First Landing State Park hike & Spanish Moss Tinder Experiment

Despite its proximity to greater Virginia Beach civilization (Shore Drive is the nerve center of summer revelry during tourist beach season), the park has the feel of someplace far more remote. Composed mostly of rolling trails, swamp, and gum, pine, magnolia, and cypress trees, dirt and gravel single track, First Landing offers a generous helping of outdoor relief smack in the middle of one of Virginia’s most populated areas.

With the kids and dogs in tow, and equipped with little more than a daypack, a baby carrier, and snack lunch, we set out on what was a little less than two hours in the woods – time well spent pointing out red-bellied woodpeckers, identifying trees, and making polite conversation with the many others out for similar ends and similar means.

Later that afternoon, at home (no starting fires in within the confines of the park), H and I set about attempting to summon a few qualifying flames from the handful of Spanish moss I’d stuffed in my pocket. The conditions outside, even within the relative safety of our backyard, were poor. We were on the verge of a rainstorm and the wind was already gusting enough to blow some of the tinder and kindling materials out of the fire pit. Strike One.

The moss itself was still green; it felt dry to the touch, though the color hinted that it still retained a fair bit of moisture (for what it’s worth, I never found anything but green moss, even the stuff that had already fallen off of the trees). So I suppose that’s Strike Two.

Upon close inspection, I had estimated that the fiber distribution wouldn’t be dense enough for a given “volume” of moss (as opposed to a bundle of dry grass) to light easily, so in the end I surmised it would likely come down to how dry it was and how long it could retain a flame. Of course, these are the two primary jobs of the humble tinder: turn a spark into a flame and hold that flame long enough to light your kindling.

Known (and from my limited experience) good tinder materials:
– birch bark
– dry grass
– fine wood shavings

First things first, I tried to light the Spanish moss bundle with the ferro rod, resulting in short-lived embers or single flames, but nothing that would catch for any longer than a second or two. After about five minutes, I moved on to the regular lighter. Still no go. I couldn’t get it to light even when subjected to direct flame. So, for the sake of comparison, I whipped up a few quick feather stick shavings which lit up almost right away.

Long story short, Spanish moss would not be my first choice in tinder material while out in this type of environment, at least not until I improve my ability to locate drier, more suitable fiber or perhaps better construct my tinder bundle. As always, practice and/or experience may simply be what is lacking. I’d be curious to know if anyone else out there has had more success.

Winter Camping with H

The addition of our second child to the family had certainly slowed the pace of my getting out into the woods, even for an overnight. Fall and winter have always been my favorite seasons to camp, each bringing their own special pleasures, their own challenges. The beauty of the mountains during autumn goes without saying (though I just did) and there’s always been something restorative about the crisp air in winter. But the extra gear and clothing needed to deal with the elements when camping becomes a serious consideration, more so when adding a child to the equation.

Some might call it irresponsible. Taking my three year old son out into the national forest in sub-freezing temperatures is not something I take lightly. Preparation is everything, as is expectation management. But the key is always balancing our collective enjoyment of the experience with the probability of discomfort or hardship at the hands of the elements. We stand on the precipice of Type II fun.

Anyone who knows my son should also know that, even at his age, he’d self-identify as an “outside kid” who nearly always jumps at the chance to go camping and understands the difference between pitching a tent in the living room and sleeping in the woods. His favorite YouTube channel is Ray Mears and, as a result, his preferred campfire fare are a gutted fish, pine needle tea, and “marsh-mars” (marsh mellows).

The plan was simple but subject to change. I wanted to return to the National Forest (George Washington) perched just on the eastern edge of the Appalachians, camp off-trail, practice a few bushcraft skills, gauge my son’s enjoyment of any or all of these things. Some light snow was in the forecast for the following morning, an added bonus for both of us. We hiked in from a spot just off the Blue Ridge Parkway a few miles south of I-64 and stumbled on what I later learned was Humpback Rocks trail. The pace was slow, our gait increasing slightly when I obliged to carry H on my shoulders.

I chose a campsite in the fading light some 200 yards off-trail, having crossed a stone wall and the parallel Appalachian Trail, on the windward side of flat-faced boulder perfect for reflecting the heat of a small campfire. With the tent erected I set about splitting the driest wood available, starting the fire, and heating our dinner. I’d elected to forego the camping stove and its associated accoutrements for this specific trip, choosing instead the simplicity and admittedly more difficult method of “cooking” over an open fire.

With our bellies full and warm, we cocooned ourselves in the warmth of my sleeping bag layered on the inside with a surplus, German-Army wool blanket. I read him a few children’s books and we both drifted off to restless sleep sometime before 8pm.

When we awoke just before 7, the condensation inside the tent had frozen, so had most of the water in our bottles. But it hadn’t yet started snowing outside, much to H’s disappointment. I set about rekindling the fire for breakfast and immediately wished I had processed a little extra firewood the previous day (note to self). The snow finally began to fall, lightly at first, just as we started eating sometime between 8 and 9. I hurriedly packed away the tent and sleeping bag already dusted in snow as they hung loosely from nearby branches.

My first steps back toward the trail were met with an unexpected sadness on H’s part. As a few tears streaked down his face he told me that he didn’t want to “leave our good camping spot.” I reasoned as best I could, in the way that parents with toddlers often attempt to straddle that blurry line between adult logic and an unapologetic coloring of the truth. “It’s OK, bud. We’ll find another good spot later [whenever ‘later’ was, it was anybody’s guess]. But that’s part of the fun of going camping  – you get to pick out a new good spot each time.”

After repeating some version of that argument a few times over, he acquiesced and followed me back toward the small cairn I’d stacked on the Appalachian Trail so I’d know where to cross back over to the Humbpack Rocks Trail, toward home.

By the time we’d made it the car, the snow was falling more heavily and, after some careful thought, a few unexpected slides on the road, and a three minutes back out in the cold, we (I) decided to forego the morning hike up to Humpback Mountain we had planned. Another time, maybe in better conditions, maybe with the rest of the family. And with that, we headed home.


PRACTICAL NOTES BELOW (for the few of you who might be interested.)

Items that didn’t make the cut:

  1. Second sleeping bag – I considered it, but for nearly equal bulk and weight I chose to take my surplus wool blanket instead. Scroll down for that rationale.+
  2. Thermal sleeping pad – I kept this at home mostly because of the added weight and bulk and I wanted to achieve the same effect (warmth and padding) with leaves or pine boughs.
  3. Camp stove with fuel, stand – The stove weighs almost nothing, but the weight of the and bulk of the fuel bottle and aluminum stand are non-trivial. I was planning on cooking over the fire anyway.

Items I’m glad I brought:

  1. Wool blanket – It’s big, it’s heavy, it’s a pain to pack. It’s also extremely warm, durable, and perfect as a makeshift outer shell while sitting near the fire (it won’t melt or burn from stray embers).
  2. Wetterlings Camp Axe – This 19″ small axe/hatchet is becoming one of my favorite all-around woodcraft tools. Those of you familiar with hand-forged Swedish axes already know the Wetterlings brand, but it’s versatility and effectiveness in the field make it well worth the added weight in certain circumstances.



  1. Tent (2-man, dome, Mountain Hardwear)
  2. Sleeping bag (20-deg, Mountain Hardwear)
  3. Wool blanket (100% wool, German army surplus)
  4. Wetterlings Camp Axe
  5. Mora knife
  6. Swiss Army knife (I needed the can-opener)
  7. Topo map
  8. few paper towels
  9. few baby wipes
  10. grocery bag, trashbag
  11. Water filter (Sawyer)
  12. assorted cordage
  13. Trekking poles
  14. Skillet/pot w/ the following packed inside:
    1. small roll duct tape
    2. first aid kit
    3. contact solution
    4. 2x spoons
    5. backup lighter
    6. detachable handle for pot
  15. 20+ oz aluminum cup
  16. rainfly for backpack
  17. 2x flashlights and one headlamp
  18. 1L water

The dog carried:

  1. 2x 1L bottles of water
  2. 2x bags dogfood

H carried:

  1. Small osprey  backpack with filled water bladder ~1L
  2. small blanket

Fastpacking on the AT – Amherst County, VA

Trip Report for my first fastpacking overnight on the Appalachian Trail in beautiful Amherst County, VA. As is usually the case, I could only spare the time for a single overnight and, being as it is that I live at least three hours from the mountains, a six hour minimum drive needed to be factored in. My reasoning was as simple as the plan: try out my new UD Ultra Vest, pack as minimalist as possible, cover as many miles as was reasonable, and bring my cattle-dog mix, Ollie, along for good measure.


Day 1:

I realized within the first two miles or so that Ollie was not going to be able to maintain the pace necessary to do 20 miles each way. He would often lag so far behind as to be out of sight but never “whistle” range. While he was unable to remain tangled in my heels (as would be most comfortable for him under almost any other circumstances), he never completely let himself fall back to some unrecoverable distance. Out of my own sense of caution and so as not to feed his sense of impending abandonment, I stopped every few minutes on that first day, perhaps somewhat begrudgingly, to allow him to catch up.

Within a few hours, it became clear that we were not going to reach the James river before dark. Perhaps that goal had been a bit quixotic, but add the slow pace with the fact that we had started somewhat late in the afternoon and the inevitable became.. well, the inevitable. Moreover, our water was running dangerously low by mile 10.5ish and, according to the topo, the remaining portion of trail was almost entirely ridgeline (ie water scarce). It was about this time that we reached the turnoff for the “Punchbowl” Shelter and, with an air of disappointment, I decided to play it safe and stop for the night. The aptly named cabin actually proved to be a pleasant spot, situated at the bottom of a shallow valley, punctuated by several felled trees, a small pond, and lots of open space.

Day 2:

I had packed up camp and was ready to hike by 6:45. Ollie seemed no worse for the wear, albeit a little sore (as was I). Not quite ready to return to the car and, by extension, admit that our trip was already halfway complete, I decided to continue south for another 1-2 miles to see the peak of Bluff Mountain before finally turning around and heading home. Within the half-hour or so it took to get there, I was certainly glad I did (again, see photos above).

The remainder of the day proved to be extremely pleasant hiking/jogging. It was mostly downhill and Ollie actually performed a little better (it’s worth mentioning that I didn’t stop to wait for him as much and he didn’t let himself fall too far behind).

Post-trip highlights and lessons learned:

  • Sunny, upper-80s both days (a little cooler in the woods)
  • Could’ve gone without gels, but CLIF bars were great
  • Anything put in those belt pockets was felt through the straps – needed to ensure comfortable before running
  • Trekking poles were awesome (knee-savers), but needed to remove straps from top (flop around when carrying poles while running)
  • Holy spider webs, batman – strung across trail any time there were branches 4 ft apart
  • Tent/sleeping recap:
    • with tent/tarp edges off ground – great place for cold wind to blow through
    • trashbag ground cloth didn’t do much except (maybe) reflect heat
    • colder than expected by midnight – had to put on UA rain jacket rather than use as blanket
    • used emergency blanket (foil/reflector) for legs; helped somewhat
    • used backpack rainfly I found in shelter as pillow stuffed with anything else “soft” I had on hand
    • ** overall, did not sleep well
  • Insect repellent was a necessity
  • Enjoyed having calf sleeve/gaiters – may not have been doing a lot of compression but was nice to keep crap off my legs
  • Sunglasses were not necessary (glad I didn’t try to bring them)
  • Ate a lot of semi-mashed potatoes in car before hike – satiating and easy on the stomach
  • Carried only 2x 20 oz water bottles
    • Appreciated trade-off of carrying less water weight but needing to be more conscious of water sources throughout hike

Here is my complete packing list (see first photo):

1x UD/SJ ultra vest
2x UD water bottles, 20 oz
2x newspaper dog bags
2x grocery bags (1 bear, 1 trash)
1x 39G trash bag for ground cloth
4x baby wipes in ziplock
1x iphone 4s
1x “wallet”: cash, license, credit card, insurance card, rubber band
1x small notebook w/pen
8x small zipties
1x small swiss army knife (knife, file, scissors)
1x topo map
1x travel towel, quick-drying
1x parachord for bear bag
1x emergency blanket
1x small roll medical tape
1x Saywer water filter with reservoir bag
1x headlamp
1x contact solution (1/4 full) in ziplock
1x insect repellent (1/4 full) in ziplock
3x paper towels in ziplock
1x plastic spoon
2x 4oz(?) homemade gels
4x clif bars
2x granola bars
2x instant oatmeal packets
1x instant coffee packet
1x homemade granola in ziplock
1x package instant potatoes
1x 1 lb bag dried apricots
1x 4oz bag dried edamame, lightly salted
1x lighter
1x extra ziplock (cell phone?)
1x UA rain jacket/outer shell
2x trekking poles (Goode supermax 7101 ski poles, hastily acquired from local thrift shop for $5) w/ tent cord tied to one
1x tent kit:
1x footprint from Mountain Hardwear tent
4x lengths paracord
6x aluminum stakes

1x dog pack
2x 0.5L bottle water (lighter than nalgene)
2x ziplocks, each w/1 cup food
1x small plastic bowl, cut from chinese fast-food soup container

Total carry weight (loaded pack w/water/food and trekking poles): 11 lb
Total pack weight (w/ water/food): 10.2 lb
Total trekking poles weight (w/ cord): 0.8 lb