Into the Foyest

When you step into our house, the entryway is grand… and barren. We have no idea how to decorate or fill the area between the front door and the swooping stairway. It’s not really laid out as a space for people to gather, but we don’t have much need for a hatrack or other “entryway” furniture items. And I’m scared of putting out too many tables or that sort of thing, because I know I’d be tempted to leave out mail and to-do notes and other bits of clutter that would accumulate.

After several drinks at Thanksgiving, two of our friends, Victor and Aaron, were riffing on what to do with this space. They noticed the all the plants we had scattered around the living room, and suggested (with the logic of drinkers everywhere) that it would be cool to gather all the plants into this foyer area and turn it into a foyer forest; a foyest.

The idea stuck.

Separately, I had wanted to grow orchids. These require light, humidity, and warmth. I don’t have the resources to pull off a full greenhouse, so humidity and well-regulated warmth are out. But I can get hardy orchids and at least control the light, right? And with regular watering/misting, they might have a shot. However, they require good drainage, which usually translates into “pour water at the top, watch water pour out of the bottom.” If you’re inside a finished house, that water needs to go somewhere that doesn’t cause trouble.

Thus was born the idea of the Water-Proofed Corner Orchid Wall that would form the backdrop of a foyest. The plan was to construct two vertical surfaces from which it would be easy to hang plants, and attach them in on L-shape so it would be self-supporting. The back part of the wall would have plastic sheeting, so any water from e.g. misting would condense on the sheet and run down. At the base of the wall, I would install a trough to collect water. Finally, I would construct a narrow bench at bottom of the wall for additional plants to sit on. This bench would be sightly angled back, and would have rubber underneath, so any excess water could also drain into the trough.

I had some rubber material left over from a project. The plastic sheeting was simply a cheap painter drop-cloth, doubled on itself. In a stroke of luck, I found 3′ wide fiberglass troughs at the nearby hardware re-use store. The size of these troughs dictated the dimensions of the project.

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I whipped together a quick framing of 2×2 lumber posts (painted red in the above). I attached the plastic to this framing, then over it attached old 3″ fir boards which were recycled from flooring lumber.

Here’s a close-up of the trough; note that the backdrop plastic sheeting extends into it.

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Obviously, this wasn’t a fancy project with stellar wood-working. I know these boards will be exposed to moisture and this won’t be long-lasting, so the goal is to have something presentable but not perfect.

I was worried that over time, the trough might accumulate water and be hard to empty out. In practice, it evaporates out quickly enough that this hasn’t been a problem.

Once the walls were finished, I extended out a bench with rubber underneath the boards. It’s not obvious from the photos, but the bench slopes back slightly so water will drain into the trough. This has proven to be an absolutely wonderful design, because I can freely water my plants and trust the water won’t go anywhere bad.

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The hardest part was actually figuring out how to rig the lighting. I had LED grow light tubes which I wanted to illuminate the plants hanging from the wall, as well as on the bench. These tubes would ideally float in space about 1′ out from the wall, above everything. But how? My solution is clunky, but I just built out some braced extensions at the top that let me attach lights over the whole affair.

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As a final (but very big) touch, my wife found the perfect bit of used furniture, a big square bench with a hole in the middle. Perfect for a huge centerpiece plant, to truly make it a foyest!

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John Muir Trail, Part 4: Food

Planning meals for backpacking trips is hard. Foods need to be optimized for weight and – to a lesser degree – space. You want to bring just the right amount of food to be satiated, without being wasteful. People in your group must actually want to eat the food you bring. There should be sufficient variety to ensure you look forward to meals; but also, you want to avoid having to do too much planning and testing. Avoid meals that require long simmer times, which wastes fuel and patience. Watch out for “messy” recipes that involve oil or making glop which will be a pain to clean.

While you’re on the trail, the normal rules for nutrition are flipped; you want abundant fats, carbohydrates, simple sugar and salt. My main metric is “energy density;” how many calories per gram does something contain? The higher the calorie density, the more efficient it is to carry. Nuts and candy (sugar) are more than 5 calories per gram; dehydrated beans and rice are about 3 calories per gram.

How much food to bring?

Strenuous backpacking burns about 4000-6000 calories per day. Don’t plan on eating that much per day; it would weigh a lot (even 6000 calories of energy-rich almonds would weigh 1.2 kg or 2.6 lbs), and you’ll find that your appetite won’t match your energy demands.Most people who hike the JMT will lose 5-10 lbs. You’ll still be eating more than usual; a single “normal” serving for a 2000 daily calorie diet is too little.

I generally plan for 1.5 servings per person, with a 3000 daily calorie target; and I aim for about 1.3 – 1.5 lbs of food per person per day (590-680g).

Assuming you’re doing the JMT in 21 days, that is about 27-31 lbs of food per person. Most people divide their meals and mail their food in advance to resupply points at Tuolumne meadows (optional); Red’s Meadow (Devil’s Postpile); and Muir Trail Ranch. Even so, there is no easy resupply south of Muir Trail Ranch, and the stretch from Muir Trail Ranch to Whitney Portal will take 9-10 days, so you’ll need to carry 12-15 lbs of food.

If you bring a bit too much food, you can leave it the resupply locations for other hungry backpackers. Likewise, you can almost certainly scrounge for extra food at these spots, or buy extras from the stores. The PCT hikers in particular are voracious; their appetite has had enough time to adapt to match their energy needs. Sometimes you’ll find kind souls have organized the spare goodies, like in this bear box at Red’s Meadow:

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Give us our daily soup

One thing I’ve learned from my dad is the importance of soup when backpacking. After a long day on the trail, within a few minutes of arriving to camp I’ll start heating water for soup. It does wonders to restore spirits, erase cranky moods, and it will keep you warm as you finish setting up camp.

Oatmeal is yucky, granola is tasty

OK, maybe that’s a bit strong, but watch it on the heated breakfast glop. Cream of wheat and oatmeal are super-easy to pack and are nutritious, but you might face a rebellion if you try to serve that stuff every day. Sometimes, oatmeal just seems so… depressing and not fun to eat. Even though it’s served cold, granola (or other cereals) always seem to be something people look forward to.

“Lunch” is a series of snacks

I’d suggest that you don’t plan for a single large mid-day meal, but instead bring a steady stream of snacks you can eat throughout the day. Usually, this is some combination of energy bars, dried fruit, nuts, candy, and jerky; and also, powdered drink mixes for electrolytes and quick sugar.

Freeze-dried food packets?

It’s tempting to just buy the freeze-dried food packets which are ubiquitous at mountaineering stores (Mountain House, Alpine Aire, etc). This isn’t a bad option; some of these are quite tasty! But be sure to consider a few things first:

  • A single serving is too small; you’ll definitely want to plan 1.5 – 2x servings per person. Give the calories and serving sizes a careful look.
  • Read the directions ahead of time, because some packets aren’t just-add-water; e.g. we discovered a yakisoba noodle dish directions included stir-frying for 10 minutes, which was tricky with our cook kit on a windy day.
  • Test all the meals at home. We found that one of our friends just couldn’t stand certain items, they upset her stomach.
  • You’ll need to carry out the bags as waste; this can add up.
  • The food packets can be rather pricey. You can buy them in bulk online, but even so the costs can add up.

Meals that worked well

Breakfast

  • Granola, 3/4 cups per person, with powdered milk pre-mixed in (we used soy milk powder – to each their own).
  • Powdered eggs (1/2 cup dry) served on top of mashed potatoes (1/2 cup dry)
  • Additionally, somewhat watered down powdered protein shake

“Lunch” snacks

Note that lunch is, by a significant margin, the heaviest meal.

  • Assortment of energy bars, e.g. Kind bars, Clif bars, etc.
  • Turkey jerky
  • Drinks
  • Dried fruit – mango and ginger. Note that Trader Joes unsweetened mangos are reliably cheap and good quality.
  • Nuts

Dinner

  • Soup
    • Freeze-dried split pea (1/2 dry cup per person)
    • Miso (weighs practically nothing)
  • Cous-cous
    • Bulk cous-cous is cheap!
    • For each person, 1.25 cups dry cous-cous, plus veggie soup bullion cube, raisins, and sliced almonds (stored separately).
    • (Optional) Add a small glug of olive oil to liven it up
  •  Black beans and rice
    • For each person, 3/4 cups dehydrated black beans mixed with 3/4 cups instant rice
    • Add dehydrated veggies, 1 tbsp tomato powder, and chili powder to taste
  • These chow mein noodles – one bag per person.
  • Tea after dinner is lovely; it keeps people warm and hydrated, and weighs very little.

Packing

Remove excess packaging before leaving, and combine items where it makes sense. For example, I unbagged the chow mein noodles and put several together into a zip lock bag. For some foods, consider repackaging in double-bagged paper sacks which can be burned at your campsite, to avoid having to carry the waste.

Bring a backup meal

I always pack an extra breakfast + lunch + dinner in case plans changes or there is a problem. This has saved me on multiple occasions!

Figure out your bear cans

You are required to bring bear cans, and to completely fit all your food into them. Depending on your itinerary and resupply points, you will probably need the capacity to carry between 9-11 days of food. Make sure your food fits! For the three of us, we needed four 700 cubic inch bear cans.

Test your food and cook kit

I know I’ve said this earlier, but it’s really important that your group goes on a “test run” backpacking trip before your big JMT trip. Make sure that your “kitchen” works for you; does the stove heat water fast enough? Is the pot steady or could it tip over? Do you need a way to hold the pot to pour water into your mugs? Will people eat this food? Is there too little or too much?

John Muir Trail, Part 3: Gear

What should you pack for a 200+ mile journey? Everyone starts knowing that they need as light a pack as possible, and promise to carry as little as possible; but all too often, they wind up carrying too much.

I think some people get caught in a “high-tech gear” mentality that causes its own problems. It’s tempting to believe that if you purchase the newest, lightest weight stuff, you can cut the weight and be more prepared. While it’s true that you can often spend $100 extra to shave a few grams, the returns on high-end camping gear are rapidly diminishing. For the most part, I urge buyers on focus on the middle-quality stuff; neither the heavy lowest-priced stuff, nor the extremely expensive ultra-light gear. But more importantly, avoid the mindset of buying neat gadgets that aren’t absolutely required.

A corollary of carrying as little as possible is deliberately planning to not prepare for certain circumstances; it’s impossible to bring enough gear for all contingencies. I’d suggest you list the climate ranges and obstacles you are planning for, and which conditions you are knowingly unprepared for.

Climate

Plan for mostly dry weather, with high exposure. During the daytime, you’ll usually be wearing shorts and t-shirts; you’ll be sweating a lot. Evenings can get cold quickly, down to freezing – but usually not too far below freezing.

  • A 3-season 15-degree sleeping bag is fine.  Don’t bring a 4-season monster sleeping bag; it’s not worth the weight and space. 
  • There may be rain; usually in the form of afternoon thundershowers. I’d suggest agreeing that rain will just suck, and you should only bring minimal rain gear like a lightweight jacket that doubles as a wind breaker. Consider whether you really need that pack cover.
  • Skip the ice gear unless you’re hiking early in the season, or it was a known big snow year. Leave the crampons, ice axes, and gaiters at home.

Mosquitos

Mosquitos can be bad, especially early in the season. Always bring some high-power DEET repellent; skip the hand-wringing about natural alternatives or lower-concentration stuff. If you’re going early in the season, bring a hat that has a mosquito net.

Otherwise, there’s not much extra gear you should bring; if bugs are a big problem, you can try to camp at higher elevations.

Hygine

Plan to be dirty and stinky. Accept it, and embrace it. Make a pact with your fellow travelers that nobody will mind a bit of B.O. and throw out the deodorant, creams, etc. Do not plan to use soap on your person; it’s not good for the fragile environment, and what’s the point?

Yes, you should of course occasionally towel off in a stream or jump into a lake. Hand-wash clothes in a stream. But you’ll find that once you get to camp after a long day and the chill sets in, it’s awfully hard to be as motivated to stay clean – and that’s OK.

You do  want to keep your sleeping bag clean. Your skin is covered with nasty dust + sunblock + mosquito repellent. At a minimum, I wipe my arms and nest off every evening, and wear clean(-ish) thermal underwear in my sleeping bag.

First aid

You’ll hear all sorts of wide-ranging advice on how much first-aid preparedness is needed, and how extensive your first-aid kit should be. I’m not at all an expert, and I’d suggest checking out this book (if you’re bringing an e-reader, be sure to carry a copy). That being said,  weight is limited, so any first-aid kit will need to make trade-offs weighted by the likelihood and consequences of various potential issues. You should plan for the problems you know you’ll have: in particular, there will be blisters, so bring lots of mole skin and blister care; and it’s all too easy to twist a knee or ankle, so bring ace bandages. You’ll want lots of ibuprofin for muscle pain and headaches. Your first aid kit should cover cuts, burns, allergic reactions (benadryl); but you can’t plan for everything. You might want to ask your doctor about altitude medication, but results may vary.

Water treatment

While on the trail, I heard several people proudly say that they don’t bother to treat their water and drink directly from the streams. While the Sierra water is pretty clean and you certainly won’t die doing this, there is a real issue with the parasite giardia; in fact, my dad got this several years ago in the Sierras. It’s not all that bad, but it’s not at all fun and would ruin your trip.  Treat your water.

Shoes

The single most important piece of gear to get right is your hiking shoes. Badly fitting or inappropriate shoes will ruin a trip; it’s entirely in your control to get right.  You should ensure your shoes are broken in, and that you’ve gone on a test trip  while carrying a full backpacking load up and down rough terrain.

It seems that hiking shoes have become increasingly popular; we saw a number of people hiking in them. I still like a full boot (especially when in rougher and rockier terrain) but boots certainly cause more blisters. A lot of people on the trail were wearing mini-gaters to keep gravel and dust out of their boots; it’s the 2016 hiker style!

Navigation

Any device with batteries is not to be trusted. Do NOT rely on GPS devices or your phone. Bring a good topo map, and know how to read it.

Phones

Mobile phones aren’t useful on the trail, and they’re surprisingly heavy. That being said, a phone is incredibly useful the moment you finish your journey, or if you have to leave the trail. I’d suggest bringing one phone per group.

Packing Lists

Everyone has a different goal for what a pack should weigh. It depends on your tolerance for losing certain comforts, hiking speed, how much food you eat, etc. My personal goal is that my fully-loaded pack, with 9 days of food and two liters of water, should be at most 40lbs (~18kg).

My meals average about 1.3lbs per person per day; so 9 days of food weighs about 12lbs. Two liters of water weigh about 4lbs. This means that my target maximum weight for a pack without food is about 26 lbs (~12kg).

Everyone has different packing lists. The REI JMT list is a fine place to start. I’d suggest that you think about your gear not as one list, but as:

  • Core – my required items
  • Shared – items the entire group uses (so the weight can be split)
  • Group optional – “extras” for the entire group
  • Personal optional – “extras” for me
  • Food

Core (target: 17lbs)

My core “personal essentials” backpack kit should weigh in at less than 17lbs. (For the purpose of weighing, I exclude the clothes I’m wearing – so I’m not counting the boots and one outfit). For the JMT, I packed:

  • Boots
  • Backpack
  • Empty water bottles
  • Flashlight (head lamp) and spare batteries
  • Rain cover for backpack (I just use a big trash bag)
  • Pair of sandals
  • Clothes
    • 3 changes underwear
    • 3 changes thick socks
    • 1 thermal underwear pants (for sleeping and cold mornings)
    • 3 fast-drying short-sleeve shirts
    • 1 pair fast-drying shorts
    • 1 pair fast-drying long pants
    • Small towel
    • Long-sleeve layer (thin and warm)
    • Down jacket
  • Note pad and pencil (not pen)
  • Sleeping bag (15 degree, goose down)
  • Sleeping pad 
  • Toothbrush, floss, toothpaste
  • Cash, credit card, ID, insurance card
  • Knife / multi-use tool
  • Sunglasses
  • Chapstick
  • Mosquito repellent
  • Sun block (8oz per person, for 20 days)
  • Toilet paper
  • Duct tape
  • Lighters (2 per person)

 

Duct tape is incredibly useful stuff. Besides fixing gear, you can wrap your feet to prevent blisters. I’d suggest as much as 4 yds/person. A good way to pack duct tape is to wrap it around your water bottle.

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I know I’ll be pilloried for saying this, but I don’t think a compass is necessary. There are enough features in the Sierras that you’ll be fine as long as you can read a topo map and can figure out which way is roughly North.

I’ve found that a pair of sandals is absolutely essentialNot only do your feet demand you slip into something different when you reach camp, but sandals are also useful for river crossings, and are a measure of last resort if your boots become unbearable and you need to wear something. I love my lightweight, fast-drying closed-toe sandals.

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Shared (target: 6 lbs / person)

The per-person weight of shared gear of course depends on how many people are hiking together and sharing tents.

  • Maps
  • First-aid kit – I’d suggest packing your blister-care and ibuprofin separately, since you’ll be reaching for these much more often. 
  • Cook kit
    • Fuel
    • Stove
    • Pot
    • Cups
    • Utensils
    • Brillo pad – just a small square to clean-up
    • A bit of soap – you don’t need much, just 1-2 oz of Dr. Bronners. Cleans out cook kit if it gets oily. 
    • Salt, pepper, red pepper flakes
  • Tents
    • It’s a good idea to bring a tent footprint too, to help keep water out and reduce wear on the tent. Instead of buying a fancy tent-specific footprint, you just cut out a footprint from the 0.4mm plastic sheets used for painting.
    • My wife and I shared a tent; but I’d suggest considering personal tents. They weigh about the same fractional weight as a shared tent; and you’ll probably sleep better not being right next to someone.
  • Bear cans – there are different models; but the 700 cubic inch Bear Vault was by far the most popular choice. It weighs 2.5 lbs; we needed 4 of these cans to carry 10 days of food for 3 people.
  • Small shovel – for toilet needs. Plastic shovels do break; there are light metal shovels. 
  • Water purification – strongly recommended to bring a backup pump.
  • Spare nylon cord (at least 20 feet), nylon straps – it’s always useful to have some extra nylon cord – it can be a clothes line; fix shoe laces; fix backpacks; strap gear on; hold a tarp; etc. 

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Water purification

There are a growing number of purification options. Most people avoid iodine (except as a backup) because you have to wait and it tastes weird. For pumps, make sure you can either clean it if it gets clogged, or have a backup option. I’ve become enamored of the Sawyer squeeze system; not because it’s easy (it’s a bit of a pain) but because it’s very light and easy to keep clean (by backwashing), which makes it much more reliable.

How much fuel? Which stove?

It was hard to get data on how much fuel we should plan to bring. Of course, everyone will say “it depends.” In our case, we used a Jet Boil Sumo stove with half-pound ISO fuel containers. We were surpised to find we could get 5 days per half-pound container of fuel for 3 people, which included boiling water every day for: morning coffee; breakfast; soup; dinner; and tea.

We saved a bit of fuel by only heating pre-treated water, so we didn’t need to boil for an extended period of time to kill e.g. giardia. However, the more recent guidelines in the previously mentioned book Wilderness Medicine suggest that just 2 minutes of boiling probably suffice.

Optional shared items (target: 1lb / person)

There are some “luxury” items that benefit the whole group, so should be tallied as a shared weight. These include:

  • Solar charger
  • Cell phone
  • Water sack – for camp
  • Back roller
  • Pack of cards
  • Satellite communicator – I’d say about a third of people on the JMT trail were carrying a Delorme Explorer

Beware solar chargers. Some people on the trail were festooned with solar panels, and it seems ridiculous to have that many gadgets.

A back roller is surprisingly great. A compact roller only weighs a few ounces, and we found ourselves using it every night on our legs and backs. It made a big difference.

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Personal optional items (target: 2 lbs/person)

This is the hardest category; the line between “optional” and “necessary” can be blurry. I’d suggest you ask yourself “is this thing necessary for basic survival? Is bringing this going to make my trip so much better that I can afford the weight?” This is the category where you cut first when weight becomes an issue.

 

  • Trekking poles
  • Watch – ideally, with an altimeter
  • Camera – with batteries, or some way to keep charged
  • Binoculars
  • Books or e-book reader, like a Kindle
  • Toiletries – hand lotions, etc. These can get heavy!
  • Extra storage pouch
  • Pillow
  • Sitting pad
  • Star guide
  • Musical instrument

Trekking poles are so useful I debated whether to put them in the core category. They reduce wear on my knees, and saved me from a number of falls. If you use poles, I think these are one place where it’s worth it to spend the money on the ultra-lightweight carbon fiber models.

These days, bringing an ebook reader seems almost like a no-brainer. It’s lighter than a book, and you can read without making a rustle in the tent. And you can bring reference material for first-aid or navigation.

John Muir Trail, Part 2: Itinerary and Travel

The first thing you’ll need to do is get a permit. These are given by lottery; depending on the starting trailhead and time of year, you might have very narrow odds, and may need to try several times. 

When should you hike? For how long? How will you get there?

The general consensus is that you should hike in August, plan for about 21 days, and go from Happy Isles (from Yosemite Valley, in the North) to Whitney Portal (to the South).

Why August? In June, the passes are very likely to be covered in snow, and difficult to cross. In July, there may still be snow; and mosquitoes are likely to be thick. By August, the snows are gone and you’re likely to get the best weather. By September, the days are getting quite short and the chance of getting caught in a snow storm are rising.

If you hike in August, you won’t need snow equipment. Don’t bring an ice axe or crampons – you’ll curse the extra weight.

The southern half of the hike is a lot tougher than the northern part; it’s higher, and each day requires going over a steep pass. Most people go north-to-south so they’ll be in shape and acclimatized by the time they reach to the rough bits.

There are any number of itineraries, but it seems that 21 days from Yosemite to Whitney is the most popular plan. This allows for an average of about 10.5 miles a day, which is a pleasant pace. We planned for 19 days, which is doable but would have required a few long painful days.

I highly recommend the National Geographic John Muir Trail map. It’s a lightweight waterproof booklet that includes the maps you need, along with useful information including a sample 21-day itinerary.

Resupply

You simply cannot carry 19+ days of food; you’ll need a resupply.

There are three places on the trail where you can ship food for pickup: Tuolumne Meadows; Red’s Meadow (near Devil’s Postpile); and Muir Trail Ranch. There are more options if you’re willing to hike out, but that will cost you more time.

Budget time for your resupply. It takes a few hours to shuffle through your packages; and you’ll want to do a bit of shopping, share stories, and eat the real human food you’ll find for sale.

Backpacking gear en route

The only fully equipped mountaineering store you’ll find near the trail is at the start of the trip, in Half Dome Village (which used to be called Curry Village). It sells ISO fuel, boots, socks, jackets, etc. There used to be a mountain store in Tuolumne meadows, but it closed; there is a store with snacks and very limited gear, but honestly the camping equipment wasn’t appropriate for backpacking. Red’s Meadow sells ISO fuel, as does Muir Trail Ranch, but you should contact them to confirm. They do not have boots, filters, stoves, or other gear.

If you’re halfway through your trip and really need gear, it is possible to exit at Red’s Meadow / Devil’s Postpile and take a series of busses to Mammoth, where there are a number of stores. This will take most of day.

Even the best of plans…

Your itinerary is just a rough initial plan; you need to adapt to circumstances as they develop – especially with regards to weather and health. The most common issues I’ve seen are: blisters and/or raw skin; altitude sickness; and knee problems. Beyond just being a source of misery, these can have serious implications.

Blisters can ruin your trip. Everyone will get blisters, especially on your first three days. On the first day, stop frequently and add check your feet to treat hot areas before they develop into blisters. Badly fitting boots can stop a trip in its tracks.

Attitude sickness is no joke. Most of the time, when you hike up to about 9500 feet you’ll have one unpleasant evening with a headache, slight nausea, and wooziness; and this passes by the morning. However, if you have a cold, or are dehydrated, or if you’re just unlucky, it can be much worse and last for many days. Bad altitude sickness is serious and potentially hazardous; your party should drop to 8500 feet and rest. If possible, when planning your trip it’s a good idea to allow for acclimation. Car-camping at a higher elevation is nice because you have an evening without exertion to start the process.

If possible, it’s a very good idea to add an extra day to your trip itinerary. This gives you a rest day to recover from the unexpected. The unexpected happens a lot more than you may think; we encountered many groups suffering from “I’ve got a problem, but I don’t have time in my schedule so I have to keep going.” If later in your trip you haven’t used your extra day and are feeling strong, use this spare day to climb a mountain or explore.

Route hack: start from Tuolomne Meadows (twice)

We ran across some hikers who did a very clever thing. They got two permits: one to hike from Tuolomne Meadows to Yosemite; and another permit (a few days later) to hike from Tuolomne to Whitney. There is an easy shuttle bus from Yosemite to Tuolomne; so this didn’t add too much logistical difficulty. And they could say in all sincerity that they hiked the full John Muir trail.

This is a great plan for several reasons.

  • It’s much easier to get permits from Tuolomne. Permits are restricted by the starting trail-head; Happy Isles in Yosemite is the hardest starting point to get(because everyone insists on doing “The Full John Muir Trail”.
  • Get used to altitude. Yosemite Valley floor is about 4000 feet above sea level. If you start there, you haven’t had much of a chance to acclimatize. On the other hand, Tuolomne Meadows are at around 8000 feet; if you camp a night before your trip there, you’ll be doing your body a big favor.
  • You skip the uphill slog from Happy Isles to Nevada falls. The first part of the “standard” John Muir Trail route is an uphill slog out of the valley. Why not do it in reverse, and go down into the valley?
  • You start with a “mini test trip” to figure out your gear. The hike from Tuolomne gives you a 2-3 day test trip to see how well your gear and boots are working. There’s a mountaineering story in Yosemite Valley, so you can fix what’s not working.

Getting there, getting back

We debated between driving and flying down. We researched both options; both have drawbacks, but I’d say overall that driving is probably easier if it’s possible because it gives you much more flexibility on your exit date if plans change.

We opted to fly on this trip, but here are our insights on both options.

Flying + Bus

We flew into Fresno (FAT), spent the night at a hotel literally 2 minutes from the airport, and took the YARTs shuttle from the airport to Yosemite in the morning. This was surprisingly smooth, and I’d highly recommend this entry to get to Yosemite.

An alternative we investigated was to fly to Mammoth Lakes, and get a bus to Tuolomne meadows; then to take another bus into Yosemite valley. Flights into Mammoth Lakes are limited and expensive.

Coming home, our plan was to hitch-hike from Whitney Portal to Lone Pine; spend the night in Lone Pine; then take the Eastern Sierra bus from Lone Pine to Reno, and fly out of Reno. This worked well in practice, but took a lot of logistical wrangling.

It’s important to note that the Eastern Sierra Transit busses have limited and weird schedules; some busses don’t run on certain days. Be very careful putting together your plans!

Driving one car

If we had driven, I’d probably have wanted to drop the car near the trip start, and take a bus to pick it up on the way back.

It looked like there was ample parking in Yosemite (near Half Dome Village); and also in Toulomne. Some people park in Mammoth Lakes; you can use the airport parking for a fee.

If I were doing this trip again, I’d probably drive to Toulomne and leave the car there.

  • Car-camp one night in Toulomne
  • Take the hiker bus to Yosemite valley (reservation required)
  • At the end of the trip, hitch-hike from Whitney Portal to Lone Pine
  • Spend the night in Lone Pine
  • Take the 6:15am Eastern Sierra Transit bus from Lone Pine to the Tioga Pass intersection
  • Get a shuttle bus to Toulomne, and pick up the car.

Camp sites are FULL in the summer

Your backpacking permit lets you spend one night at the trailhead, at the backpacker’s sites. This is good, because EVERY SINGLE CAR CAMPSITE IN THE SIERRAS IS BOOKED MONTHS IN ADVANCE. I’m not joking; it’s totally nuts. If you’re planning on car camping a night or two before your hike, reserve this ASAP.

Daily Routine

While everyone has their own rhythm and routine, it’s absolutely critical that everyone in your group agrees on a time to break camp in the morning; and when a what time people expect to arrive to camp. Hold yourselves accountable; if the goal was to get started at 7am and you find you’re actually hitting the trail later, talk about it. Was it really necessary to get started so early? Should you get up sooner, or is there something that could be skipped or done faster? How fast do people want to walk (roughly)?

In my experience, I hate getting to camp after dark (there’s no time to relax and everyone is hangry + cold); but I also hate hiking before dawn (it’s inhumanly early and cold). Daylight hours are limited in August. It gets cold starting around 5pm. Put all this together, and my general preference is to wake up at dawn (around 5:45am) such that we start hiking at 7am; and we reach camp by 4pm with time for some sun and warmth.

Hiking Speed

Everyone hikes at a different speed. For our group, we were averaging about 1.4 miles an hour, including rest breaks but not including lunch. That means that if we started a 13-mile day at 7am, with a half-hour lunch, we’d get to camp on the early side of 5pm.

“Lunch” as an Ongoing Concept

I’ll talk more about meal planning later, but I’d suggest planning you mid-day food less as “lunch” and more as an series of snacks. Make sure you give yourself the time to take regular breaks to recharge and refuel; we had a 10:30 snack, a 1pm “lunch,” and a 3pm break.

John Muir Trail, Part 1: Don’t Hike the JMT

We live in Seattle. The three of us planned to hike the John Muir Trail in August 2016, spending 19 days to make it from Yosemite to Whitney.

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As it turns out, my wife had to exit partway through due to altitude sickness (more on that later), and I left with her. We loaded our friend up with necessary supplies, and she finished the hike.

In spite of not having finished, I feel like our planning process and notes may be of use to others. My background: I grew up backpacking the Sierras with my dad and family, and have gone on several dozen trips. I’ve also backpacked a bit in Washington State (the Cascades and Olympics), as well as the desert Southwest. My longest prior trip had been for 10-days, so the logistical challenges of a 19-day trip were certainly new to me – especially with regards to food planning and arranging re-supply points.

Don’t hike the John Muir Trail

I’ll start by advising against hiking the John Muir Trail.

If you’re lucky enough to have roughly 20 days of time and an inclination to explore the wilderness, there are better trips. The JMT has become kind of brand-name trail, especially following the release of the book and movie “Wild.” My issues with the JMT are that it is crowded; trashed; sections aren’t that great; and its trendiness diminishes the authenticity of the experience. 

Crowded.  While the number of visitors is restricted by permits granted by lottery, it’s still a very popular trail. You’ll see people every few minutes, and won’t find a campsite where you won’t see other people. On the plus side, everyone we encountered hiking the trail was very nice and trustworthy; but it makes it feel much less like wilderness to be running across that many people.

Trashed. While most campers take care to respect the wilderness, it is inevitable that there are a handful of people who don’t seem to know or care to do the right thing. Given the sheer crush of hikers, that can add up a lot of gross things, like: toilet paper drifting across the landscape, tampons shoved into cracks in the rock, downed trees and branches, huge bonfires scars, and soap in streams. It was depressing.

Some sections aren’t that great. The JMT is roughly 220 mile trail that approximately follows the Pacific crest from Yosemite (in the North) to Mt Whitney (in the South). It crosses some remarkable areas; but there are some slogs to cross dull areas. The dusty haul down to Touloumne meadow and up Lylell canyon is a day and half of “meh” terrain. The flat hike up King Canyon features pretty much the same “yup, I’m still in a forest” landscape for miles. Coming down to Red’s Meadow / Devil’s Postpile and back up again is an exposed march through desert scrub of the boring variety. All backpacking trips of course involve effort to reach some destination; and that effort is usually of the type “go up and up and up and up some more, then admire the view.” But this is something different, because the effort is more lateral – you’re chewing up miles to cross between the good stuff.

There’s something distasteful about popularized wilderness. It bothers me that so many people around the world plan to do the JMT instead of literally hundreds of equally great trips in the Sierras because the JMT has status; it’s kind of a brand name. You get bragging rights if you say you hike the John Muir Trail; you get blank looks if you say you crossed the Ionian Basin. Is your goal to appreciate your immediate environment, or to earn a badge? Certainly many people hiking the JMT are doing it in the spirit of specifically appreciating this trail; but given the sheer crushing mass of people on this one trail and the relative isolation to be found on pretty much any other trail, it’s clear that too many people are choosing to hike the JMT just because it’s popular and trendy.

Mix it up

I think it would be more fun to break the JMT into several backpacking trips, where you skip the boring in-between stuff and focus on the good bits. Do the Ansel Adams wilderness. Make a loop in King’s Canyon. Climb a mountain or two, and find some hikes off the beaten path. The logistics of arranging several shorter trips are much easier than one 18+ day trip.

For the rest of my posts in this series, I’m going to assume that you’re going ahead with your plans to hike the JMT; but please consider your alternatives!

Building a Kayak (Pygmy Pinguino Sport)

This summer, I bought a kit from Pygmy boats to build my own Pinguino Sport kayak. This is the shortest of their boats.

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It was a really fun process! You start with impossibly thin and weak-looking quarter-inch flat pieces of plywood, and over time you glue and bend them into a boat shape, “stitching” them together with bits of wire (which is later removed).

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I won’t go deep into the details of the process; you can see everything in Pygmy’s excellent videos here. But for the sake of people who are contemplating a similar project, here’s my quick summary and advice:

  • Almost all the steps are: apply some epoxy – sometimes over fiberglass, sometimes along a seam, sometimes just painting it over wood. Come back tomorrow.
  • The project took me 10 weeks, putting in about an hour each day. All told, it took me about 80 hours.
  • You need a pretty big space; I took over our garage for most of this time. There are enough fumes that I’d be leery of doing this inside the house.
  • This isn’t a criticism of the instructions – they’re as well-written as they could be – but some HUGE steps are embedded in the middle of paragraphs, e.g. to to flip and apply another coat of fiberglass and wait for it to cure – which will take a whole day until you can continue. I’d suggest you carefully mark up your instructions to call out “chunks of work” so you can plan accordingly, since it’s not immediately obvious which
  • For fun, try tracking all different names the give for various epoxy + wood flour blend ratios. Honey, peanut butter, molasses, until a stick can stand up in it, etc.
  • An orbiting sander was super-helpful. I gummed up a lot of sandpaper, so make sure you’re well stocked – especially with 120 grit.
  • You will go through a lot of disposable items in the course of building the boat, even more than the instructions say. Amazon was a great place to buy these in bulk. In particular:
    • Two boxes of latex gloves (you need a LOT of gloves)
    • Foam brushes. You want at least 40 of them. They are 89 cents a piece at my local hardware store, but Amazon sells a 20-pack for $4.19 – so buy lots of these! Impossible to have too many.
    • Lots of foam rollers – I used about 18 of them.
    • Extra dental irrigation syringes (for injecting epoxy into cracks). You’ll need more than the 3 they provide, it’s so easy to gum them up.
  • General purpose items that were invaluable include:
    • Good scissors – fabric or craft ones would be ideal.
    • A metal yard-ruler (in addition to a carpenter’s square)
    • As many clamps as you can get your hands on.
    • At least two sawhorses (4 is best)
    • I found a painter’s cutting/scrapping tool to be useful for all sorts of random tasks, like getting rid of drips of semi-cured “green” epoxy, and also for wedging between plywood boards to force them into the right shape.

I had plenty of extra fiberglass tape leftover when I was finished, and ample fiberglass cloth. The epoxy was entirely used up; I finished the last step with my dregs. Might be useful to get an extra pint to get a bit of extra “breathing room”.

Even though the boat is a pretty narrow 28″ and the recommended paddle for my height (6′) is 220cm, the cockpit is higher than most other kayaks; I might suggest a slightly longer paddle (I’ll try a 230cm next).

I did make one huge screw-up, and cut the front hatch much too close to the cockpit (I mis-read the directions). The boat is still perfectly useable, it’s just that the front hatch is pretty much useless. I lose all bragging rights, and it makes me sad.

Maybe I’ll have to make another boat and do it right this time. 🙂

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Time for a Game Redesign? Nah…

Despite more game iterations, Zebulon still hasn’t been going well. It’s confusing; in particular, the non-obvious rules around how the graph works, and the mechanic of dragging ships between planets.

Do I stick with what I have, or do a big re-design?

My original goal was just to publish an iOS game, of any kind. It would just give me bragging rights, and maybe a few hundred downloads. A redesign to make a better game that wouldn’t move the needle much isn’t a good use of effort.

But a redesign is still an interesting thought exercise. Let’s pretend I wanted to spend the effort to keep “core” of the game, but make it meet the usability of its tower defense peers. My game’s essence is:

  • There are discrete planets, with individual roles.
  • Roles interact with one another according to simple rules; the effects are stronger the closer the planets are.
  • Multiple simple interactions can lead to complex behaviors.
  • I want at least two kinds of “production”; I’m now leaning towards cash and energy. Cash is a discrete unit that accumulates, energy is an ongoing localized effect.

There doesn’t need to be a graph – or at least, not overtly. My original idea had been for the game to be centered around graph manipulation, but has two problems:

  1. It seems to appeal more to me than my early testers, and
  2. It’s a pain to generate 2D graphs such that the lines don’t cross, or get too close to, other planets.

So, let’s look at a random handful of other games I admire.

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I spent many, many hours playing Spaceward, Ho! on my old Macintosh when I was a teen, and it’s clearly a strong influence on Zebulon. It’s not a tower defense game per se, since you’re not dropping of autonomous units which repel waves of attackers in real-time; rather, it’s a turn-based strategy game where you have to juggle which resources you spend on terraforming vs. mining vs. research; ship-building; attack vs. defense. I loved trying to optimize its gameplay, and appreciated how well-balanced the game was overall. I will say that I’m not a huge fan of the fleet-management aspect of the game, however. The interface has a lot of dialogs and widgets; especially in later versions of the game which added features to appeal to more hard-core users.

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Obviously, Plants vs. Zombies is one of the great tower defense games. It’s not that complex a game, but the genius is in the simplicity and the evolving challenges the designers throw at you (now, play it at night! Now, you need to pot your plants! Now, we will randomly steal your plants). The core mechanics are:

  • Picking your six characters from among dozens of options
  • Spending resources on increasing production (sunlight) vs. defense
  • Building interactions between items; primarily in the same lane, but also between multiple lanes.

The interface is mostly drag-centric (pull items from the top menu), with some tapping to pick up sunlight. The “genius” is in how freakin’ well balanced it is – it’s always a challenge, but never crushing.

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I love the aesthetic of  Unstoppable Gorg, and it brings some clever additions to the genre; you can rotate an entire orbit “ring”, and enemy waves come in looping paths that require you to juggle the location of your defenders. Note that from a very high level design perspective, it’s not that different from Plants vs. Zombies, inasmuch as there is a tray of options at the top, with a counter and meters shown in the upper-left; and you select which handful of ship options you want at the beginning of a level.

With all this in mind, I busted open Illustrator to try a new Zebulon game design mockup:

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I’d move to a having a currency, and embrace the traditional tower defense trade-off of using a “slot” to generate money vs. doing something useful. I’d still like there to be interactions between neighbors based on proximity, which could allow for some interesting emergent behaviors. Your job is to build out each planet in a strategic way, such that planets support one another to repel the enemy.

…but let’s stop there. I’m not going to start over; what this game needs is more wrapping up, and less improvement.

Round 1 of Zebulon User Testing: It’s Confusing

It’s pretty much taken as gospel in the web startup world that nobody is the usability design guru they think they are. An iterative approach of: rapid prototype; put in front of a few people to get their feedback; and repeat is the cheapest and fastest way to design the things people use.

I know this. But it’s still tough to put your baby out there and then see how badly it fares.

I hit an early prototype milestone last week. The graphics are crude, but the game play works and it’s tricky but possible to win. Here’s what the game looks like:


Happy with my progress, I put a copy onto my iPad mini and went out to lunch with my old SurveyMonkey Seattle crew, so I could show them my progress. They were champs, and let me sit down with them one at a time so I could watch them interact with this game for the first time. I wanted to see if they could figure out the gameplay on their own, so I didn’t give any coaching or tutorial – I just handed them the iPad.

It was humbling. My friends were really nice, but it was clear that the interface was baffling. Which in retrospect, makes total sense. Here’s my key learnings:

Clicking (pressing your finger) is the primary interface; dragging is a secondary interface, and only works if there’s an obvious target and destination. 

In Zebulon, you drag ships between planets. And you click on planets to pick what that planet produces, or to see information about that planet. But you can’t make much of anything happen just by clicking on a planet; the gameplay is about drag ships between planets. This was not at all obvious to my poor testers.

Visual consistency is paramount. 

For the player attack ship, I had an orange-hued ship sprite. Because attack is red, right? But the enemies are color-coded as red. So red meant “enemy” to my testers, and they wondered why an enemy ship was orbiting their planet, when it was supposed to be their ship. (I changed the hue to green in the video).

There can only be one kind of power-up indicator. 

Nobody understood the difference between planets having two modes: building the planet,  and a finished planet which produces goods. I’ve been struggling with the visual indicator – I’m back to the ring which cycles from gray to green to yellow – but I need to go back to the drawing board on this.

Razzle-dazzle to fake it until you make it. 

People loved the fairly cheap visual effects that I tossed in – a particle emitter for ship engines, planets that “pop” a bit when you drag over them, ships in orbit, etc. Even though it doesn’t do much for game play, these bits of polish told my testers “this is a legit game, keep trying.”

This feedback is invaluable. But it’s demoralizing; I’m back to the drawing board on a lot of things. But it’s better to discover these problems as soon as possible. If anything, my take-away is that I could have started testing even sooner, and saved myself more time.

Damn the Torpedoes, Full Zebulon Ahead

Game development is definitely taking longer than I’d thought.  I’m not even talking about sourcing visual and audio assets, or fighting with the SDK or debugging code; it’s the endless hours that disappear into getting the right working system in place. Coding patterns for is-a subclasses and has-a relationships, interactions and messaging between systems.. and the refactoring everything because it wasn’t the right approach.

And there’s the top-level conceptual questions, ranging from: “is this game even fun?” to “should I keep a few dozen objects in one screen area, or will we have a giant view area you pinch and swipe across?”

 

Do you accumulate a currency of “power units” or whatever to spend, or are you just struggling to build objects? Should the player control where each object goes, or do they have a mind of their own?

How should we display the build-status of a planet? The energy-status? As two arcs?

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Or should energy be a glow (pulse?) that builds up?

I was feeling pretty down last week (which was week #3). My friends gave me a much-appreciated pep talk, and suggested that I do something I should have done when I started: read Ryan and Chris Campbell’s excellent ongoing narrative about their friendly competition to build two games. (Disclaimer: I had the pleasure of meeting these guys while we were at SurveyMonkey).

Beyond the tips and breakdowns they give for their problems and approach,  it’s such a comfort to see that I’m not alone in this, and yes, it’s hard.

So. As I enter week #4, what should I do?

At this point in time, I need to stop refactoring, I need to stop trying out different gameplay ideas. I just need to finish a working first-draft of the game I had originally set out to build: a graph based tower defense game where units are built and then have an autonomous life of their own. Which works on iPhones (4s and newer) and iPads.

I’m sure I’ll have tons of changes and new ideas after this MVP is wrapped up. But rather than constantly building up and tearing down a myriad of ideas and explorations, I should stay the course.

Zebulon Part 2: Status Update

I’ve been focused on writing my game for a week now, and I’m happy to say that I achieved the (modest) goals I set out in my last post. The artificial deadline approach worked as a motivation!

The wise approach would have been to focus on workshopping the gameplay by starting with crappy graphics targeting one particular device, like an iPhone 6. This would have let me figure out what ideas work, and which ones didn’t.

I took the opposite approach, and instead worked top-down on “first impressions” such that the game would look decent on any iOS device, starting with the launch icon and home screen. While these are just placeholder graphics, being able to have something that looks kind of like a game from the start has the important emotional impact of making me feel like I’m making progress.

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The home screen was adapted from a vintage sci-fi book cover; I’d love to follow this aesthetic if I can.

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What’s interesting about the home screen is that different iOS devices have much different resolutions and aspect ratios. The above is an iPad air; for an iPhone 4s, the aspect ratio makes this screen look like:

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From day 1, I’ve worked to ensure that graphics and elements are scaled to work on any device. I’ve avoided making different graphics specific to different aspect ratios, preferring to scale, position, and clip in code.

For the game itself, I abstractly describe objects in a space that is logically 150 x 100 units. There are nodes (planets) and edges (paths between planets). I wrote a layout engine that  dynamically picks the actual size and position of objects based on the device’s screen.

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Levels are described in a JSON file, using a 150 x 100 unit layout as e.g.:

{
    "version": 1,
    "name": "Getting Started",
    "nodes": [
        { "id": 1,
          "x": 0,
          "y": 0,
          "neighbors": [2,4],
          "properties": { "role": "colony"}
        },
        { "id": 2,
          "x": 20,
          "y": 50,
          "neighbors": [1,3,4],
          "properties": { "role": "empty"}
          },
     ...
}

JSON parsing in Swift (or Objective-C) is a bit more work than you’d expect, because the language is typed. The code looks like:

let data = JSONData.dataUsingEncoding(NSUTF8StringEncoding)
let json = try NSJSONSerialization.JSONObjectWithData(data!, options: .AllowFragments) as! [NSObject:AnyObject]
guard let version = json["version"] as? Int,
    let name = json["name"] as? String,
    let nodes = json["nodes"] as? [[NSObject:AnyObject]] else { return level }

Overall, I thought Spritekit does a great job of making it easy to build event-handling (for clicks), object display, and animation effects. Most of my time was spent on asset-wrangling and getting things to display at the right location and size. Weirdly, the one chunk of code that took me hours to get working properly was to display a texture as grayscale (for when a planet object is disabled). There are a variety of approaches; some lost the alpha channel, and others would simply not properly convert between the different image formats. Here’s the final version which works nicely:

func convertToGrayScale(texture: SKTexture) -> SKTexture {
    let originalImage = texture.CGImage()
    let context = CIContext()
    let inputImage = CIImage(CGImage: originalImage)
    let filter:CIFilter = CIFilter(name: "CIPhotoEffectMono", withInputParameters: [kCIInputImageKey : inputImage])!
    let result = context.createCGImage(filter.outputImage!, fromRect: inputImage.extent)
    return SKTexture(CGImage: result)
}

I plumbed in a dialog which opens when you click on a planet, so you can change its behavior (this is how you play the game). Nothing fancy here aside from a lot of layout work; though I’m still having a devil of a time getting the side-arrow to work uniformly on all devices.

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And there you have it! A week of progress. Let’s see how the game is looking next week!