripping over rocks, and doing other ego-harming activities.

  • Longevity:

Most of my workout clothes are made of cotton, and most of them have good long usable lives. I have heard rumors that polyester workout clothes don’t last quite as long, not because of durability, but because of odor. There’s something about polyester and other synthetics that makes them hold onto that rancid sweat smell over time no matter how well they are washed. Since hand-washing clothes in rivers without detergent is the best I’ll be able to hope for for long stretches of my upcoming adventure, I’m starting to wonder if I should take recommendations about merino wool more seriously. Apparently the stuff wicks moisture just as readily as synthetics, is lightweight, and doesn’t smell. Given my tepid enthusiasm for this Everlast top, I may have to do some research into the practical (and pricey) world of wool.

The verdict? This sporty top is going to be great for the next few months of training, but it probably won’t make the cut for the PCT. I’ll let you know if  and when it starts to reek.

What not to wear in the woods

Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail will mean wearing one outfit for (probably six) months. Since I’ve started training for the PCT (and by “training” I mean going for 5-7 mile hikes near my house with my dad), I’ve learned a little bit about the clothes I own–which fabrics are too hot and too cool, which bunch and rub and make noise, which hold onto sweat and stay wet. I figure anything that’s even slightly annoying on a 7-mile hike will be rage-inducing over the 2,650 miles of the Pacific Crest trail. I don’t have big plans to buy a fancy hiker wardrobe at REI in the next year–too expensive, and there are more important things to invest in, like a tent–but finding ideal options on the discount racks of regular department stores and within my existing wardrobe is a complicated task, especially since I love me some soft cotton, and have been told, more than once, that it will kill me. …among other things. I have a year to save money, train, travel, and prepare before beginning the PCT, which means I have plenty of time to stalk local thrift stores for fancy workout clothes and set price alerts on my favorite products. Impulse-purchased socks notwithstanding, I plan to take my time and use a wide variety of clothing on training hikes until I find what’s comfortable. The internet is full of generous through-hikers who have tried and failed and learned some hard lessons, and, thanks to their aggregate wisdom, I have put together a list of guidelines for narrowing down a hiking ensemble.

1. No cotton!

It’s not a good insulator when wet, and dries too slowly to be practical. According to most of the internet, hiking in cotton is a one-way ticket to hypothermia town.

2. Quick-drying

Everything I bring needs to be able to go from hand-washed to bone-dry in a matter of hours. Especially in the Pacific Northwest, sunshine is a luxury I can’t count on. This means fabrics need to be thin, and (in my case) mostly synthetic. I’ve heard good things about silk and merino wool, but most of the practical options I already own are polyester.

3. Butt chafe

Mac at Halfway Anywhere opened my eyes to the harsh realities of butt chafe. I haven’t read similar horror stories from any female hikers, but I imagine the constant rub of fabric on skin over time is going to cause problems for just about anyone. Though I don’t intend to go commando on the trail (which I’ve heard is a good way of preventing chafe), finding wicking, non-abrasive, soft underwear and underlayers is hugely important. I plan to hike in shorts, which means thigh chafe is also a real concern. Luckily, women have more spandex options at better prices than dudes do. I could hike the whole trail in cropped yoga pants or super lightweight leggings and probably be fine. The challenge is to find a balance between fit, comfort, durability, and affordability. My current favorites are Zella leggings–they’re opaque, comfortable, and extremely well-made–but the pair I have is 100% cotton, and replacing them with something synthetic would not be cheap. Will they kill me? Time will tell.

4. Consider the sun

A lot of PCT bloggers seem to favor so-called “hiking shirts” for hot, sunny days. These are classic button-downs with pockets and long sleeves, made of a lightweight synthetic fabric. I can’t say I love the look, but I understand the utility. These shirts are designed to keep the sun off your back, neck, and shoulders, to be a first line of defense against mist and cold winds, and to be durable and classy enough to keep you from looking like a ragamuffin when you have to interact with actual people. As a woman with boobs, the idea of wearing a button-down shirt during strenuous exercise is not at all appealing–it would limit my range of motion, and there would absolutely be button-gappage. I also don’t want to spend exhausted evenings in my tent sewing loose buttons that have sprung free during the day. Too many moving parts. So, I’m on the lookout for a lightweight, long-sleeved, decent-looking, comfortable, sweat-wicking, sun-protective polyester top that won’t cook me in the sun. No luck so far.

5. Pockets

While it’s important to have plenty of backpack storage on the trail, I find I get much more use out of the pockets on my clothes than the ones in my pack while I’m actually hiking. My windbreaker has a zippered kangaroo pocket where I keep my candy, compass, notepad, phone, and pepper spray handy. I plan to do a what’s in my pockets? overview once I’m a few months into training, but the need for pockets is definitely informing my clothing decisions from here on out. I need said pockets to be roomy, secure, and accessible. Maybe I should get one of these classy fishing vests and be done with it?


It’s not a bad look. From L.L. Bean