Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Q + A with Matt Nelson from the Arizona Trail Association (AZTA)

It's true that trail maintenance doesn't happen on it's own but most often we think of the boots on the ground and forget the logistical support required to get those boots to the right spot, with the required equipment and logistical support.  As part of my effort to raise awareness of trail associations I asked Matt J. Nelson from the AZTA to answer a few questions about himself and what he and the AZTA do.  I managed to catch him before he left for a 6 day backpacking trip in the Sierra.

How long have you been involved with the AZTA and what is your role?

Matt: I have been the Executive Director of the Arizona Trail Association (ATA) for the past two and a half years. As the only full-time employee of the nonprofit organization, I do a little bit of everything: managing volunteers (1,200+) and trail work events (@ 100 annually); fund raising to support trail operations; protecting the trail from large-scale mining operations; program developments; coordinating with all of the agencies whose land the Arizona Trail (AZT) traverses (USFS, BLM, NPS, Arizona State Parks, Babbitt Ranch, Pima and Pinal Counties); writing newsletters; attending events and meetings; education and outreach; overseeing our Seeds of Stewardship program within Arizona schools and leading some of the outings; and just about everything you can think of.

How did you get involved?

Matt: It all started one day when I was out on a mountain bike ride and I found a brown carsonite sign with the Arizona Trail symbol. That was the first I had ever heard of the cross-state trail. The more I explored, the more I fell in love with the trail. This was back in 1994, and the trail was FAR from being complete. So I got involved as a volunteer trail builder. Later, I organized groups of inner city youth to participate in trail building. Then, working as a natural and cultural resource specialist, I conducted archaeological surveys and did trail design before the final segments of trail were constructed. Working seasonally as a backpacking guide, I helped hundreds of people explore and appreciate the Arizona Trail through Grand Canyon National Park. Once the position of Executive Director became available, I was encouraged by many people to apply for the job.

How do you use the trail?

Matt: I spent equal time on my feet (hiking, trail running and backpacking) and mountain bike. I love riding mules and horses, too, so I try to experience the AZT from every form of non-motorized travel possible to help keep me in touch with the variety of user groups we have on the trail. My job keeps me really busy and I don't get many opportunities to play on the trail (despite what everybody thinks) but whenever we have meetings or events in different parts of the state, I aspire to sneak in some time on the AZT.

How would you describe the mission of the AZTA?

Matt: Our mission is to build, maintain, promote, protect and sustain the Arizona Trail as a unique encounter with the land. That's the official mission. Beyond that, the ATA is committed to engaging individuals, families, groups, businesses and agencies in the enjoyment and stewardship of the trail. The more people that use it and fall in love with it, the more likely they are to support it and protect it into the future. The trail is an 800-mile-long organism that requires constant "care and feeding" and if you think it takes a village to raise a child, think about how many people it takes to maintain and sustain the trail.

Has the land use along the trail corridor changed since the trails inception?

Matt: Not really. Fortunately, the founding father was a true visionary who embraced all user groups from day one. Dale Shewalter was a hardcore hiker who loved riding horses and mountain bikes, too. So from the very beginning, the Arizona Trail has been a shared-use experience. And because of that, we don't have the kinds of conflicts that other long-distance trails are now experiencing because they exclude certain user groups.

Most of the land the Arizona Trail traverses is extremely remote, so there is little fear of development and encroachment on the trail corridor. That said, there are currently four major mining operations that could destroy portions of the AZT. Arizona is filled with natural resources, both on the surface that we all enjoy and appreciate, and underground, which we all use and need. So protecting the trail, negotiating with private companies and public land management agencies, and working to ensure the trail will be here for future generations is a constant struggle. Especially with a push toward more "green energy" nationwide, long-distance trails are being faced with obstacles likes transmission power lines, large-scale solar and wind energy projects, and open-pit mines.

Have you seen any changes in the gateway communities along the trail?

Matt: Absolutely! Many of the towns (gateway communities) the trail passes near are former mining towns that have gone through a boom and bust cycle and are trying to figure out how to survive. Recent reports from the National Park Service show that the single greatest source of economic stability for rural communities is through ecotourism. Instead of small towns building something from the ground up, we've essentially brought the trail to them. Now, then can incorporate the AZT into their master plan and learn from other communities that are finding success in appealing to outdoor recreationalists who enjoy a good meal and small town charm as much as a day out in the dirt.

Gateway communities are a great way for us to gauge how many people are using the trail, too. Since we don't have any permit or registration system, we rely on town to help inform us how many thru-hikers and day trippers are on the trail each season.

Through more outreach and education and providing gateway communities resources like maps and information, we're seeing them develop into trail towns. This means healthier communities, and more people who have a vested interest in maintaining, promoting and protecting the AZT into the future.

How would you describe the trail community?

Matt: Just like the state of Arizona, the AZT community is a wild and eclectic mix. On any given day on any segment of trail you might find a determined thru-hiker, a club of trail runners, folks riding mules or horses, a crew of mountain bikers, folks hiking with their kids, geocachers, bird watchers...you name it. The diversity always inspires me, and the fact that we have very few trail conflicts each year is testament to the nature of people out West.

The number of international visitors on the trail is incredible! Last year, international thru-hikers outnumbered Americans. And the number of guidebooks we sell to foreign countries is pretty amazing. So it's definitely worth mentioning that the trail community is global.

What are some current or ongoing trail building or maintenance projects?

Matt: Maintenance projects happen every week or weekend throughout the state, and the trail corridor is always in need of brushing and tread repair. Arizona's seasons are extreme, so when it rains it comes down like a fire hose. Because of that, we're constantly repairing the damage Mother Nature does to the trail. A few major wildfires over the past five years have left segments of the trail devastated, so we're building new trail through severely scorched terrain. Some of the more remote mountain ranges in the middle of state are too far out for volunteer crews, so we're using grant funds to get professional trail crews into the Superstition and Mazatzal Mountains to bring the trail up to National Scenic Trail standards.

For thirty years the goal of the ATA was to get the trail completed. That meant linking existing trails and building new trail. While the project was completed quickly, it wasn't always built well. There are many segments of trail that are poorly designed and in desperate need of "realignment," meaning abandoning the bad stuff and building fresh tread that is truly sustainable.

Are there any trail projects that stand out to you?

Improving the trail to accommodate all users is something worth mentioning. Much of the trail is great for hikers, but the corridor is too narrow for equestrians or the switchbacks are too tight for mountain bikers. Our focus now is a trail that is accessible to hikers, mountain bikers and equestrians. It will never be "easy" as the Arizona Trail is a serious endeavor over rugged terrain in the middle of nowhere, often times far from water sources. But we're trying to fulfill the mission and vision of the AZT to improve what we have so all non-motorized users are able to experience it.

The other trail project that stands out to me is our ongoing mapping and signage projects. We're working with GIS specialists to offer free interactive maps, GPS datacards, and other forms of non-paper map options for outdoor explorers. Instead of adding more signs to the trail or producing paper maps that will change often, we're using technology to provide up-to-date information to anyone with a GPS or smartphone.

Do you have any favorite volunteer stories?

Matt: Considering 1,200+ people contributed over 17,000 volunteer hours last year, it's hard to choose a single story. I am always inspired by people who give time and energy to the trail. It's not surprising or shocking, because like many people who spend time outdoors, I realize that the Arizona Trail is a transformative experience for so many people. Trail work is a rewarding and bonding experience, which is why we have so many committed volunteers who have made working on the Arizona Trail a regular part of their lives. Some of them spend more time working on the trail than playing on it. It's an honor to be able to swing a pick alongside them, knowing that the next person who comes down the trail will have a better experience...even though most will never know.

What's in store for the future of the AZT?

Matt: With more awareness and support, I think the AZT can become one of the premier trails in the nation. We've been flying under the radar for thirty years but now it's time to introduce the AZT to the rest of the world. Heck, most people in Arizona have never heard of it. So through some creative promotional efforts, I hope the Arizona Trail becomes known and appreciated.

The ATA has been operating on a shoestring budget for years, but in order to keep up with trail maintenance needs we really need to step up it. With federal funds dwindling all the time, that means relying on support from individuals who care about the AZT. Most people assume their taxes pay for trails, or that federal agencies take care of it, but more often than not, it's small nonprofit organizations like the ATA that rally volunteers, hold fundraisers, and work like crazy to make sure the trail is there for people to enjoy.

How can people help the trail?

Matt: Donate dollars, volunteer time at a trail work event, and encourage others to do the same. The majority of funds to support the ATA come from individuals and businesses who make tax-deductible contributions every year. It's the only reason the AZT was built in record time, and it's how we continue to provide an 800-mile adventure-of-a-lifetime to anyone who wants it. The AZT is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and no permits are needed (unless you are camping overnight in Saguaro or Grand Canyon National Parks).

We also have an awesome membership program with great incentives for people who join and renew their support each year. And if donating or joining is against your nature, then buy some Arizona Trail merchandise from our online store. Guidebook, T-shirts, socks, and much more are available. Every purchase helps support our mission.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Landscape Photography for Hikers – Camera settings

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Cameras and the images they capture have never been more accessible, portable or easier to share.  Within hours of returning from hikes, it’s common to see photo’s on social media posted, tagged and described by friends.  That said, bad photography and poor results have never been more common either. Almost everyone carries a camera in their phone, but the image quality is always lacking when blown up to a size larger than that of a small tablet screen.  Panoramas with smartphone cameras can at first glance be nice as well, but often show striping from slight differences in metering or sensor noise.  Most smartphone cameras have become so automatic that they no longer give the user control over camera settings since most users don’t know how to use them.  Instead, carry a small portable point and shoot camera which allows for better images due to a larger image sensor and control from traditional camera functions. In this post, I hope to give readers some tips for how to take better quality photos with a typical point and shoot camera.
First we need some background on photography and digital photography.  I’ll be brief so if you want more in depth coverage feel free to google terms.  To me, photography consists of two distinct actions – framing the shot and selecting the settings.  This post will focus on camera settings. 

The goal in basic landscape photography is usually to recreate what the photographer sees, maybe with some slight alterations to add drama to the shot.  Advanced landscape photographers look to modify the image to really increase the drama, but that’s beyond this post.  For our purposes, the end goal is to walk away with a picture that accurately portrays what we are looking at. The biggest settings that affect that goal are white balance, exposure, ISO, F-stop and shutter speed. 

Oversimplified, white balance is what color the camera believes is white.  The source of the light fools the camera into believing some other color is white and causes colors to look off.  Blue images in snowy landscapes are common because the wrong white balance was used.  Try playing with your camera’s settings to fix it when your are shooting, there are usually white balance modes for most types of scenes – or you can try automatic white balance and hope for the best. Your computer monitor uses a similar setting.
Exposure refers to how much light we allow the image sensor to record and it’s determined by the combined effect of ISO, F-stop and shutter speed.  Too much light or overexposure makes bright spots such as clouds, sky or distant peaks become washed out but objects in the shadows are well defined.  Too little light and the darker areas of the shot are lost but the clouds look great.  We usually want something in the middle or a “correct” exposure. F-stop, shutter speed and ISO are combined to change the exposure of the shot which is measured by the camera’s light meter.  The light meter looks something like this, which shows a 2/3 reduction in exposure:
Typical light meter

Or in simpler camera’s the symbol to adjust the metering might 
look like this:

The light meter is a measure of how much light the camera settings will let into the sensor.  We can change the metering by adjusting the ISO, F-stop and shutter speed.  The ISO is a measure of image sensor sensitivity to light, the F-stop is a measure of fast the aperture will allow light into the sensor and the shutter speed is how much time the sensor will record light.

To understand these settings let’s imagine a bucket being filled with water from a hose.  The bucket represents the light meter and we will fill it with light or water in this analogy.  The hose is our lens and out of it flows the water or light.   If we want to fill the bucket (get the exposure) more quickly we could use a larger diameter hose, or a wider aperture.  Lens aperture widths decrease exponentially with an increasing number – so an F-stop of F4.0 is 16 times faster than an F-stop of F8.0.  That means we would only have to turn the hose on for one-sixteenth as long with the F4.0 to fill the bucket to the same level.  Finally, we can change the ISO – which is really the size of the bucket.  A smaller bucket will fill faster and a larger will fill slower.  Again, this relationship is backwards since an ISO of 800 represents a much smaller bucket than an ISO of 200.  The 800 ISO bucket will fill 4 times faster than an ISO 200 bucket, since the speed doubles every time the ISO doubles.  How high we fill the bucket is the exposure.  Overfill the bucket and it’s an over exposed image, under fill it and it’s underexposed.   The flow in the hose depends on how much light is in the scene – lots of flow in a bright sunny day, but very little in a shot of the stars.

So why have so many ways of filling a bucket?  Well, each setting has an effect on the image.  A smaller ISO setting, or larger bucket will mean more light (water) is collected.  So we have more detail and more information to work with.  When we increase the size of the image there will be more detail.  At higher ISO’s the image becomes pixelated and fuzzy due to image sensor noise.  Larger image sensors found in bigger camera’s become less pixelated and have less fuzziness or noise and can use higher ISO’s without problems. 

If we change the size of the hose or aperture, it changes how much of the image is in focus.  The part of the image in focus is called the focal plane and the width of it is called depth of field.  A smaller hose, or aperture, such as an F8.0 will give us a deep depth of field with less blurring in the background.  That means our subject and most of what’s behind it will be in focus.  A very large aperture, such as an F-1.8, will give a very narrow depth of field, especially with near subjects, and a lot of blurr in the background. 

 The length of time we leave the hose on, or the shutter speed, will also affect how we fill the bucket.  A very fast shutter speed such as 1/2000 will stop time – water droplets in a water fall are frozen in place or the hair of a running stallion is stopped instantaneously.  A long shutter speed will allow the waterfall to condense into a pleasant blur or for car lights at night to form bright streaks across a highway. 

These three settings effect on the exposure are measured by our camera’s light meter measured in “stops”.  1 “stop” half is the amount of light the camera thinks the image needs since the light meter is just the camera’s educated guess of how much light will give a pleasant image.  So if we lower the exposure by 1 stop, we reduce the amount of light our camera records by 1/2.  On more advanced camera’s we can change how the light meter measures the light in the image.  It can use a broad average of the amount of light in the entire image, concentrate the metering on the amount of light in the center of the image, or concentrate it entirely on a small dot.  In any case, it’s the camera’s best guess as to what combination of settings will work best. 

The problem is, despite all the technology we are still smarter than cameras.  Most cameras will over expose bright landscapes that end up washing out the terrain but depicting the sky perfectly.  A quality point and shoot will have a high definition screen and you’ll be able to see this effect after or even as you take the photo.  Instead, try reducing the exposure by 2/3 of a stop – like the light meter image at the top of this post.  That will lower the amount of water in our bucket and may give a nicer image. 

Another common problem is a blurry image in a dark forest.  A dark forest means the flow in our hose is very low so the camera has to hold the hose, or shutter open too long allowing the movement of our hands to blur the image.   We either need a bigger hose or a smaller bucket!  If we make our hose larger – lower the F-stop – a faster shutter speed is needed and less blur from camera movement will happen.  However, that means the background may be too out of focus.  Instead, we can increase the ISO which will also need a faster shutter speed.  Around an ISO of 800 or so, most cameras will create unpleasant noise and pixilation, so this only works to a point.  In the end, a combination of both may work best. 

The easiest way to adjust these settings quickly is to set the camera for “A” mode or Aperture priority on the large dial at the top of the camera.  This lets us choose the aperture with one camera control and the light meter setting with the other, while the camera decides what shutter speed to use to get that light meter setting.  The ISO is usually held constant and can be adjusted through the camera’s menu.  I keep my camera in this mode about 90% of the time, only occasionally using “S” or shutter priority to get blur on a waterfall. Read your camera’s manual to find out what the other settings mean.
Typical mode dial

Another useful setting is HDR, short for High Dynamic Range.  It’s common to take a picture of a couple in front of a mountain, only to have their faces come out too dark.  If your camera has this setting it will take three photos as quickly as possible and stitch them together.  Each picture is taken at a different exposure – one underexposed, one at the exposure setting and one over exposed.  The couples faces will show up better in an over exposed photo, the mountain better in the “correct” exposure and the sky better in the over exposed image.  Together they will combine to create an image closer to what we see with our eyes.  However, if you set the difference exposure of the 3 images too high, the image will turn out strange looking and seem fake.  This is a common mistake, I recommend sticking to 1 “stop” of difference between images to prevent it.

Hopefully this post has helped your understanding of how digital photography works and can help you take better images, if not feel free to ask in the comments!

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Gear Review: Feathered Friends Daybreak Jacket (hooded)

This is a review of an item I plan on taking on my upcoming year of through-hiking to raise money for the Arizona Trail Association,Continental Divide Coalition and Te Araroa Trust.  Please consider donating and sharing it on Facebook!

Feathered friends is mostly known as a small Seattle based sleeping bag maker, but they also make lesser known line of goose down insulated clothing.   I took advantage of a recent sale and picked up their Daybreak hooded jacket.  Their Daybreak series are lightweight, and meant for 3 season use.  I saw a lot of similar Patagonia and Montbell down “sweaters” on the Pacific Crest Trail last year but most lacked much loft for any real warmth unlike the daybreak which has about an 3/4 of an inch of single layer loft mid-baffle.  On the PCTI carried a 20 ounce down parka from Marmot, the Ama Dablam jacket for use with my feathered friends Vireo sleeping bag instead of a much thinner down sweater.  The bag is 25 degrees on your legs and 45 on your chest and is meant for use with a down jacket. Look for a full review soon.

The Feathered Friends Vireo

I liked having the heavy Marmot jacket as piece of mind, even though it was overkill most of the time and relying on it as my only insulation caused some problems.  I didn't carry any other insulation layer other than a sleeping shirt, so when I encountered days of cold rain in Washington State I had to keep hiking to stay warm!  My breaks were limited to about ten minutes before I got cold and could only be taken at the base or partway up a climb.  I didn’t want to get either my long johns or the jacket wet since both were essential for my sleep system, which left me with only a long sleeve hiking shirt and wind jacket for continued wet, cold conditions.   

For my upcoming hikes I want something lighter with more flexibility.  Rather than a single heavy down jacket, I picked the day break and a half-zip 100 weight fleece pullover.  The daybreak weighs just over 7 ounces on my scale and the fleece pullover is 10 ounces on the nose so the total is only only a few ounces lighter than the Marmot jacket.  However, the fleece has the benefit of staying warm when wet, absorbing minimal water and drying quickly.  I can use it as a layer for hiking and since it dries fast and won’t hold much water it can still be used as sleepwear when wet, since my sleeping shirt, daybreak jacket and bag will be dry in my pack.  I recently used this combination on a Presidential Traverse attempt, including hanging out on the summit of New Hampshire’s Mount Washington in 35 degree temperatures with winds blowing over 50 miles per hour.  Based on my experience so far, I think this combination is at least as warm as, maybe slightly warmer than my Marmot jacket and a much more versatile system.  

The daybreak in action over a fleece - far left.
The Daybreak jackets construction is top notch and I have noticed no down leakage.  The hood is fitted tightly and would not work over a helmet, which is perfect for me.  Instead of a clunky drawstring, it uses elastic around your face which works great and sheds the extra grams to boot.  The bottom of the hood stops at the base of my chin, which helps retain warmth around the neck.  The sleeves have similar elastic cuffs that are tight enough to keep warm air in but not constricting – the same as the adjustment I would have made on a heavier drawstring closure and never touched again.  The bottom of the jacket does have a drawstring, which might be useful occasionally.  The fit of a medium jacket on my averagish 5 foot 8 inch frame is almost perfect.  I have short legs – my pants inseam measures 30-inches – and the jacket is long enough to cover most of the way down my hip bone, which is great and the sleeve length is great for me.  The jacket also packs into a provided stuff sack, though I rarely use stuff sacks since I prefer to use insulation layers to take up dead space in my pack.  This strategy keeps things from rattling around back there, is better for the down loft over time and takes less time to pack and unpack.

A quick note - the fit of this jacket is everything I want for the outdoors but the elastic cuffs mean it looks a fit funny on the street.  I honestly think this is a plus since a lot of outdoors clothing is being fashion-a-fied into looking better but compromising function.  At a typical gear store it can now be hard to tell what's really meant to be used in bad weather versus what's meant to be worn on the street.  I think part of the steadily rising down price trend is due to this as well, since you see 800+ fill down sweaters everywhere on people who's wallets would be better served by synthetic insulation.

The hood looks a bit funny but is much warmer than an open design.

Anyhow, the pockets on the Daybreak jacket are plenty large enough for my hands but not fleece lined, which is not a problem for me.  All the zippers feel very solid and latch easily.  The baffles seem to work well and the shell material on my 2013 jacket is made from Pertex Endurance, a water resistant breathable fabric and filled with regular 900+ fill down.  Feathered friends hasn't bought into hydrophobic coated down like most other cottage retailers and even has a post about it.  It should be noted that my sale jacket must have been the last of these since the feathered friends is now using Schoeller Nanosphere® - a new fabric that is hydrophobic!  From the manufacturers website it sounds like water and dirt should bead right off.  Sounds cool, but I think I’ll live with the older fabric and extra $100 in my pocket. 

In summary I would definitely recommend this jacket if you’re in the market for a top notch, light  weight down jacket.  They work great for camp and can extend the range of a sleep system.   If money were no object I would have probably splurged for the Helios jacket – only 3 or 4 ounces heavier but significantly warmer.  However, this jacket was on sale and will get the job done for me just fine.