You Can't Escape Energy: Losing a trail of waste

Although nothing happens without energy, the human world tends to use disproportionate amounts of energy to accomplish tasks. We have created tools and concentrated fuels or pools of energy that provide "work-arounds" of the natural world. And that can be great! But it can also be inordinately wasteful. By comparison, the natural world's energy use has zero waste. Everything is used for something. Waste products from some things support processes for others. As I lay the foundation for Backcountry Bonsai, I'm doing so with deep consideration of biomimicry, an awesome field you'll hear loads more about over time that bases design on naturally-occurring functional structures. For the moment, however, I want to consider that concept of zero waste... and how we can re-evaluate our approach to energy requirements in the field and at home. Sound too heavy? It's not, I swear. It's really pretty light:


Use less.


Instead of trying to do the same thing in basically the same way, see what you can eliminate. Conceptually, what I'm suggesting is a whole-hearted commitment to change. It's not just "How can we do 'X' more efficiently," but is significantly "How can we eliminate 'X'?"


Instead of assuming that given components are vital to a product or process, and that modifying them is the key to efficiency, I suggest that we start with trying to eliminate a component or operation entirely. Doing that gets rid of product, labor, & weight costs associated with an item all the way back to extracting the raw resource. A good common backcountry example might be the cookpot sets popular with many backpackers. A typical set could have a big pot, a smaller pot, a couple of bowls, a frypan, a lid, one or two removable handles, and a storage bag. They're nifty. Tidy. Organized and "with it." But you're cooking on a single one-burner stove. Boiling water for a one-pot meal. Even with two people, all you need is one pot & handle, one lid, and a bowl for the person not eating out of the pot. The other things are extraneous. Wasteful. You can eliminate the additional weight and bulk of a pot, a frypan, a bowl, maybe a handle, and a storage bag... something like half the weight of the set. If you could work this backwards and buy only what you need, eliminating half the cookset wouldn't just save you the weight and money, but would save the raw materials, labor, processing energy, and transportation of that extra stuff... it would conserve resources & reduce energy expenditure. It's an approach that gets us closer to the zero waste inherent to the wild.


It’s a broad-reaching philosophy and way of life that could have massive implications in our daily lives. In fact, I think we’re seeing parallels in the burgeoning artisanal movements such as slow food, tiny homes, and maker spaces. There’s a sense of vibrancy, and of satisfaction, appreciation. There’s more connection with the development process, the product, and the purchase exchange. Big business and conventional wisdom tell us that you can’t earn a living if your production process is here in the US, but a lot of small business owners are discovering that it’s perfectly feasible… in no small part, I believe, by streamlining the entire process… by, yep, eliminating waste. By selling direct, instead of selling to middlemen who sell to middlemen who sell to retailers who sell you the product… the price being marked up each step of the way, it fails to reflect the essence of the product itself.


Our in-house design and fabrication considers all aspects of cost—not just short-term monetary outlay & profit margin, but attempted reflection of true cost. What’s the impact of producing the raw material, getting it to production, forming it, shipping products?  What’s the potential impact of a product’s life cycle, even after it’s been loved too much and too long? The process leads to us creating things with a purity of form based on raw function. Determining actual needs helps us eliminate excess material, which can reduce handling time and processing steps. Some of the production methods we use are more complex & require somewhat more advanced techniques, which wouldn’t be feasible if we were outfitting things with random primpery. Stripping waste from our products also benefits performance, in that using less makes lighter-weight & more stream-lined things that benefit purposeful intent. It forces you to make it better, almost mandates more integrity to the structure and finish. It's not enough to make something lighter, or even stronger and lighter, but it must also work better... if it doesn't work better, if there are lower-performing aspects of design, then it's wasting potential. In other words, if a lighter & stronger tent had a crummy entrance design that soaked the inside during storms, when an ounce or two of material & a bit more thought could create a storm-worthy entrance... it would be wasteful to carry the weight of the tent minus that extra material. If material is there, maximize the function of the material... if you’ve put 29 ounces into a rainfly that leaves parts exposed, but 31 ounces would provide total shelter, man, you’ve gotta take it the whole way.


I evaluate every aspect of Backcountry Bonsai to find and follow the most sustainable path. In a sense, any form of energy we can conserve in one area can either offset something less efficient, or “merely” help make up the difference of manufacturing small-batch goods here in the Great Lakes. To me, though, it’s more than a matter of efficiency… it’s also a matter of respect, for myself, the company, our neighbors, our customers… for everything and everyone we might touch. That probably sounds a little overboard, eh? But it comes down to a recognition that there isn’t waste, per se. There might well be a difference in utility or accessibility, but everything has some potential value. It reminds me of an almost Depression-era mindset… which then makes me think that given technological advances in the ensuing 80 years, we really oughta be further ahead than we are… but that’s a topic for another day.


Our tag line is “Get More For Your Ounce,” and the preceding is kind of what that phrase is all about. You can’t really maximize potential without minimizing waste, without making everything “count.” When it comes time to hit the trail you don’t want any wallflower ounces. Those things gotta work for the right to be on your back. A heavier pack requires more energy to carry, which requires more fuel (food), which makes the pack heavier… covering mileage becomes more difficult, there’s more risk for injury… but most importantly, it’s not as much fun. When you get out there it’s to re-create, in whatever way pleases you most. Make it less like work. Make it feel more like a dayhike. Allow yourself to appreciate and enjoy the rugged beauty you encounter. Hear the waves hitting shore, watch the sands shift, feel the earth respond to tree roots manipulated by wind in the canopy… Turn your energies toward letting your body and mind explore without distraction.

Peeling Back Layers: Reconstructing effective use of cold-weather apparel

I think of it as "The 'L' Word," because when people hear "Layering," they tend to zone out. It's a term that carries with it an almost dismissive familiarity, but even avid outdoor enthusiasts frequently have an incomplete understanding of the concept. It isn't really about staying warm. It's about staying cool. It's about temperature regulation.

Layering is about keeping your cool, NOT about getting you warm.

The easiest way to be warm is to grab the biggest, poofiest hooded down parka you can find. If you're doing much more than belaying an ice climber or standing at a bus stop, though, it's easy to overheat... and although being too warm might sound great, your body doesn't see it that way. The "You" of your heart and mind might cherish excess warmth, but your body has one mission: Keep it neutral. If you're too hot, your body will work to cool you down. 


It might strike you as cruel, but it is eminently usual. If we give this particular rabbit hole more consideration, it's quickly apparent that your situation can only snowball until you're totally jammed. To wit, you're overheating so your body starts cooling you down... so you bundle up more, and your body redoubles its efforts to cool you... so you put on an extra hat and do some jumping jacks, and your body works even harder to cool you... all in all, it's not a scenario that ends in comfort, which is why I stress the importance of staying on the cool side of comfort.


Be proactive in removing layers... Take them off before you're too hot. There's a sensory sweet spot in that area between feeling cold and feeling that you'll be warm soon; when you sense you've started warming, or that you're not cold, it's probably time to shed a layer.  The more aerobic your activity level, the more proactive you need to be in removing layers. You don't need to wear much when your metabolism is cranked to high! 


Imagine that you're in your house and the thermostat is on whatever "regular" is for you, maybe 68*F. You're comfortable, maybe wearing a long-sleeved shirt or even a flannel. Now imagine that the thermostat's set at 80 and the furnace is humming along... if you're like me, you won't be wearing much more than underwear. Or maybe you visit someone who you know habitually has their heat set high, so you wear a bit less clothing there than you would at home. Just as these indoor situations are a microclimate of sorts, your body maintains its own microclimate. 

Your body doesn't really care what the weather is like outside. Or inside, for that matter. Your body just wants to be the same temperature, all the time.

By way of example, I've had a sedentary day. I was wearing a very thin merino wool henley and an unbuttoned flannel at the desk; my dog started bringing me bits and pieces of laundry, which means he's bored and it's time to go for a walk. I keep the house around 65F, and it's a bit below freezing outside, around 28F. I tossed on a fleece vest (okay, wool, but same idea), an uninsulated rain jacket, and a hat on our way outdoors. I wore a pair of leather work gloves that were stashed in the jacket pocket and we walked about a mile. When we got home I removed all but the thin merino shirt, since the walk had boosted my metabolic heat production & I was too warm in the flannel. The point is that I didn't need to add much of anything to go outside, because I knew that the activity would turn on my "furnace." 


If I had gone out to sit on a log for a few hours instead of walking, I would've needed to dress differently. Adding layers does add insulation, but if you're headed out to hunt from a tree stand, for example, wearing enough layers to stay warm can restrict your mobility. For sedentary activity you're probably better served by just throwing on one or two big thick layers... 


I know, sometimes it's hard to feel motivated about going out into the cold. Sometimes we don't care if wearing a really warm jacket will make us too warm... if we're going outside, darnit, we're gonna be warm. When it's bitter cold and I'm headed out snowshoeing, and I want to make sure I'm warm enough, I'll toss on a sort of "ceremonial" down jacket or something. I know I won't be able to wear it long. But it gets me out the door feeling cozy, and after moving 5 or 10 minutes I shuck the jacket and stash it. Actually, for single-digit snowshoeing my "go-to" combo is a wool baselayer, a super light windbreaker, a down vest, and a hat. The down vest never stays on long, but it's sure nice to have!


There's a lot more we could discuss, but I wanted to get this idea out there for you as winter comes on. I've met countless people who have approached "layering" as "wearing a bunch of layers to stay super warm," and thought this angle of the concept might be of help.