A tent is more than just a piece of fabric

light-forest-trees-morningChoosing a tent is getting difficult. For the Kenneth Watrous family, Las Vegas weather is not as big a factor as you might think. We always go out into the mountains or head North to Utah. Because we spend so much time outdoors, a good tent is an important part of our equipment.

Back in the day you really only had some different sizes of the standard green canvas army style tent. These were often cramped but generally warm. The other downside is that they were hard to keep dry if you didn’t have a lot of tree cover. They were also fairly heavy. On the plus side they were also really durable and could be used for years in rough terrain without being much of a problem. Even if they did break or rip the repairs were easy to do by stitching a patch of material over the area or just using a needle and thread to repair the seam outright. These are still good tents to pick up for children. A sharp stick and a bit of roughhousing will not end in a destroyed tent. But they aren’t much fun and they don’t breathe well if you are camping in the summer and in the desert.

The nylon and poly-whatever tents that are offered these days are certainly lighter, and better at keeping water off because they dry faster and the water tarps do a great job of whisking water to the sides. Coleman in particular has a huge assortment of different shapes, sizes, occupancies and so on. These tents tend to get damaged easily because the material is lightweight and not as resistant to cutting and tearing as a heavy canvas material would be. They are designed to keep out wind and weather and do a pretty good job of trapping heat. They also are built with panels that can usually be zipped in and out to let in more air but not bugs and can breathe that way. The material for the bottoms or floors is usually durable enough not to get destroyed by a few loose rocks but a root or sampling remnant will poke through after a day or two of use, so it is important to check the ground carefully before setting one up.

The sticks and bow frames can be difficult to put together and can also break if too much strain is placed on them, but they are reasonably good at holding the tension they are supposed to hold. They really only break when there is a lot of wind or when you try to put the thing together and get impatient and start forcing things. Probably the largest structural weakness in a Coleman tent is the loops that the frame is supposed to be threaded through. These can get clogged and snagged and when you have to maneuver through them they can tear off or get poked through. A little more give on those would make the tent shake a bit more, but would probably reduce the number of problems I see.
The bigger benefits of some of the larger tents is the idea of rooms. These start not only getting big enough to fully stand up in, but the different panels and rooms give the impression of a full on house. Setting up tents like this and putting the children toward the back is a good way to make sure they aren’t sneaking out but can be a problem for cleaning up and dealing with ‘accidents’. One of the things I like the most is a tent with a solid porch. These can be great for hanging outside of the tent and a campground and being able to interact with other campers but still have some shade and a sense of privacy.
On that note, a tent you can stand fully up in is great for doing some changing in the outdoors. Lying down and trying to get your pants on in a short tent is one of the most awkward things to do in the great outdoors.

When picking a tent, the bottom line is to find something that is going to give you enough space for your purposes. If you intend to do a lot of camping a pricey and more durable product is worth while. If you have children that want their own tents some of the cheaper units that can be replaced is a better way to go. The patching kits for the Coleman products are so-so in their usefulness and can cost as much as a whole cheap tent anyway. I’m usually more for conserving and reusing, but there is a point with kids that you just learn to know when to expect a problem instead of trying so hard to prevent the inevitable.

Trying to think cold

Here in Las Vegas, the weather has been way too hot this summer. It’s been above 115* and that’s just outrageous. The only thing the Watrous family can do is remember colder days when we went to visit the snow at Mt. Charleston.

Stay cool, out there everyone!

North Rim, Grand Canyon

The North Rim of the Grand Canyon is a little bit more out of the way than the South Rim. It features the usual series of campgrounds and a lodge and so on, but it is much smaller than the South Rim. The North Rim is also a harder journey from Las Vegas for the Ken Watrous family. Though it isn’t, mile-wise, much further than the South Rim, it takes a lot more traveling up and around to get to, or taking a road due north from the South Rim that will also get there.

The drive north can be exciting to cross the Navajo Bridge, which is a fun bridge for kids to gape at because it doesn’t have a lot of the side material of most bridges and appears more ‘naked’. But this is a pretty long trip all told. It is easier to go through the Arizona Strip through a section of Utah, up over the Kaibab mountains and get to the North Rim. There are several interesting landscapes to see when going along this route and the drive gets a bit tedious for the children, who are likely to sleep through portions, but it can be a really relaxing drive and has a few towns along the way to stop for lunch and bathroom breaks.

One of the best activities to engage in at the North Rim is biking. There are a few loop and day trails that make getting out on a bike really worth while. A lot of French and German tourists are always making park tours on motorcycles and this provides some chances to talk about their landscapes and interests, as they follow some of the same routes.

The North Rim is more about some day hikes and some several hour visits than the South Rim. The general out-of-the-way quality of the North Rim usually means fewer people doing any number of things. For people who like to avoid the crowds this is a good place to go. There are also two water attractions in the area with Jacob Lake to the north and Lake Powell to the east.

Though it can be expensive and there is often a waiting list, the North Rim is the place to get involved with a mule ride or ATV trip through sections of the enormous area of the canyon. I’ve never quite done the mule ride myself. I’m not so good around animals that are stubborn and mean (just ask, nevermind) but the ATV ride can be a great middle ground and a way to use technology to see the rural beauty without being too tired.

The weather in the North Rim tends to be about 10 degrees less than the South Rim, which can make a pretty big difference when going on a long day hike or traveling with a lot of gear for an overnight excursion. The area is also more diverse in the landscape with more trees and hilly terrain than the South Rim.

One of the more thrilling sites is the arch at Cape Royal. This is a natural stone arch that looks like a flying buttress from a Medieval cathedral. It juts out from the main canyon wall for about 100 yards and can be seen at a distance and then walked on top of. This is part of a simple 4 mile loop hike which is about a 2 hour trip even with slower walking children. The hike is a solid amount of time between other activities and a good warm up to get stretched and ready for longer hikes. I usually work on doing a few things each trip. Going on an old favorite or two and then trying something new. It can take a couple of days of solid work to see even most of the popular points, let alone all of the offshoots and locally known areas.

The Grand Canyon, regardless of the area you start exploring is a natural wonder that can’t be missed. The deep canyon, the stratified layers of rock, the wonderful colors, and the importance to the West and its formation are all important parts.

-Kenneth Watrous

Find more about me on www.kennethwatrous.com or follow me on twitter at @KennethWatrous

The Grand Canyon

Because the Watrous family lives in Las Vegas, we are just a day trip away from some really cool places. The Grand Canyon is one of those spots that many would say is something you have to see at least once in your lifetime. If you happen to live near the massive natural structure, it becomes more of a once a year for as many years as you can make it trip. From Vegas it is only a few hours to any of the major viewpoints. While there are some areas that can be traveled to in addition, little look offs and spots up country roads, the three major locations that have facilities and general attractions are the North Rim, South Rim, and West Skywalk areas. Each has a different appeal and some changes in the visuals.

For most people the South Rim is the place to go. This area accessed through the Arizona desert and is in northern Arizona is the definitive location. This is where most of the filming and videos of the canyon come from. This is also where the larger park is located with a visitors center, lodging, camping, and restaurants and so on. If you are one of those types of people that have always dreamed of doing a hike to the bottom of the canyon, this is also where most of these types of adventures are launched. Horse trails and the famous old mule trails are located on the South Rim and are open seasonally and maintained to keep a level of safety in tact. This is still a risky and tiring journey. More than a few people have to be helicoptered out of the canyon after collapsing from dehydration and exhaustion each year.

The South Rim is also where the canyon is widest. The views are often across a vista of reds and oranges and browns. Down below the Colorado River continues to cut the canyon deeper. The wide views show layers of rock and little chunks of vegetation clinging to divots in the canyon walls. Some places look like steps and some others have these just sheer drops of a thousand feet. The canyon is said to be 18 miles wide at the widest and over a mile deep at the deepest point.

The nearby airport and higher quality roads make the south Rim the most visited part of the canyon and there is a certain busy and touristy feel to it. Even so, it has some great views and some attractions. In addition to the trails down the canyon there are backcountry hiking packages and permits that can be picked up and there are launch points for traveling the river itself.

Catching the scope of the canyon is often difficult. Traveling to the bottom and coasting along the river are great ways to get a sense of what a canyon 277 miles long can be like, but to really see the whole thing would take weeks if not months. The rims are designed not only as great starting points, but also good ways to get a feel of the location quickly. The camping options on the South Rim are pretty good with a mixture of trailer areas and tent areas.

Catching a slower day can give you a better sense of the park and the canyon, but the busy days can also gives a sense of pride for living in the area as you see how many people from how many countries show up to just be in awe of the natural formations and the rich colors.

The South Rim is open nearly year round, with some restrictions for severe weather. This also means that you can see a difference in the landscapes from snow or the buzzing of insects and animals in the late spring when everything is brighter and more fresh. Overnight camping in some of the non-campground areas can be arranged with a permit and can be a great way to personalize the trip for you and the family. I would recommend the commercial areas for a first trip, to get a feel, but then to build your own experience on a repeat trip.

-Kenneth Watrous

Find more about me on www.kennethwatrous.com or follow me on twitter at @KennethWatrous

Camp cooking

I’m a food fan. There’s a lot of good eats for the Kenneth Watrous family in Las Vegas. But when you are out in nature, Red Lobster isn’t an option. That’s where camp cooking comes in.

Camp cooking is one of my favorite parts of getting outdoors. It isn’t just about the different food, or the rustic feel, it is about the ingenuity. I have a soft spot for just using raw fire to do things. Generally there are three types of camp cooking that I like to do.

The first is the butane or propane stove. This is the kind of equipment I use at a state campground to abide by the safety calls and is really more like grilling than anything. The part of it I like the most is the general working outside. Kitchens in campers, trailers, and homes can feel confining but just having a portable range in the middle of the plot can feel freeing.

The second is the dutch oven style where a large heavy cast iron container is buried with coals on top. This is the slow and dry heat cooking that you can do at home, if you are zoned for it, or sometimes people replicate it using an oven and come kind of smokeless coals. Not the best, but I’ve seen it done.

The third way to go is to use the fire pit itself. This is what I prefer along with the dutch oven when working in a rural campsite. I like to go the foil wrapped route with things like fish. You put in your seasoning, your fish, some liquid and wrap it all up in foil then push it directly into the fire. I don’t use any kind of thermometer, and sure some things get a bit black, but tasting some charcoal is all part of camping for me. I will use a wire or steel rack for cooking some of the things, depending on what kind of fire is going and if the fish is more delicate and I know it will need to be turned multiple times to infuse the flavors or to keep it from drying out.

Other essential camp cooking items can range depending on the types of food you want to cook but I have a list of what I always carry.

  • Tongs are one of those things you always need. I have two pairs, they need to be long enough to get into the fire and durable enough to grab readily with something to diffuse heat on the handles. I really don’t like the kinds of notched tongs that many barbecue sets come with, too much useless area and they really don’t grip well.
  • Durable flatware. It helps to have some stronger and more iron and steel based cutlery for the camping. The cheap aluminum and tin stuff that comes from the store will bend from the combination of heat and the sometimes tougher foods. Heavier stuff is also easier to find when dropped in the dirt at night and can tolerate being dropped into the fire for short periods of time. I’m against using plastic stuff because why waste the material.
  • Paper plates. Paper plates can be tossed into the fire to burn and don’t take up much space. It is also better than trying to scrape food and water is best used for drinking and limited washing. Some people like the metal plates and reusables, which can be fine, but make sure that your soap isn’t going to leave a residue, unless you have a camper with a waste water tank or such.
  • I gave up on the coffee percolator a while back. They are messy to clean and hard to use. Boiling water on a rack in a kettle and then using a French Press or the single mug filters is the better way to go. The equipment is easy to rinse and the grounds can be wrapped up in a bag to take back home without a problem.
  • Skewers. Some solid skewers that can be reused are better for roasting on the fire. Sticks have a certain nostalgia for being young and finding something durable but with a point. But the kids always end up just burning the sticks, and themselves, by the end of the night. Some twin ends can also be great for a whole variety of foods.

-Kenneth Watrous

Find more about me on www.kennethwatrous.com or follow me on twitter at @KennethWatrous

Setting out to Camp

Camping is one of those truly great ways to spend a weekend. The Watrous family loves to get out of Las Vegas and see what nature has to offer. We camp in lots of different places, using different tools.

Any more there are two general ways to set up a campsite. The first is for the kinds of half-roughing it style you find in many parks and other National sites where you have some government agency offering amenities such as showering and restroom facilities and also plots that you pay for and have to schedule ahead of time. The second is more of the rustic type of camping done off the beaten path and outside of system. I’m not saying one is better than the other, just that there are definitely two ways to go about packing, preparing, and setting up each one.

A park campground will have a few things to help out the semi-adventurer and backpackers. These, like I said, are often showers that offer some luke-warm water and some restrooms that might be full plumbing or some type of porta-potty with either a pit or some kind of chemical tank. These places should be used for their intended purposes and are kept up to varying degrees based on the time of year and how busy the seasons get. I don’t hold it against the park services employees that can’t keep these places really clean when a hundred people are wandering through them each day and many of those people assume that being outdoors means that any veil of civility is out the window.

The actual camp plot can have different options as well. Some are built for the hook-ups of larger camper trailers and will feature power and water connections. Some will just be small sections of grass. Some will be just dirt or some wood chips with a border of some kind. Some are advanced to having hooks set in concrete for different standard tent sizes and it is best to use these for ties instead of putting down your own stakes.

 

Some have fire pits that are below the ground level and others have more of a brick or rock fire mound. Always pay attention to what the rules for fire types and times are. It may seem to be that the modern world is taking away what it is to be outdoors and be camping, but these are tax provided places meant to accommodate the most people in the safest way. If you don’t like them, then go the other route.

When going totally outdoors the setup of the camp is still about safety, but it is up to you to build all that safety personally. A solid fire pit should be constructed in a place free of brush for at least 20 feet all around. It should be dug in and surrounded by rocks to prevent sparks and splintering embers from creating problems. Fully drenching or burying a fire before going to sleep is a must to prevent accidents. When you leave it is best to scoop up the ashes, fill in the hole, and spread the rocks back to where they were found. As much as possible bring in your own wood and try to leave everything better than the way it was found. This is general safety and courtesy to other campers and also a way to keep the wilderness the kind of place that can continue to be enjoyed. It isn’t even just about personal use or future use, it is about being responsible enough that the government won’t come in and force all the areas to be approved and regulated.

Set up tents in a clump together with some space between. Set them at least 30 feet from the fire and under healthy trees to provide some shade and water resistance. You want to make sure you pick relatively flat spaces. I keep an old straw broom to push the dirt around and move the sharper bits of sticks and bark out of the way. This is also helpful in desert areas to get sand back out of the tents. Food should be kept locked up in containers and is best kept above ground level in the truck. This will keep it from attracting animals. If you are totally roughing it there are food sacks sold with instructions on best storage to avoid these issues.

-Kenneth Watrous

Find more about me on www.kennethwatrous.com or follow me on twitter at @KennethWatrous

 

Out in the Morning

A good morning fishing trip starts before you get to the water. For the Kenneth Watrous family, that means getting out of Las Vegas and scouring spots on previous visits, talking to other fisherman, checking out what the local bait shop offers that is different than a sporting goods store, all of these can give some tips on what is in the area and how to best go about getting at it. The biggest mistake to make is just going to the water and hoping for the best. It isn’t that going in cold can’t be fun or a challenge, it is that most of us have busy lives and the difference between the passive patience that makes for a solid fishing trip and the boredom of knowing you aren’t going to pull anything out of the water can be pretty big.

My best trips are after going to a spot the night before and talking to other fishers about what they are using and what they have been catching. Even at places I have been before this gives me a better idea of things that have changed in the ecosystem since I was last around and helps me to set better expectations. This is especially important when you have a kid that is hitting the age where they can help out or even fish themselves. A few trips where you don’t get anything or it is really sparse don’t do the same job of really hooking the young ones on what fishing can be about. Not that they should expect to pull 10 pounders out every trip, but everyone likes to get some beginners luck in.

A morning trip is also best served by setting up the gear ahead of time. Have supply of whatever bait you might be hoping to use the most and then a backup or two in case you need to pull some superstition or you are after a few different fish. Me, I mostly go for one type at a time so I plan on that, but some people like to catch a variety for sport or they have something in mind. I suggest a single variety for cooking, mixing fish can be really tough. Some people expect that fish is fish and the differences will just be in a bit of flavor, but the truth is the flavors are really different sometimes, and the texture sand preparation can be really wide. Just try and cook a trout and a catfish the same way and watch the look on someone’s face as they eat both. Funny, but not good fishing.

Setting up the lures, hooks, and a few extra rigs in case of lost or snapped line is also a plan. Working in the dark when cold and tired is not the best way to deal with a losing gear to a snag or watching something you just about pulled into the boat run away with your gear because it was a little big for the net (or maybe that is just wishful thinking and basically all line breaks are snags). No reason not have at least a solid assortment of tackle with you, in case you want to experiment, need to do some unexpected repairs, or run into some other fishers that could use some basic items. I try not to take the full kit out, preferring to take different things from the big box at the house.

I think we’ve all snickered at someone out on a lake or walking the banks of a river that is hauling a toolbox filled with fly-fishing gear or deep sea lures because they bought them for some purpose at some time and just keep getting a bigger box instead of making better decisions on what to take with them.

I also try to work with the change in time. As the day warms up I try to move into the water further or head towards deeper spots as the fish move out of the shallows and start looking to hide. This is the best way to catch hungry fish that didn’t get enough to tide them over and can help avoid grass and rock beds in the shallows that can eat gear.

-Kenneth Watrous

Find more about me on www.kennethwatrous.com or follow me on twitter at @KennethWatrous

Night Fishing

Night fishing is one of my favorite activities with the Watrous Family. It gets us out of the hustle and bustle of Las Vegas and out where you can see the sky dimming as the stars come out.

The purpose of night fishing is different than morning fishing. I think in the morning there is more of a chance, and more of a drive to catch fish for eating purposes. Day fishing is the sportsman type where the idea is about getting the big one and showing that off in some way. Well, that is what day fishing is, certainly. It’s different from being in the boat. Night fishing is a lot more about the camaraderie. I like to take a stroll down a shoreline and check in with others fishing either alone, in groups, or with older children.

There is a fine community to fishing people, more than I see in any other outdoor activity. I think this is because the competition of fishing is more passive and the space is generally wider in the water and can be bunched on the shore. Hunting doesn’t work as a comrade type gathering because of the problems of the task. More than two or three people walking together starts to make a lot of noise and trying to walk up on people looking carefully for game can be counter to the purpose. But with fishing the idea of walking up to someone on the shore, asking them about their rig, asking them about their catches, bait, equipment. It isn’t just a thing that is more allowed it is a point of pride. Fishermen like to go into detail about the choices they made and why. There is as much a story behind the discovery of a particular effective lure as there is in how someone met their spouse.

Another great things about the work that gets done with night fishing is trying out some new tactics and equipment. You hear a particularly good story of success about a combination of bait and tackle and you think, hell, I’ll try that. It is dark enough to help with the fishing but not so dark that it is hard to see. It is also generally warm, even when fishing in colder climates (warm as compared to trying to reset a whole rig at 5 am in the cold) and so the whole thing can be really easy to go about and set up.

A tip for people who are looking to actually eat some fish on a camping trip, if you aren’t particularly good at catching things yourself, striking up a friendly conversation with someone that seems to just be pulling them in can be a good way to get a few for the family. With the limits on what you can carry out of a fishing spot with a license, some fisherman that enjoy the catching but maybe get tired of releasing as the night grows on will be more than happy to share a few. Hell they already caught them, and limits are limits, if you have a license but lack the skill, no reason not to share the wealth, or something close to.

Night fishing is also the place to see where the different fish are pooling. Sure, a few scouting trips and a good eye will show you where the insects are landing, where bubbles are showing activity, you can also know what kinds of nooks in the lake are deeper and more likely to be spawning grounds and so on. But it can be really hard to know what species is in which part of the lake. Knowing enough about the fish to know what they prefer in the ways of temperature can help, but without a lot of trial and error or some fish finder gear, there really isn’t a way to know for sure on a new lake. Asking what people are catching and watching where they are is a great way to plan out a trip for the morning, or even a second trip later in the season.

-Kenneth Watrous

Find more about me on www.kennethwatrous.com or follow me on twitter at @KennethWatrous

In the boat

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Getting out on the water and taking a ride around is always a shift in experience. The first ride of the season is a bit more of a punch: the spray, the sun, the kids hooping at the wind and speed, even though we are going less fast than in the truck. But there is something about the open environment and the way water works where you certainly feel the speed more. Once we get going we like to do a few laps of the inner circle. This is the middle area of the lake that will be packed with houseboats and the sort of floating cakes that people like to be out on. They don’t move much and it gets hard to maneuver in the later portion of the day. So we like to skate through this area a few times early in the morning before it isn’t really possible.

From there it is a slow orbit around the whole lake. We especially like to see where the other fishers are dotting the banks or slowly trawling around. This will give us a clue to where we want to go later in the evening or early the next two days and really catch something. Getting out to go fishing by itself is something I normally do on a solitary trip. The kids are excited for things like fishing, but after having them in the car and waking them up early they are really excitable and don’t tend to have the patience for any kind of fishing. So we go around in the boat and have some tunes and some drinks and enjoy being in the sun where we can cool it down by blasting out across the spray a bit every now and then.

The other great thing about boating is the experience of seeing the day change. You set out on the boat and by the time you come back around to the same point, the sun is higher, there are more people out, the smells change. It is like being your own clock. Just circling and letting the day change. The rest of the time can be really simple. You can play travel games or cards. Any of the activities that you might do in a car are easier to do on a boat. The kids enjoy just being out where they can look out at the water or down at the way the boat floats. We play some games, we eat a packed lunch of sandwiches and chips and soda. We drift along and I occasionally move us a little if we are drifting too far from other people.

It is easy enough to drop anchor and sit as well, but I like the process of starting somewhere towards the middle and drifting until we are near shore. Eventually we will get the boat back to the marina and park it for the night or pull it out and back on the trailer depending on the fees for the time of year. A few bucks for the night is generally worth not having to haul it up and out and possibly catch the truck wheels in the water.

We then get to our campsite in the area around the lake. Set up tents and get everything arranged before it starts getting dim. An early dinner that can be cleaned up as it gets dark and then the decision of what to do. Do we want to catch some fishing, do a little night boating, if its sparse and we left the boat docked, or stories and marshmallows around a fire?
The fire will come out and so will the marshmallows, eventually, but it is a question of what energy people have left. Usually if the sunburns have been avoided, nobody is too warm from the day, we haven’t had any problems, then we just take it easy and go the fire and marshmallows route. I will leave halfway through for a walk around with the pole, check some of the spots that we scouted from the boat earlier. Getting to the point that I can take my oldest out on these trips and not distress anyone.