Thursday, March 31, 2011

Spring Cleaning Your Gear: Water Bladders

It's monsoon season here apparently. We've had nothing but rain for most of this week and last week. Plus, it's turned cold on us again. People are saying it's Dogwood Winter, but I don't think so. The dogwoods bloomed about two weeks early this year, and at the same time as the Redbuds. I, personally, think this is Redbud Winter, and we're still going to have a Dogwood Winter around mid-April, like usual.

So, while it's rainy and cold, I've decided to do a little spring cleaning around the house. In general, I'm the type that believes at the start of Spring everything has to be gone over with a fine toothed comb (or toothbrush, ha!). That does not exclude all our gear. All of that needs an extra cleaning, too. Today, I tackled the water bladders for a thorough cleaning. I'd suggest you rinse them with hot, hot water and air them out after every use. There's a gazillion ways to clean your hydration bladder, but here's how I do the deep cleaning on them.

First, I don't have any fancy water bladder cleaning utensils, so I use what I have. Vinegar and baking soda are staple cleaners in my house. They're safe to use on just about anything, not harsh, and they are awesome deodorizers. So, for cleaning the bladders, I gathered the two - plus a sanitized bottle brush, sanitized cleaning toothbrush, a pipe cleaner, a bag clip, a wire coat hanger, and a pair of pliers.

I opened the bladder, eyeballed about two cups of distilled white vinegar and added about a teaspoon or so of baking soda. Now, you'll want to keep your bladder open because of the CO2 by-product. Wouldn't want to risk the bladder popping. After the fizzies have settled down, I use the bottle brush to scrub, scrub, scrub the insides of the bag. I use the toothbrush to get in the crevices and close to the seams.

Next you'll want to prop open the drinking spout with a bag clip and let the vinegar solution run down into the tube. This will loosen any algae that may have built up there.

Afterwards, fill the bag with the hottest water out of the tap and let it flow out the tube. Repeat this step a couple of times to rinse out all the vinegar and baking soda.

Next, use a pipe cleaner (make sure you fold over the end so it's blunt and the wire isn't sticking out) to clean inside the mouth piece and up the tube where any build-up is. If you have excessive algae build-up, you may want to use a bleach solution and use a special cleaning kit, or just get a new bladder. We've never had this problem though.

Do one more quick rinse, then use the pliers to undo the coat hanger and turn the end in so it's not going to poke the bag. Then wind it up a bit, and stuff it inside.

Hang to dry, leaving the bag clip on the end so water can drip out and the tube can dry out.

Ta-da! Clean water bladder!

Happy Cleaning!

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Why Appalachia & Beyond Exists

So the question has been posed, by the Outdoor Blogger Network, why do we blog about our outdoor activities? I suppose it really all started back a few years ago when Robin and I both had our own personal blogs just to have a record of our lives, you know more or less like a journal. It was something that we could both look back on and see where we had been and how far we had come. It was also a way for us to let our friends and families know what was going on in our lives.

After a couple of years of doing that, it fell by the wayside, sorta like the 80's did. However, it wasn't long after I left my then employer and took the next step in my IT career with a new company and a new blogging bug hit us. I was in school at that time and shortly after I finished my studies I decided to start a side business in web development. After all that's what my degree was in and with my new employer, what started out as mostly web development turned into more application support. In starting our own web business I was turned on by Google AdSense and thought, "I could make a little extra money from our own website." After a few months of being reminded that it was a stupid idea by wifey and how we shouldn't be advertising web stuff to potential clients for our competitors, I realized how great of a head for business she has, and took the ads off the site.

Still I wasn't completely satisfied and wanted something else to put ads on to see what we could do to make an extra buck. It's funny what money, or the false perception of making it, will do to a person. Anyway, it wasn't long that we both started our own Ham Radio blogs (they still exist - Robin's and mine) since I had become an Amateur Radio operator and Robin had returned to the hobby after a long teenage layoff, followed by acquiring a family layoff. With the Ham Radio blog, I loaded mine up with Google ads, Infolinks, an Ham Radio Store, and more. Of course I also loved sharing my experiences in my new hobby and really loved the interaction we had with other radio operators out there. Around the same time, I decided we needed more and started a blog for our outdoor activities. I figured that we loved to hike and camp, why not blog about that as well. Besides, having a niche in the blogosphere is something I figured would help towards the whole "make money blogging thing."

The outdoor blog at that time was called Robin and Tim's Grand Adventures. We didn't update it like we do Appalachia & Beyond. Of course at that time we had so much going on and it was mainly just a hiking trip report thing that I did when I felt like it. As a matter of fact if you look in the archives of this blog you will see how often we posted. Oh I guess I didn't tell you, but when we started Appalachia & Beyond, all we did was change the name of the blog. We didn't want to lose the current content as it had some good information on previous hikes and camping trips we had been on as well as some scenic drives and other outdoorsy trips.

It was during last year that we became re-invigorated with outdoor blogging, and re-branded the blog. Robin, as you can tell, also decided she would help out with it as well since it would give her an outlet for creativity. Since then, the blogging wasn't about money anymore. Of course if we do make a little here and there we wouldn't complain and it surely couldn't hurt any. Instead of focusing on trying to make money in the blogging world, because frankly I already have a real world job, sharing our experiences of East Tennessee with the rest of our outdoor counterparts became payment enough. Since then, we've really started to get a sense of community. There's so much interaction with other like-minded lovers of the outdoors than we ever could have imagined, and it's so fulfilling for the both of us.  Now, we blog because we love to, and because we want to share Southern Appalachia with everyone.

And the process is fun! There's been times when we needed outdoor information, but was never really able to get the information we were really looking for. So, we decided that we would go and share the experiences we have and the info we gather. We figured we probably weren't the only ones who felt like this and decided that blogging would at least provide more than what is currently out there about some of the places we've been to or things we've tried. Honestly we love to blog about our area, the trails that we go on, the camping trips we take, the gear we use, and especially those cool festivals and little nooks we find ourselves in on the weekends. We've got curious minds and restless souls that long to be outside, and in sharing that we hope that others will come to know and appreciate the same experiences themselves. Plus, we have a great research team!

Has blogging changed us? Of course it has! There's not a day that goes by that doesn't have us thinking "What's up next?". Everything we do outside has us thinking about writing up a post. Used to, we would get into things if we had the time, which was usually never. Now, we have more motivation to do something together, to get off the couch, to take the camera into the store, to conquer our fears. Blogging has actually made our lives better.

We'll be honest, it does make us a little tense at times. If a day goes by during the week without a post, Robin and I start getting frazzled to come up with something. But it also starts conversations between the two of us, and keeps us thinking and feeling alive. I may ask her if she's got the pictures ready, and she may have to light a fire under me to get my share written. I may have to beg her to edit my terrible grammar, and she may have to beg me to help her remember names.

Is it something that we regret? Absolutely not. Well, Ashby might regret the whole "outdoor toilet" thing. But through our blogging, we've discovered so many things about ourselves, and so many other outdoor blogs that give us that taste of other parts of the country that we would love to someday experience firsthand. We've established some wonderful relationships, albeit online, with other bloggers who enjoy the outdoors as much as we do and we find a pleasing satisfaction in that. Who knows, maybe one day, we will be able to meet up with these bloggers and share a summit or a trail together. Wouldn't that be wonderful?

All in all, we really enjoy blogging about our outdoor lives and we are really glad that others enjoy what we are blogging about. It's the simple fact that people have taken the time to read about our lives and experiences, and share their lives and experiences with us, that keep us blogging.

See you on the trails,
Tim and Robin

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Sweet NatGeo Deal - $10 for 1 Year

Sweet Deal over at for a 1 year subscription to
National Geographic

$10.00 after they knock off the extra $5 at checkout.
This offer is good until 4/30/2011. 

First issue to arrive in 6-10 weeks. Would make a great Father's Day gift.

Storytelling Event - Sat, April 9th

photo courtesy of Marble Springs Historic Site

The Smoky Mountain Storytellers Association is teaming up with
Marble Springs Historic Site to host the
2nd Annual Storytelling Festival
on Saturday, April 9th starting at 1 pm EDT. 

This event sounds like great fun! We love storytelling events. Located at the Marble Springs Historic Site (that's the home of Gov. John Sevier), there will be free parking and festival seating (in other words - bring your chairs and blankets). The stories will be spread across three stages, and storytellers from the SMSA will be performing stories of humor, history, stories by and for children, tales of Appalachia and the Smoky Mountains, and Native American stories. At 6 pm, they'll be a gathering by the bonfire for slightly scary ghost stories, and at 7 pm they'll perform ghost stories for the brave.
The event ends at 8 pm. 

Admission cost is $5 for adults, $3 for children (under age 6 are Free). 

Discounts are available for groups of 10 or more, but they ask that you make your group reservations prior to April 4th. Contact information is
865-429-1783 or cuznjan (!at) juno (!dot) com.

Address is 1220 W Gov. John Sevier Hwy Knoxville, TN 37920
Click here for to get directions.

MSR PocketRocket Review

In backcountry camping, it seems a canister stove is the new black. They are compact, reliable, lightweight, and easy to use. Our little backcountry canister stove of choice was the MSR PocketRocket. It's tiny, weighs in at only 3 ounces (4.2 when it's in the container), and is incredibly efficient for its compact, fit-in-palm size.

The unit itself looks like some kind of medieval torture device. When you take it out of the canister, you screw it onto a fuel canister, open the serrated pot supports, turn the fuel adjuster and light it with a match or lighter. The maximum diameter for a pot according to the owner's manual (what can I say, I'm a girl - I read these things!) is 8 inches. After cooking, turn the stove off and let it cool before attempting to remove it from the canister. Then fold up, and store away. Simple enough, right?

Now for the more technical details (aka "put your thinking caps on"):

MSR doesn't list BTU ratings on their website, but they do claim that this little guy will boil 1 liter of water in under 3.5 minutes. If my math is right and assuming 70° water, that would mean that 1 L of water at 70 degrees Fahrenheit being raised to boiling (212°F) would require approximately 5,287 BTUs (assuming 100% efficiency which we know is not going to be the case). So, if we also assumed 30% efficiency, we'd need to nearly double the time to 7 minutes or boost the output closer to 10,000 BTUs in order to bring 1L of water to a boil within the time MSR claims. I have seen where other PocketRocket owners have suggested a BTU rating of up to 11,000. Personally, I thought that was probably a little optimistic, so we put it to the test.

Tim took the stove out on the deck this evening. It was 37°F without any wind, which sounds like a pretty good night to assume 30% efficiency. He lit the stove and placed 1L of 70°F water on to boil. It took 6 minutes and 45 seconds to reach 212°F. So, I don't know what variables MSR used to calculate their specs, but even after a few tries, we were never able to reach boiling in under 3.5 minutes. That would mean, in essence, that the stove was only putting out approximately 5,000 BTUs (assuming 30% efficiency) and that I was correct in assuming we'd have to nearly double the time.

Fuel, of course, does make a difference, and we were using Jetboil fuel in the 100gram size canister. It claims the isobutane/propane mixture will boil 10 L. We didn't test this claim, but after the initial boil test, I'm not sure this is likely. I'd like to try that out soon, and maybe a different brand of fuel just to make sure. I don't see much difference between the Jetboil fuel and the MSR fuel. Both types have the isobutane additive, which helps maintain fuel pressure as the fuel level gets low. But it also seems like boil time increases as the fuel level gets low. It might be best to move from a 100g canister to a larger 230g canister.

Regardless, we really like our little stove. It works well, but is less efficient when there's wind. MSR sells a WindScreen on their website "for any MSR stove," but also says in their manual not to use one. So, go figure? We wouldn't mind having something to block the wind. We've had this stove for over 2 years now, but haven't used it enough to talk durability. So far, it's passed the test of time, but only more time will tell how durable it really is.

As with any type of stove, you should never operate it in an enclosed environment like a tent (carbon monoxide fumes), and you should always be careful to store your food away from your fuel. We don't have a fuel canister container, so we store ours in a zipper bag usually at the very bottom of the pack.

Disclaimer: Robin and Tim bought "MSR's Pocket Rocket" for backcountry and camping use and decided to review it here on Appalachia & Beyond. The opinions expressed above are their independent thoughts and experiences.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Don't Miss Out!

Have you "Liked" Random Joy Fine Arts and Photography on Facebook yet? We'd love to have you over!

Come on over for updates, casting call dates, print availability, Photoshop hints and tips, giveaways and more! 

Available soon:

New Featured Destination - LeConte Lodge

For the next couple of months we are featuring LeConte Lodge as our "Featured Destination". Be sure to head over to our Featured Destination page to get all the details on this wonderfully rustic retreat from all the hustle and bustle of the daily grind.

Happy Trails,
Tim and Robin

The Great Gear Quest Update

Our Sunday shopping trip was a blast. Really, anytime you get me out shopping and it's for fun things and not groceries, you can't not have fun! After taking into account what we needed, where it was offered, and the $50 Bass Pro rewards card Tim had received from, we knew exactly where we were going. Plus, our local Bass Pro Shop is dog friendly, so Clover got to go shopping, too. Bonus!!

While I'm on that - it was her first time in a store that big. She did amazing! We were so proud of her. She was great for all the kids who wanted to pet her, even when they came up unannounced. She did get a little bored while Tim was lost in the land of everything backcountry and a little nervous during her first elevator trip. But she got lots of ear "skritches" and absolutely loved the huge fish in the indoor aquarium. She was so intrigued by them that even other people were making comments about how cute it was!

Even though Clover was making new friends around every corner and had to stop to give kisses every time, we were able to finally get some shopping done. We ended up walking out with two Small Compression Sacks, a dry bag for our little electronics, a couple pairs of sleeping bag straps, a key chain thermometer, and a new-to-us outdoor meal: Heater Meals - Self-Heating Meal in Zesty BBQ Sauce & Potatoes with Beef. We just got one cause we wanted to try it out first and see what it was like. Our grand total was $50.31 after tax. Since the gift card was free, we pretty much got all that stuff for 31 cents! Now, that's what I call staying within budget!

The compression sacks are not dry sacks, but they are "water resistant." I'll be testing this soon at the kitchen sink. We bought 2 of the small sized bags which touted that they hold 19L. I stuffed 5 big beach towels in it, compressed it down as far as the straps would go, and it was about 12 inches in height and a little over 8 inches in diameter at the fullest point. I think it will hold our clothes quite nicely. The bag itself is pretty light without anything in it. The only thing that really concerns me (other than the water resistance) is the stitching on the compression straps. The seams on the bag look like they will hold up well, but I'm just not so sure about the straps. I may have to whip out the sewing machine and reinforce them a bit.

The dry bag we picked up for the electronics was listed as a large. It's got a fold over sealing top. It fits all our our electronics (cellphones, car keys, point-n-shoot, gps, and probably even Tim's handy-talky if necessary). It looks to be well constructed and I don't think we'll have any problems out of it. It will probably go through a strict sink test as well, though.

We've decided we'll write up a review on the Heater Meals and let all of you know if it's worth carrying the extra 12 ounces to eat a hot, 3/4 lb entrĂ©e for a backcountry supper. At $6.99, the price doesn't seem too bad considering most other dehydrated products run about the same. I also spotted squeezable applesauce at the Walmart yesterday, and I'm pretty excited about picking some up to try that.

The key chain thermometer was an impulse buy. We really just liked the idea of knowing what the temperature was wherever we were at. It has a wind chill scale on the back, isn't that heavy, and we'll just put it with our keys probably. Just a cute little gadget that caught our eye.

The sleeping bag straps are for the tops of our packs. Tim's pack is pretty large, and with the proper compression sack, he could probably fit his bag inside of the pack. My pack, being a ladies pack, is considerably smaller. There's no way that big ol' synthetic bag (Oh, please Santa an ultralight bag for Christmas!) will fit inside my pack, even compressed. So, I'll definitely have to store my sleeping system on top. We still need dry compression sacks for these.

The funniest thing comes next. Our high tech $2.50 sleeping pads - the infamous old school pool float. My parents packed these same things back in the 70s and early 80s. Anything has to be better than sleeping on the ground, and to be honest, all of the display mats at Bass Pro today (Ascend and Therm-a-Rest) weren't really any lighter. And yes I most certainly did lie in the middle of the floor trying every mat that caught my fancy. hehe The Trail Scout was 1lb and 8oz. Our floats - not officially weighed yet - can't be more than 2 lbs. Plus, in as much as I've read about those self-inflating pads getting holes in them, I'd rather get a hole in a $2.50 float than a $50.00 mat. Maybe one day, but for now, we're going old school.

Last, but not least are the 3 little dry bags we picked up at the local big box mart. Believe me, I have my doubts, but if they keep my food products mostly dry then I'll be happy. That's all they're really needed for. I'll put them through the sink test, too, and we'll see how well they perform.

And for the ladies, it's official. You've heard me talk about them before. I love, love, love this wonderful little lilac colored life-saver. Bass Pro now carries GoGirls, and at the same price as online. So now you really have no excuse. "Don't take life sitting down," buy one of these!

Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Great Gear Quest

Tim and I are spending our Sunday searching for gear. We're not "gear junkies," and we don't have the latest and greatest, but we're in search of a few things to complete our list for our backcountry trip we are planning on taking in the next few weeks real soon.

So far, we have made what little trips we've taken without the items on the "want list." Our packing system is a little lacking and very disorganized. But we didn't need sleeping bags to go up to LeConte Lodge, and we did without stuff sacks. We also did without rain gear - and in the end, we were sopping wet. And although our packs have rain flies, everything inside was damp. I was just glad it was the going from and not the going to.

So, on our list of things to get BEFORE the "big" trip:

2 Dry Compression Bags for our sleeping systems
2 Compression Bags for our clothing
2 pairs of gaiters - if funds allow
2 Sleeping pads
2 pairs of sleeping bag straps
Some stuff sacks & dry bags
A headlamp for me

Yesterday, we picked up two light, cheap blow-up pool floats to sub for a sleeping pad. Go ahead, laugh - we have! - but we're on a budget, and a good sleeping pad for both of us just doesn't fit in right now (along with rain gear - so cross your fingers for good weather). We also gained 3 little dry bags to hold food and other misc stuff that doesn't need to get damp.

Hopefully, we'll score a few things on our trip out today. We'll let you know how it goes!

Friday, March 25, 2011

Photos of the Week