MESSING ABOUT IN THE MAINE WOODS: A real problem with someone in my life – Past Me

by Ron Maxwell

I have a real problem with someone in my life: Past Me. He is an embarrassment and a nuisance and I wish I knew how to handle him. He always fools around and leaves me to do the work. Past Me even thought it a great idea to go camping last February break. I made ready all the food, double checked that I and my two teenage boys were packed. This camping trip even ran afoul of Herself as my wife worried about the temperature. I eventually had to gracefully accept her input and postpone the trip.

This week during April break the boys reminded me of Past Me’s promise and cowardice. I smoothed things over by letting them pick a day to spend in the woods. Once again I was planning and looking after Past Me’s task. Since he had already packed, I just grabbed the bag and the boys and I set out on the day they chose. Our early morning departure looked good, and it looked like the weather forecast would be right about today being the only day of partial sun and not rain this entire week. The only downside to the plan would be the outside chores neglected in our absence. Past Me had promised Herself a day of outside cleanup.

The good day turned bad in several ways. As we hiked to camp, an azure sky turned leaden. Gusting winds then thwarted most attempts at fire. Fleas, thousands of flocking fleas, made my sleeping on the ground not an option. Poor planning left us extra time which turned into a cold, windy walk. Food, started in the kitchen, failed in the field. An impending, frigid, sleepless night loomed as we huddled by our finally started fire.

Later, around that same fire, I realized my focus on the negatives was wrong. Our day contained all the fun parts of camping. Full packs and all, we had hiked and enjoyed it. We had tamed the wilderness to set up camp. We had overcome failure of the lighters with an emergency kit, my sleep system problem with an extra hammock, and our poor food choices with some good nature. We had wandered packless through the nearly springtime forest, played in streams and made pine mint tea (mint leaves we grow at home are always in my mess kit and the pine needles we picked made a welcome addition.) A safe, basketball sized fire completed our camp, with its small size made effective by adding flat rock reflectors and our microclimate tarp. We had also talked and ate and sat ourselves to that comfortable peaceful silence I love about family.

So, I suggested to the boys we could go home. This could be a new thing: theoretical camping. Camping joy without suffering the eternity of cold darkness until morning. We were only ten miles away, had experienced the best parts of camping and we could work tomorrow on the projects that were needed around the house. We could also, I added, get candy bars on the way home. Neither of them needed convincing past that, so we packed up camp. When we got home I had candy bars for everyone and all my wife said in the way of, “I told you so,” was “So you couldn’t stay away?” The smell of campfire hung about me as I nestled into the couch. I alternated between finishing a Snickers and dozing through a famous actor’s terrible British accent (he was singing some drivel about chimney sweeps, I think…) I also slept great that night.

Next day, as I was taking advantage of beautiful weather to work in the yard, it occurred to me that Past Me had finally done something right. He had shown discretion and coined a new hobby of theoretical camping, camping without the missing home part. So some things can change. But then it dawned on me that some things never do. He had messed about in the woods while I was stuck doing all the hard work at home.

MESSING ABOUT IN THE MAINE WOODS: Cooking on the trail with a makeshift stove

by Ron Maxwell

Eating and drinking outside are some of my favorite parts of being in the woods. I love a fire but in many places one cannot have an open fire. Without a fire, the easiest way to make water safe, to heat coffee or cocoa or to make food in the woods is to use a small camping/hiking stove. These stoves can be expensive – my favorite cost me $80 – but well made stoves can be created at home from common items and are as efficient as commercial stoves. Read on to learn how to build a stove to heat food, from the can the food was purchased in.

Last school break I commandeered the kitchen table and retested all the various stoves I have made. “Past me” thought them all clever at the time, but “present me” is finding the sheer numbers a trifle excessive. Most are made from food/drink cans, because “past me” did not want to buy an expensive store-bought model. All can be put into one of three basic categories: solid fuel burning, liquid fuel burning and wood burning.

Solid fuel burning stoves burn fuel tablets. I saw some in town in the camping aisle, and a quick internet search yielded many results, like Coghlan’s Solid Fuel Tablets (72 pack for $15.) I have some fuel tablets in a small baggie in the bottom of my pack because they are light to carry and could be put in the bottom of any empty can to be burned. I never got into the habit of using them as a primary source of heat because I was more interested in making stoves that burned liquid fuel. I carry them now for that time when the liquid fuel runs out on trail or to start a fire in extreme weather.

An example of a homemade stove, from Pinterest.

Liquid fuel stoves are an easy build and there are plans everywhere online. (The one pictured came from the Pinterest website.) They are also just plain fun to make and use. You have many options to fuel such a stove, from Everclear (an alcohol of 151 to 190 proof) to Naptha (the off-brand version of the fuel used in zippo lighters). For my stoves I use HEET, the gas line antifreeze that draws water out of your car’s fuel system. It can be bought at most gas stations, burns cleanly and is inexpensive.

It is easy to make a simple stove of your own. Remove the top of an empty aluminum drink can and use a hole punch to make holes at even intervals around the top third of the can. Fill the bottom third with liquid fuel. After setting the fuel alight, wait a couple minutes to give the stove a chance to heat up. Put your kettle on the can, making sure to cover the top of the can with the bottom of your kettle. The heat in the stove will turn the liquid fuel to gas which ignites and exits the holes just like the flame of a gas stove. If you put the kettle on your stove and it goes out, it was not warm enough and you need to let it burn longer before putting the kettle on next time. Be sure to shield the stove from the wind, and it will work great.

I have since moved from using any old can because those designs had no way to extinguish the stove other than allowing it to run out of fuel. The missing piece was a cover that would cut off the oxygen of the burner. What was needed was two cans, one slightly smaller than the other so that I could use the larger to cover the smaller. So I went to Hannaford and grabbed cans, going from aisle to aisle comparing sizes. I found that a Vienna Sausage can fits inside a small tomato sauce can nicely which makes the Vienna Sausage can the burner and the sauce can the cover that extinguishes the stove.

When possible, a small fire is my favorite pastime in the woods, and my cooking method of choice. However, careless use of fire and a need to protect our common land has changed the public opinion of open fires. The result is that sometimes you cannot have a fire. Those times are why I always carry what is called a wood gas stove.

A wood gas stove has a center that is very efficient with fuel so its only fuel is twigs and sticks. It burns in a way that forces the fire’s smoke to be recirculated in the stove, meaning the stove burns without smoke once it comes to operational temperature. Since it is a stove, it can be used where an open fire is illegal. And since it burns small sticks one does not need to carry large amounts of firewood or worse yet, harvest large amounts of any wood. I pick up pencil sized sticks along the way and those, plus an occasional small branch, are enough fuel to run the unit. My stove is a Toaks titanium 750 ml pot and wood stove combo set which I bought because pot and stove nestle together, taking up small space in pack.

You do not have to buy such a stove, because a simple wood gas stove can be made with two cans, one smaller than the other. The smaller is the burn chamber: punch holes in the bottom of the can and a ring of holes around its top rim. The larger can only needs its top removed, a ring of holes punched around its top rim and a hole the size of the smaller can cut in its bottom. Put the larger can upside down on the table, and put the smaller can, bottom first, in the hole in the larger can’s bottom. Fill the small can with twigs and set it alight. After a minute of burning you should see the smoke no longer leaving the stove, but rather being pulled back in to be burnt again. If that last paragraph was too much, you can get a great tutorial on YouTube in a minute of searching.

All three types of stove mentioned above are easy to use, to make and to fuel. The first time you fire up one of your stoves, it needs to be done in the open air. Burning reused cans releases a noxious gas the first time burned. After the first burn the can is safe and you can enjoy the use of your homemade stove. Making and using a stove you have made will satisfy that need to be self sufficient and have a cost effective way to replace broken equipment in the field. And being self sufficient while saving money and looking clever is a great way of messing about in the Maine woods.

MESSING ABOUT: Wear layers; be prepared to build shelter

Messing About in the Maine Woods

by Ron Maxwell

Veterans day 2017 found me by Donnell Pond between Schoodic and Black mountains. It was a drippy night and a cool morning but the real fun began at 7 a.m. when a wall of sleet and hail hit from the east. I stood on the beach watching it roll my way. When it hit, I leaned into the blast and enjoyed the buffeting – until the hail started in earnest. Then I bravely ran back to my emergency shelter and hid. (The shelter was a tarp, staked to the ground on bottom and lashed on top to two trees.) This created an excellent barrier that diverted the sleet and wind, while I was dry underneath. I waited out the storm in my layered clothing and emerged from my manufactured microclimate, dry and comfortable. There are two reasons it went well: I was wearing layers, and I was in a pocket of still air created by the tarp.

The first reason is called thermoregulation, which is a fancy way of describing layers of clothing to take off or put back on as you warm up/cool down. I layer with a T-shirt over a long sleeve turtleneck/ long underwear shirt as a base. Then add a wool sweater and a waterproof jacket above the base layer, and the upper torso is set. Lower body layers involve the bottom of long underwear worn under cargo pants. A case can be made for a thermal layer under it all if you feel you need the extra help.

None of my layers is water wicking or fancy or expensive. Standard wisdom says to use wool, because it warms you when it is wet. There is a place for those things if you spend lots of time out in the weather, but for me they are too cost prohibitive. With the layers mentioned above I can remove pieces to keep my core temp at the stage where I don’t sweat, while staying warm enough.

The second reason is the area of stillness under the tarp, a microclimate. The difference between being warm and freezing is how well you get yourself out of the wind. I always carry a folded tarp or emergency blanket and paracord when out in the woods hiking. It allows a dry zone to be set up when the rain starts or a windbreak to take a break behind. But you can also make use of microclimates without rigging up a tarp each time a breeze blows. Use a sheltered area in the trees to recover from the wind. Bask on that warm rock. Make use of the natural features of where you are because simple changes can make a big difference.

So make sure that you have appropriate shelter for the season you are out in. Wear clothing in layers so you can thermoregulate by removing or adding those layers as you get too hot or cold. I also recommend an emergency plan for when something goes wrong – a simple emergency blanket (or contractor garbage bag) tucked in your backpack and some paracord will allow you to make a simple windproof shelter if you get stuck, hurt or ‘turned around.’ And that is how we thrive in the Maine outdoors.

MESSING ABOUT: Always consider the “rule of threes”


by Ron Maxwell, China School Teacher/Outdoor Enthusiast

The more one wanders about in the land of survival talk, the more one hears about the rule of threes. It has been approached by many writers in many styles with many words and I claim no exclusivity to any part of it. The rule of threes is however a clever thing and worthy of our consideration. For those of you who have not heard, the rule of threes is a set of guidelines to use when prioritizing needs in a survival situation. A human can live three minutes without air, three hours without shelter, three days without water, three weeks without food. Simple, yet elegant, the rule of threes can be easily memorized and put to practice.

Deal with each of the rules in turn when packing your bag. I don’t have worries about allergies or asthma, but if I did, an EpiPen and an inhaler would be first in the kit. Air sorted? Move on to shelter. Protect yourself from the wind at night with a tent or a tarp shelter. A water shedding outer layer will keep your rainy days usable, while a warm layer will make chilly afternoons and evenings comfortable. Check to see if you have the right rated sleeping bag for the season you are enjoying. I also always pack the reflective automotive sunshade to put between me and the ground for insulation and an emergency mylar blanket for an added layer above me just in case.

Water is easily the heaviest thing you will carry. In Maine, there are many sources for water so one could plan a hike around ponds and campsites and be very comfortable. Make sure to treat all water before you drink it. I went online and researched filters that went as high as a $100 but then settled on one for $20. It threads on a standard soda bottle for convenience and its price point was low enough that breaking or losing it didn’t worry me. You could just as easily use a simple can to boil the water to kill the microscopic contaminants. Different sources say different times for boiling, but I always go for five minutes at rolling boil. I start each day on trail with two 1-1/2 L “disposable” water bottles full of filtered water, one on each side of the pack. Excessive to some, but I find more is better than not enough.

Food is the last of the threes and I cannot conceive of going three weeks without. My breakfast plan is a high nutrition grain mix: amaranth, chia, quinoa and oats. Amaranth is high in protein, fiber and healthy oils. Chia is high in Omega 3s which are anti-inflammatory and it also slows how your body converts carbohydrates to sugars. Quinoa is a complete protein (it has all the necessary amino acids), has a low glycemic index, is high in fiber and has magnesium. Oats are high in dietary fiber, lower cholesterol and are filling.

Lunch is out of a bag while walking, usually homemade granola and a bag of trail mix. I carry coconut oil separately to add to the granola because it seems dry without something and milk just doesn’t work on the trail. Also, the added calories are always welcome when one is exerting in the woods. Dinner always starts with drinking water setting up camp. Then I eat whatever can be made with whatever energy is left. Ramen and bouillion and prepackaged meat usually work well for me with green tea.

Planning using the rule of threes is an effective survival strategy. Preparing for the weather will keep you comfortable. Keeping hydrated maintains body temperature and removes waste from the body. Portioning your meals and pre-bagging the day’s food at home is an easy way to control / plan the amount of food consumed. And that is how we thrive in the Maine Outdoors.

MESSING ABOUT: Survival is an interesting concept


by Ron Maxwell

Survival is an interesting concept for me. I have always enjoyed the idea of being able to solve problems in the field. It means my pockets are always full of lighters and knives and more pocket emergency kits than any one person has a right to own. Each of my family’s cars has extra water, food, flashlights, emergency blankets and other supplies. The house has supplies squirreled away in corners for emergencies. Survival has always been on my mind even though I have not yet been in a position to need the information.

But ‘survival’ has always had a clawing, tearing sort of feel: something forced on one from the outside. Survival has always seemed to be a ‘bug eating, puddle drinking, dirt pit sleeping’ sort of experience. I’d rather be careful, thanks. I have always thought ‘thriving’ instead of ‘surviving’. I was on a hiking trip and soaked my shirt with the days exertion. It was simple to thrive in camp afterward with the clean, dry, night-clothes I had packed, while rinsing and drying my day things by the fire. For me, survival will always be what would happen when my plans and my prepared equipment both fail. I haven’t done it yet, but when I do need to, I have some backup skills ready. Skills that began by watching You-Tube, but were practiced and perfected in the field.

I have lighted fires on the ice, while skating on a cold afternoon – using a bow drill and tinder set I made myself. I have slept on an automotive sunscreen under an emergency blanket when a night turned too cold. I have used the knife I carry in my pocket to make a burner and cookset from the cans the dinner ingredients came in. A burner and cookset fueled with a common automotive fuel additive I bought at the same convenience store where I bought the dinner ingredients. I have made my own string from cedar bark to tie together a debris shelter for sleeping. I have the ability to survive if I need, but my purpose in being in the outdoors will always be to thrive.

See how the process doesn’t happen just in the outdoors? There is a joy in preparing yourself mentally or taking in someone else’s experience when you can’t get outside. There is an excitement to testing out your new equipment with the kids in the backyard, where you can see the potential of all your gear. And nothing beats actually getting out on the trail and waking up surrounded by nature enjoying the comfort of a situation you put together. And that is how we thrive in the Maine Outdoors.