Monday, July 6, 2015

No Flame, No Problem? A Review of the Barocook Flameless Cook System

The small packet reacted ferociously within seconds of adding water, an entertaining display of chemistry that soon began pumping out enough heat to cook a simple meal.

As my test of the Barocook flameless cooking system revealed, this novel addition to the pantheon of backcountry cooking options does work, but at a cost of both money and weight. Overall, it's more of a novelty than a go-to cook system, though it does have potential value for inside-the-tent use during severe weather, especially in winter conditions.

The Barocook system features an outer plastic container and inner cookpot that nest together. Photo: Matt Heid
Here's how it works. The cook system consists of four components: an outer plastic container, an inner stainless steel pot that nests closely inside, a plastic lid that clamps down over the top, and a chemical packet.

To operate the system, you remove the chemical packet from its wrapper and place it flat in the bottom of the outer container. You then pour a small amount of water over the packet (the empty wrapper serves as a measuring device for how much to add, including a fill line). Now quickly place the cook pot inside the container, seal the lid, and sit back and watch chemistry in action.

A tight-fitting plastic lid clamps to the sides of the cook system to effectively trap heat. Photo: Matt Heid
The packet quickly heats the water in the outer container to boiling, which creates steam that soon begins shooting out from under the edges of the lid. This sufficiently heats the overlying pot and its contents to near-boiling temperatures. The reaction lasts for roughly 10 minutes, by which point nearly all of the water in outer container has boiled away. Residual heat in the now swollen packet continues to produce warmth for several minutes longer.

Hot water is useful in and of itself for reconstituting dehydrated meals or making hot drinks, but I also tested the system's cooking ability with some quick-cooking macaroni pasta. You want to avoid removing the lid while heating is underway to trap maximal warmth, so I added the pasta to the cold water beforehand. Sure enough, the Barocook was able to adequately heat the water for long enough to cook the pasta.

Barocook systems comes in a range of different sizes and shapes (most are rectangular rather than round). I tested the BC-010 model; its 1-liter cookpot is one of their larger offerings. 

Success aside, there are some significant drawbacks to Barocook that make it more of a novelty than a practical everyday solution on the trail. It's heavy—the model I tested weighs in at well over a pound (21 ounces). The cook system is relatively inexpensive (around $40) but you need a collection of expensive single-use chemical packets to use it, which run roughly $3 each (like this 5-pack on Amazon).

And then there are a few quirky issues. First, there's not a lot of space between the outer plastic container and inner cookpot. If you add even a little too much water to the outer container, boiling water will start squirting out from underneath the lid as the reaction unfolds—not particularly safe. Second, once all the water in the outer container has boiled away, the chemical packet still puts out substantial heat, which can actually deform the plastic container—you need to remember to take it within 20 minutes of cooking, an important task easily forgotten. (You can read more about the Barocook system on this FAQ page.)

Overall, the only potential applications I could think of where a Barocook might outperform a traditional cooker would be situations where you absolutely had to cook inside your tent due to extreme conditions (caught in a winter storm, say), when a Barocook would be a safer option than an open flame; or in very windy conditions that would make lighting or heating with a flame difficult to impossible. (Though even in both these cases, a self-contained cook system like those from JetBoil can be used with reasonable safety and success.) 

Barocook is a Japanese product (with sometimes clunky English translation on its website) that can be found with some online searching in the U.S. Some Barocook products may become available in U.S. stores later this year.

Equipped” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Matt Heid.

Monday, June 29, 2015

It's a Plate. It's a Bowl. It's a Cutting Board. No, It's a Frisbee.

Add this to your list of camping hacks. Sure, there are a zillion different solutions for backcountry plates and bowls. You can choose from a massive selection made from plastic, titanium, stainless steel, or even collapsible silicone. Or perhaps you prefer a lightweight plastic food container. Or maybe you just eat straight out of the pot and don't carry any plate or bowl at all.

But one of my favorite solutions is a lightweight Frisbee, such as the Wham-O! Pro-Classic. Why? It's like an oversized plate and bowl in one. As a big guy and big eater, I love its larger size. When I eat sloshy meals, the Frisbee's upturned, vertical edges helps keep it contained. The larger size and shallow depth also helps boiling-hot food cool down quicker for more rapid consumption. Its diameter is big enough to rest on your lap for use as a cutting board. It slides easily into your pack for easy stowing. And, of course, you can actually use it to play Frisbee with your friends.

Sure, it's not the lightest option out there (the Pro-Classic weighs in at 4.5 ounces), but it is without doubt one of the most fun solutions you can find for your dining needs.

Disc on!

Equipped” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Matt Heid.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

How to Protect Your Food from Bears: A Review of the Backcountry Options

The black bear population is exploding in New England, particularly in Vermont and Massachusetts.

As a recent article in the Boston Globe recounts, the number of bears in Vermont has doubled over the past two decades, to an estimated 6,000. In Massachusetts, the population is nine times larger today than 30 years ago (an estimated 4,500 bruins now roam the Bay State). And while the rate of population growth is less in New Hampshire, there are still at least 1,000 more black bears today (approximately 5,700) than a decade ago.

Maine has more black bears (approximately 30,000) than the rest of New England combined, including this one near St. Croix Junction. Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Flickr
As the bear population increases, the odds of an encounter in the backcountry rise as well—especially the chance of an encounter between a bear and your food. To keep your food safe (and to help prevent bears from developing an association between hikers and food), here are the options.

Hang It
To be bear-proof, food must be suspended at least 10 feet off the ground and 8 feet from the trunk. To accomplish this, you'll need to carry 50 to 100 feet of thin cord and two stuff sacks.
  1. Look for a load-bearing branch 20 to 25 feet overhead that extends far enough from the trunk. 
  2. Tie a rock or other heavy object to one end of the cord and toss it over the branch. Before doing so, make sure the cord is fully uncoiled and not a snarled mass. Step on the opposite end of the line so it doesn’t get pulled out of reach in the tossing process. 
  3. Divide your food into two stuff sacks. 
  4. Attach one to the cord and pull it up to the branch. 
  5. Attach the other sack to the cord as high up as you can reach. A small carabiner makes this easier; tie a figure-eight on a bight overhead and then clip the sack to it. 
  6. Place the remaining cord inside the sack so it doesn’t dangle. 
  7. Push up the second stuff sack using a trekking pole or long stick until it is at the same level as the first. 
  8. Sleep well!
Can It
A bear canister is a heavy-duty container that is impenetrable to even the wiliest bruin. They're heavy, bulky, and require some practice to pack well, but are the ultimate no-fail defense. A range of options are available, including:
  • The classic black Garcia Backpackers Cache ($75, capacity: 615 cubic inches). It's heavy (2 pounds, 12 ounces) but indestructible; buy one and you're set for the rest of your life. The lid locking mechanism requires either a coin or flathead screwdriver (like the one on many pocket knives and multi-tools)—keeping one handy in your pocket makes life much more convenient.
  • The BearVault, which is available in two sizes. The larger Model BV500 ($80) is 3 ounces lighter than the Garcia, and features a wider opening and additional capacity (70 cubic inches). In using these, however, I've found the screw-top lid-locking mechanism to be frustrating to deal with, especially in wet conditions.
  • Other options include the mega-beefy Counter Assault Bear Keg ($80, 3.5 pounds, capacity: 716 cubic inches) and the Bearikade, which comes in several sizes. Bearikades are the lightest weight and most expensive canister options available (the Weekender version weighs in at 31 ounces with a capacity of 650 cubic inches but runs a whopping $288).
Sack It
Over the years I've hung my food many times and lugged a bear canister on dozens of trips (mostly in Alaska). I've also oft lamented the hassle of hanging and the headache of heavy canisters. Which is why I've long been intrigued by the Ursack, an indestructible stuff sack made from Spectra fabric.

The Ursack S29 Allwhite ($69) weighs in at a mere 7.8 ounces, has a capacity of 650 cubic inches, and was certified as an effective bear-resistant product by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee in 2014. (If you prefer that your food doesn't get crushed by a bear attempting to get inside, you can add a 10.8-ounce aluminum liner for an extra $21.50). To keep bears from running off with it, you'll need to tie its unbreakable drawcord to a tree or other immovable object.

The Ursack has some entertaining videos of bears attempting (and failing) to get into an Ursack. This one is pretty good:

Equipped” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Matt Heid.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Sleeping Bag Hints, From Dusk Until Dawn

  1. Unstuff your sleeping bag well before bedtime, letting it fully regain its loft and warmth.
  2. If it’s chilly out, place a chemical heat warmer or hot water bottle in your sleeping bag about an hour before bedtime to kickstart warmth.
  3. Eating a dinner high in fat on cold nights generates longer-lasting heat than a carb-heavy meal.
  4. Wearing a liner balaclava while you sleep provides head and neck coverage. Bonus: It doesn’t shift around or fall off when you toss and turn.
  5. Don’t breathe into your hood. The moisture will collect in the insulation and slowly compromise warmth, especially in down sleeping bags.
  6. In the morning, stuff your sleeping bag tail-first to prevent the footbox from ballooning. Turn the bag inside out if it has a wind-resistant shell.
  7. Invest in a compression stuff sack. This will reduce the size of your stuffed bag by a third or more.
  8. At home, never store your sleeping bag compressed in its stuff sack. Doing so will permanently crush the insulation and reduce the bag’s warmth.
This story originally appeared in the May/June issue of AMC Outdoors, alongside the column "Choosing the Right Three-Season Sleeping Bag."

Photo by Baciu/Shutterstock

Monday, June 15, 2015

The Best Way to Compress an Inflatable Sleeping Pad? Know This Simple Trick.

If you've ever packed an inflatable sleeping pad, you've almost certainly discovered how challenging it can be to fully deflate it. Even a small amount of residual air increases the pad's size when it's rolled up, which can result in an intense wrestling match between you, your still-slightly-puffy sleeping pad, and the pad's stuff sack.

Knowing when to open and close the valve is the key to maximum deflation. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Even without a stuff sack challenge, knowing how to maximally deflate your sleeping pad allows you to carry it in its most compact form—always a plus. So here's how to do it. 
  1. Open up the sleeping pad valve and deflate the pad by rolling it firmly toward the open valve. (Kneeling on the pad roll after every turn or two pushes the air out quicker.)
  2. Once you reach the end and the pad is fully rolled up, close the valve.
  3. Keep the valve closed and unroll the mostly deflated pad.
  4. Now, with the valve still closed, roll the pad up as tightly as possible. As you roll it up, the small amount of residual air will be forced to the end. 
  5. Once the pad is nearly rolled up, with only a small pocket of air remaining at the end, open the valve and force out the residual air. Close the valve once final time, and voila, maximum deflation.
Of course, you can avoid the minor irritation of the inflation-deflation game entirely by going with a foam pad instead (see: Therm-a-Rest Z-Lite), but if comfort makes the call you can't beat the cush of an inflatable pad. Roll on!

Learn More:
“Equipped” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Matt Heid.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Why I Hate Trail Mix

Something happens to high-calorie trail snacks when you mix them all together. More often than not, the result is far less appetizing than the sum of its flavors. 

"Trail mix" is a description given to a broad collection of hiking snack mixtures. They typically include some combination of nuts and dried fruit, plus some form of chocolate. All three are calorie bombs that each deliver 100 calories per ounce or more of energy. Collectively, the mixture provides fast-fueling sugars and other simple carbs for quick energy, plus longer burning fat and protein to keep you going all day.

Yuck. One bad ingredient can ruin the mix.
Here's the thing, though: In my experience, having one bad ingredient in the mix—meaning one ingredient that you don't really like—soils the entire bag. And just about every bag of pre-made, store-bought trail mix contains something that rubs my tongue the wrong way.

Here are the culprits, ranked loosely according to how badly they ruin trail mix for me.    
  • Banana chips: Why are fresh bananas so good, and banana chips so disgusting? I don't know, but for me the presence of this evil ingredient permanently contaminates any trail mix. 
  • Dried coconut: Another overpowering flavor presence and trail mix killer. 
  • Dried pineapple, papaya, and kiwi:  The texture and sweet, icky taste of these three contrast harshly with salty trail mix ingredients.
  • Carob: Simply gross.
  • Raisins: These wrinkly little fellows are OK by themselves, but are far from my favorite food, especially when they're hanging out in trail mix.
  • M&M's: Don't get me wrong. I'm a big fan of trail chocolate, and often eat a candy bar or two (Snickers, anyone?) on long hikes. It's just that I find the hard, crunchy shells of M&M's to be a jarring and unpleasant texture contrast in trail mix.
  • Peanuts and cashews: I can live with these—my two least favorite nuts—if I have to. Barely.   
Now don't get me wrong. There are a few trail mixes I do like (my personal go-to is Costco's Wholesome Fruit & Nuts.) It's just that nearly every store-bought version of anything labeled "trail mix" fails in one or more of the above categories.

I'm a big proponent of carrying and regularly noshing on nutritious, high-calorie trail snacks. The key is to make sure you find them delicious to eat. If you don't share my myriad issues with various trail mix ingredients, more power to you. But usually the best bet is to simply make your own trail mix to ensure that you like everything in it.

Hike on.

“Equipped” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Matt Heid.

Monday, June 1, 2015

How to Stay Dry(ish) in Heavy Rain

If you’re hiking in a steady downpour, you will eventually get soaked, no matter what you’re wearing. But you can stay drier longer with these simple tips:
  • Push up your sleeves. If you’re wearing long sleeves under your rain jacket, push them up your forearms or above the elbow to prevent cuff-leaking water from wicking up the fabric and into your layers.
  • Your wrists are a common leak point. Tightly seal the cuffs on your rain jacket or water will slowly find its way in.
  • Ventilate to the max. Forget about your jacket being “breathable” once incessant rain saturates the outer layer of fabric. To compensate, fully open pit zips if you’ve got them, loosen the jacket around your waist so air can flow freely upward, and open the top zipper as much as conditions allow.
  • Accept wet feet. Even fully waterproof boots will fill with moisture as water wicks down your socks. Long rain pants and/or waterproof gaiters help stave off the inevitable, but even they will eventually be breached.
  • Consider an umbrella. In a sustained deluge, an ultralight hiking umbrella may actually be your best protection.
This column originally appeared in the print edition of AMC Outdoors along with the column "Choosing the Right Rain Gear." 

Photograph from iStock.