About Francis Tapon

Francis Tapon

Francis Tapon is half Chilean and half French and he was born and raised in San Francisco, California. He's been to over 80 countries, but he keeps coming back to this magical city because he loves earthquakes.

He spoke Spanish at home, French at school, and English everywhere else. He can get by in Portuguese and Italian, barely survive in Russian and Slovenian, and speak a few other languages.

Francis has an MBA from Harvard Business School and co-founded a successful Silicon Valley company that did robotic vision. He left his technology life to walk across America four times. He has thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail, and in 2007, became the first to do a round-trip on the Continental Divide Trail. In 2009, he was one of the finalists for the California Outdoors Hall of Fame, which "features nominees who are world-renowned for their skills and who have helped inspire thousands of others to take part in the great outdoors."

Francis has written a couple of travel books including The Hidden Europe: What Eastern Europeans Can Teach Us and Hike Your Own Hike: 7 Life Lessons from Backpacking Across America. He also produced a 77-minute video about his CDT Yo-Yo.


Latest Posts by Francis Tapon

Top 8 European Festivals For Your Calendar This Summer

May 31, 2014 by  

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Summer is fast approaching and festival season is beginning. There is no better way to make the most of the sunshine of the months between June and September than packing your shorts and sunglasses, and jetting off to one of Europe’s many different festivals. When people think about festivals, they are most likely to mention the well established ones like Glastonbury or the Isle of Wight Festivals.

DJ

We have gone and found those festivals that are off the beaten track. It’s not just music festivals as well that we have found, there are a number of exciting and cultural events in countries like Germany, Italy and France, as well as unique festivals in the UK.

You might be travelling across the continent by car, train or even bike. No matter how you’re getting about, there’s no excuse not to take a detour and indulge in the festivities that a festival brings. The atmosphere, the food, the drink and the people, all gathered in unison with an aim – to enjoy themselves and have a good time!

You could choose to stay in Britain and don your wellies, before dodging the English summer rain, wading your way through the mud. But with travel relatively cheap and efficient these days, you could be rubbing shoulders with festival goers in cities, towns and fields across Europe in a matter of hours. So, without further ado, here are nine wonderfully different European festival options for 2014!

1. The EXIT Festival

Young Serbians just wanted to exit out of Yugoslavia’s civil war, so they created the EXIT Festival to do that. Today, it’s one of Europe’s biggest summer bashes.

2. The Garden Festival

Eastern Europe is becoming an increasingly popular travel destination, and Croatia is no exception. The Garden Festival takes place in the stunning coastal town of Tisno and is now in its ninth year. This year the electronic music event takes place between the 2-9th of July and is blessed by its location on the shores of the crystal clear Adriatic sea. The glorious sunshine in the daytime is mirrored by cooler evenings, but one thing’s certain, the party never stops!

There is boutique accommodation available for all, including villas and glamping facilities. There are boat rides available and the soundtrack for the week comes from a plethora of underground house and techno DJ’s such as Craig Richards, Leon Vincent and Axel Boman.

And if you don’t want to leave (and who would) the Garden Festival is followed immediately by the Electric Elephant festival. EE is another similar music festival, and another reason to kick back and enjoy the summer sun in Europe.

3. Festival of Cycling

If you’re looking for a festival idea which is a little closer to home, you could head to the Festival of Cycling, which coincides with the Tour de France.

From the 4th – 6th July, Harewood House, which is North of Leeds, will be turned into an all out cycling fanfare. There is room for camping, and festival goers can enjoy lots of live music throughout the weekend! There will be a purpose built cycling circuit so all visitors can get in on the act themselves, even challenging Olympic medalists the Brownlee brothers in a time trial.

4. San Fermin

Each year, the town of Pamplona in Spain turns into one non-stop fiesta. Pamplona is world famous thanks to these fiestas and is most well known for the running of the bulls, which was immortalized in Ernest Hemingway’s novel The Sun Also Rises. This year, San Fermin begins at midday on the 6th of July, everyone in the city dons red and white clothing and the fun commences. The Bull Run is something everyone has heard of, and is an event that we should all go and see! The historic town of Pamplona is beautiful all year round, but the chance to visit during the fiesta should not be turned down.

5. I’Primi D’Italia

If food is more your thing, you might want to try out the I’Primi D’Italia 2014. Throughout the event, you can wander about and taste all the delights that Italian food has to offer. The market in Piazza Della Repubblica is a hive of activity during the three day festival which runs between the 25th and 28th of September this year. You can travel by train to Perugia.

6. Wife Carrying World Championship

Now for something a little different. If you happen to be in Sonkajarvi region of Finland between the 4th – 5th July this year, you should head to the world famous Wife Carrying World Championships. The event started in 2014, and is deeply rooted in the local history of the area. The aim is to carry your wife (if she’s over 49kg) over a course of exactly 253.5 meters and the competition has been won by Taisto Miettinen during the last five years. You might even want to enter yourself into the competition!

7. Jazz in Marciac

If Jazz is more your thing, head to the Jazz in Marciac festival which takes place over a three week period in the town of Marciac in southwestern France. This year it is happening between the 25th of July and the 10th of August. Over the years, the event has become a model for rural development centered on a cultural happening. Each year there is a fusion of jazz legends and up and coming talent who take to the stage through both the day and night.

8. Oktoberfest

If you are after something a little louder, you could head to the Oktoberfest in Germany. The event is held annually in Munich, the 16-day celebration has been held since 1810 and is an important part of Bavarian culture. Each year, the event runs from late September through to the first weekend in October and more than six million people attend from all across the world. If you fancy a winter break, you could choose to be one of them!

Oktoberfest is amazing because all the beer that is served is local to the Bavaria area. All of the lager must meet a certain strict criteria of being brewed within the city limits of Munich.

Guest post by Rachel Jensen

Defining the Role of Women in Morocco

May 20, 2014 by  

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Download my first radio dispatch from Africa for WBAI radio in NYC.

It’s a 7-minute (7 MB) report on the role of women in Morocco.

Notice the woman in this Moroccan tent is away from the men in the corner. Francis is in the corner with Soufianne.

Notice the woman in this Moroccan tent is away from the men in the corner. I’m drinking tea in the corner with Soufianne, my cameraman, who is wearing an orange sweatshirt.

On Safety Traveling to Eastern Europe

March 28, 2014 by  

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With the recent news about Ukraine and the Crimea, you might be scared to go to Eastern Europe. Don’t.

You can even be safe in Ukraine, but in this guest post, Jenny Corteza focuses on far away Eastern European lands….

In early 2014, a lot of travelers are asking if Eastern Europe is safe for travel. I’ve been to the area and I wanted to let you know what I think.

Even if you read a lot of other travel blogs and keep up with the recent news in the region, it’s still a good idea to get advice from someone who knows the area well.

And I do because I’ve traveled there frequently over the past two decades of my life – both for business and pleasure.

Staying Safe in 7 Eastern European Countries

Here’s a list of some of the various countries you might travel to as well as some notes of mine on what you should do to make sure you stay safe at all times.
  • Bosnia and Herzegovina – If you’re not familiar with the Bosnian war of 1992-1995, you need to remember one thing – a lot of landmines are still in the area. If you travel to rural areas, make sure you stay on paved roads if at all possible to avoid any unnecessary dangers.

  • Bulgaria – Sticking to the tourist areas is the safest, of course, but if you’re like me and like to stray from the beaten path, make sure you pack your common sense and use it at all times. The big thing is to be aware of what’s going on around you.

  • Croatia – Anyone who loves old stone walls is going to enjoy time spent in certain areas of Croatia. A good idea is to NOT go during peak season in June and July. If you wait until there are less tourists around, you’re going to be safer.

  • Airport

  • Poland – Warsaw is generally safe, but if you do go out at night, make sure you avoid the locals who are drunk. You can find these types in all cities of the world, of course, but there’s something about Poland that makes you want to be a bit extra safe.

  • Romania – Try to avoid dimly lit areas of the city if you’re out and about at night, but overall you’re not going to have any trouble with people in this country if you’re a tourist.

  • Turkey – If you’re going to be in the southeast portions of the country, you’ll want to be a little bit more vigilant. Beyond that, Istanbul is generally safe for travelers if you follow common sense.

  • Montenegro – Remember the number 122 if you’re in Montenegro and get into trouble. You might also use your mobile phone to dial 112, which is the international distress call number. It’s a good idea to have this on speed dial on your mobile.

As you can see, there are a lot of great countries to visit in Eastern Europe, but you really need to make sure you pay attention to the small details so you can ensure your safety – even if you travel alone like I do.

My Eastern Europe Safety Pack

Here’s a breakdown of what I like to keep with me at all times when I’m backpacking or cycling through Eastern Europe.

Beautiful Baltic women

  • Extra Clothing – When backpacking, you want to keep your pack light, of course, but make sure you have at least a couple changes of clothes available at all times.

  • Rain Jacket – If you plan to be outdoors frequently, you want to make sure you have a way to protect yourself from the elements. A waterproof jacket will keep your hands free at all times.

  • Mobile Phone – Having a mobile phone is a necessity these days. Just make sure you check with your wireless provider before you leave to make sure you have coverage and won’t have to pay outrageous fees.

Eastern Europe Travel in 2014

The same might not have been said just a few short decades ago, but a lot of Eastern Europe is now a lot safer for travel. If you’ve been thinking about going, you shouldn’t let a few bad stories stop you from experiencing all this region of the planet has to offer. Whether it’s the natural beauty of the landscape, the majestic and ancient castles, forts and towns or the people themselves, there’s a lot that Eastern Europe has to offer travelers of all ages.

Guest post by: Jenny Corteza

 

Adventure Travel Tips: Be Prepared When the Weather Turns

February 8, 2014 by  

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StrattonThere’s much to be said for the old Boy Scout maxim, “Be Prepared.” But being prepared doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ve got every piece of gear in your pack you could ever need.

Sure, it would be nice to have an ax when you’re 50 miles into the 100-Mile Wilderness and wanting to build a fire, but carrying the ax may actually leave you less prepared for the 5,000 feet of elevation change that you plan to traverse the following morning.

Figuring out the give-and-take of what’s appropriate to bring along on an extended trip is always a work in progress, but it’s one where paying attention to those who have gone before can truly payoff.

That holds especially true when preparing for wet weather conditions in the wilderness. Nothing spoils a trip faster (or forces a premature return home) than extreme discomfort caused by wet conditions.

Despite a childhood spent backpacking and traveling (including several Scout weekends spent hunkered down in driving tempests), I’ve still had to learn a few of these lessons the hard way. Even worse, I’ve watched fellow travelers that I’m responsible for ignore my admonitions, leaving me to pick up their slack (or carry their stuff) when the going gets tough enough to prove me right.

Here are a handful of my most memorable learning moments when it comes to staying dry outside:

1. Keep Your Sleeping Bag Dry

Stratton gear

Remember the soldiers’ adage to “keep your powder dry?” The same goes for your camping gear.

Hiking in the rain can be fun. Honestly, I enjoy the closeness and personal reflection that comes with walking through a downpour or a constant mist — there’s less to see and it’s more difficult to converse with fellow travelers, so it’s a chance to focus on each step.

That said, part of the fun is knowing that at the end of the day, I have a warm, dry sleeping bag to slide into. Without that assurance, hiking in the rain can be miserable.

The take away? Always put a plastic trash bag into your sleeping bag stuff sack, and stuff the bag into that. In addition, use a large bag inside of your pack. It’s a simple and inexpensive step, and it’s more effective than expensive pack covers for keeping water out.

While leading a wilderness trip in Maine in 2006 with 10 high school aged students, one 13-year-old ignored me on this point (I was even providing the bags). Of course, the trip leader (me) got to sleep with a sopping wet bag that night, and I learned my lesson to double-check my fellow hikers packs as well.

2. Ditch the Sponges

Along the same lines, cotton is generally smart to avoid while traveling. Before stuffing your gear into your pack, lay everything out and consider what the heaviest items are and whether or not they are necessary.

On the same trip in Maine, I audited each of my campers’ packs before hitting the trail, removing blue jeans and any other cotton clothing that could potentially soak up water and not dry in wet conditions. One student (a different one than before) snuck his jeans back into his pack — a decision he regretted four days later when he wasn’t allowed to leave them (soaking wet) by the side of the trail.

3. Tarp Smart

Most quality backpacking tents now include the option of a footprint that protects the tent floor, as well as providing an extra waterproof layer between sleeping pads and wet dirt. Many people, however, still utilize a thicker tarp, especially when car camping. It’s a great option, but it can backfire if the tarp is allowed to overlap the bottom of the tent.

Why? Because creating a waterproof layer underneath your tent loses its value if you funnel water on top of it. It seems like an obvious tip, but I’ve seen countless weekends ruined (mostly at music and arts festivals with novice campers) by forgetting to tuck a tarp’s overlapping sections underneath the tent. Nobody wants a waterbed when they’re camping.

4. Refresh Your Waterproofing

Stratton's gear

Even the most high-end tents eventually lose their waterproofing capabilities, especially when they’re stored rolled up in their bags for long periods of time. Fortunately, most of this can be restored. I use Nikwax products to restore the seals along my tent seams and coat my tent walls, but there are plenty of options on the market that work well.

Once a year, make a point to set up your tent and give it a waterproofing once-over. You’ll be grateful that you did the next time you’re hunkered down in a three-day torrent. Nobody likes the phantom drip leaking through their tent wall!

5. Keep Lines Taut

It may look like the most beautiful clear night at sunset, but you never know when rain will roll in at 4 a.m. In the dark and amid heavy rain is not the time to secure your tent’s rain fly. Take the extra three minutes to stake it out properly so that rain will funnel away from your tent instead of pooling up and dripping through.

6. Carry an Umbrella

I used to scoff at the advice to carry an umbrella while hiking. It seemed like extra weight. But in fact, an 8-ounce model can pay for itself in weight by replacing a rain jacket and sunscreen. I’m now a convert, and am grateful for Francis articulating the many reasons it’s a worthwhile addition to your gear!

What’s your worst rain-related camping or travel story? Have you ever had to come home early due to ill preparedness for wet weather?

Guest post by Stratton Lawrence, who is a freelance travel writer and all around outdoor adventurer.

There’s Eastern Europe And Then There’s Serbia’s Novi Sad

December 26, 2013 by  

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Serbia is one of those places that conjures up plenty of preconceptions in people’s minds: wars, embargoes, lawlessness, and many other problems that afflicted the region in the past. Like a lot of preconceptions, there is a grain of truth buried amongst mountains of ignorance and chinese-whispers.

Despite news stories involving decade-old wars and the recent trouble with racist football fans, Serbia is slowly regaining a reputation as a progressive and interesting holiday-destination, with new cultural figures to represent modern Serbia in a positive light to the world: Novak Djokovic, Emir Kusturica, the critically acclaimed director, and NBA superstar Marko Jaric, who is also married to Adriana Lima.

Novi Sad

If Belgrade is the archetypal bustling, busy, capital city – the first place most visitors think of when they visit Serbia – then Novi Sad is the laid-back, friendlier, and generally less tourist-driven northern counterpart. Set in the middle of Vojvodina, home to Serbia’s vibrant agriculture, it’s a typical university town, its streets filled with young and vibrant students from surrounding villages, and its venues filled with some of the most progressive culture in Serbia.

I was exhausted from my long trip, as I first had to fly from Brisbane to London, and then I took a plane to Belgarde that shows how much Serbians love their famous sportsmen, as this AirSerbia airplane was actually named Novak Djokovic. Belgrade to Novi Sad took over an hour and a half by train, even though the distance between the two cities is less than 60 miles, but I finally reached Novi Sad and met with my friend.

Novi Sad

Novi Sad isn’t a small city, it has a population of over 250,000, and a busy town-centre populated by families and shoppers in the daytime, and socializers and coffee-drinkers during the night. Even during rush hour, however, people in Novi Sad rarely seem rushed, and you will seldom see the kind of goose-stepping hurriedness that is common in such cities. Nowhere is the town’s relaxed nature more apparent than in its cafe and food culture; you won’t find a Starbucks-style frappucino to-go anywhere, but if all you want to do is sit in the shade and people watch for hours, you’re never more than 20 feet away from a cafe it seems.

Food was one of the most pleasant surprises in Novi Sad. Perhaps it’s the benefit of being surrounded by healthy farmland, or perhaps it was the obvious pleasure Serbians take in eating, but the stalls and restaurants in Novi Sad were cheap and quite tasty. It’s mostly meat on the menu, and mostly in the form of burgers, pizza, and sandwiches, but it is difficult to think of another country which comes close to serving simple food that tastes as great as this – and certainly not as cheap. I have to admit that I would have a totally different perspective of food quality if I was vegetarian though. In that case a good meal would be tough to find, unless I cooked it myself.

Drunken Clock

Like many Eastern European countries, Serbia also has a bit of a generational gap between cultures. A word to the wise: If you’re in Novi Sad and need to ask for directions, find the youngest adult you can! Older people tend to not speak English very much, whereas younger people not only speak it well, but show a keen interest in other cultures and fashions. If you’re lucky enough to visit during June, you’ll also find the city populated with people from all over the world as they descend upon the beachfront and its renowned fortress for the Exit festival – a music event that has played host to acts as diverse as Morrissey, Pulp, and the Prodigy in recent years.

I was told that cars have become increasingly popular amongst Serbians, and evidence of that was apparent, with many streets lined with cars, though traffic doesn’t seem to be a huge problem. Despite this, cycle lanes run throughout the city, and its possible to see the whole of Novi Sad from behind handlebars. It’s not quite Amsterdam, but Novi Sad is still more bike-friendly than many places.

During the summer Serbians love to be outside, and you will rarely find a green space without playing children, a street front without casual shoppers, or a cafe that isn’t filled with chattering loungers. Visit the Strand – a mile-long stretch of the Danube with food stalls and bars – and you’ll see families, the elderly, and teenage party-animals alike enjoying the sun. You’ll also know when there’s a nationally relevant sporting event on – such as a Djokovic game – from the thousands of cafe and bar crowds gazing up at TV screens and reacting to every moment.

Possibly Novi Sad’s most impressive site is the fortress, a centuries-old site that overlooks the Danube and winds around a surprisingly well-kept village. It can take hours to walk around, and is filled with interesting surprises like its collection of artists’ studios at the top; the remains of decades-old artillery; or the ‘drunken clock’, known as such because the minute hand shows the hour, and vice versa.

Luckily I had a direct line back to Brisbane. Luckily, because I was so tired by the time my visit ended that all I wanted to do was crash on the first soft, clean place I run into. Admittedly though I have had a wonderful time and am grateful that my friend took days out of her vacation time to lead me around the city. I certainly got “culture shocked” in a pleasant way, though I wouldn’t expect anything less as I did travel halfway around the globe.

This guest post was by Anita Reid. 

When In Budapest, Have a Look at This Top 20 List!

December 20, 2013 by  

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Hungary pic

If you didn’t know it, Hungary is actually one of the most visited countries in the entire world. They’re around fifteen on the list, in fact. One of the main reasons it’s such a favorite place to travel is that the money you spend there goes a long way – not to mention all the fun things they have to do.

Here’s a roundup of 22 different places to see and things to do while visiting Budapest Hungary. I’m not going to tell you how long it took me to see all these different places, but it’s a lot shorter amount of time than you might think.

Celeritas Shooting Club

  1. TRAP Team Race Against Puzzles

  2. Holocaust Memorial Center

  3. Fisherman’s Bastion (Halaszbastya)

  4. Shoes on the Danube Promenade

  5. Magyar Allami Operahaz (Opera House)

  6. St. Stephen’s Basilica (Szent Istvan Bazilika)

  7. Alexandra Bookstore

  8. Buda Castle

  9. Great Circus (Nagy Cirkusz)

  10. Kerepesi Cemetery

  11. Budapest Zoo & Botanical Garden

  12. Zelnik Istvan Southeast Asian Gold Museum

  13. Matthias Church (Matyas Templom)

  14. Liberty Bridge (Szabadsag hid)

  15. Szepmuveszeti Muzeum

  16. Danube Palace

  17. Hungarian National Gallery

  18. Szabo Marzipan Museum

  19. Mikro Csodak Museum

  20. Hungarian Railway Museum

You may be wondering how I fit in all these locations – even if they’re all in Budapest.

How to Fit it All In

With so many places to see, it can be difficult to fit everything, but here are some tips I’ve learned over the years that should help you considerably.

  •  Plan Ahead - The first thing you need to do is to plan ahead. This means doing some research about various places you might want to visit. After you have a list, go through them and see if you can cluster any of them together. This makes it easier to see more in the same amount of time.
  • Use GPS - Another good idea is to make sure you use GPS rather than a paper map. This will allow you to really choose the best routes from location to location so that you can fit more in on your trip. Just make sure you keep a close eye on your GPS system when you’re traveling around.

  • Hang With Locals - Going with a local tour guide that has many years of experience will help make sure you’re able to get around the city and visit everything you want. The good news is that there are many great locals who are more than willing to help you get around without hassles or headaches. You’ll want to make sure you have a common language with them, of course.

This guest post was written by Rose Josephson.

Tips to River Rafting On the Wild Side

November 14, 2013 by  

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Are you thinking about undertaking an adventurous water sport? Those who are curious and adventurous by nature can embark on white-water rafting. This thrilling family activity provides an exciting experience for people of all skill levels and age groups. Both Europe and Africa are blessed with flourishing rivers that offer exhilarating water rafting adventures.

Rafting in Bosnia. Photo by Eko turizam u BiH (Tri doline) on Flikr.

A couple of travel companies around the world provide tours to white-water rafting locations. You can contact these agencies for flight details and other requirements. Each trip is supervised by an experienced guide and fitness instructor. The participants are requested to get a grip on basic paddling skills. Moreover, they should trust their guides and follow specific instructions during rafting.

White-Water Rafting In Europe

There are many exciting rafting places throughout Europe:

  • The Alps region in Europe is especially famous for white-water rafting.
  • Countries like Spain, Croatia, France, Scotland and Austria house multiple sites for water adventures.
  • The Ardeche River in France and the River Enns in Austria include Class III rapids.
  • The Rhein and Lutchine rivers in Switzerland accommodate class III and class IV rapids. While the Lutchine is noted for organizing the best rafting events, the River Rhein is known for picturesque panorama of Swiss Grand Canyon.
  • The Noce River meanders its way through the Sun Valley in northern Italy. It is one of the best white-water rafting destinations of the world. It features Class I to Class V rapids.
  • The Västerdalälven River in the Dalarna region, Sweden is famed for family trips and breathtaking scenery. It consists of risk-free Class I rapids for beginners.
  • The Uni River in Bosnia-Herzegovina (see photo below)
African River Safaris

The best time to visit Africa is from June to September, when the rivers contain just the right amount of water for rafting. You’ll find some of the best water rafting sites in Zambia, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Madagascar, South Africa, Tanzania and Morocco. Rivers like Nile, Zambezi, Tekeze, Omo, Orange, Buffalo, Crocodile and Mangoky provide stimulating events for youngsters.

In addition to these, the Victoria Falls located between Zimbabwe and Zambia houses camping grounds, fishing creeks, national parks and rafting channels for exploration.

TRICKS IN RAFTING:

  • Rock splats – If the rafters load the back of the raft, they can paddle the raft into a rock on the river, having it hit the bottom of the boat instead of the nose; if done correctly this can raise the raft up vertically on its stern.
  • Surfing – Commercial rafts often use waves on rivers to surf.
  • Nose dunks – Large rafts can enter hydraulics called holes from downstream and reverse taco i.e. submerging there nose. This can be a safe way to get rafters wet in a hydraulic.
  • Pirouette – A move executed by either a sweep or draw stroke, a method often useful for avoiding obstacles is spinning the raft with current.
  • Troying - This is a move done by only expert white water rafters, and is the action of popping the back of the boat for a sudden burst of speed.

Making Initial Preparations
Rafting or white water rafting is the challenging recreational outdoor activity of using an inflatable raft to navigate a river or other bodies of water. This is usually done on White water or different degrees of rough water, in order to have a thrilling experience to raft passengers. It is considered an extreme sport even it is dangerous. We must be aware of some important things. Especially when riding with younger rafters, we must be aware that, According to the laws of some state’s and countries, rafters under the age of 12 may not be permitted to raft.

One key rule for people, when rapid get tougher rafters get exhausted is not dragging their paddle in the water which makes them lean towards one side and entire crew loses control. Buddy system on trips, by which other riders around us will help if any disaster strikes.

Swimming towards an eddy to avoid being taken downstream is one of the simplest way to avoid injury while out of a raft. Now you’re familiar with safety measures in rafting and best destinations in Europe and Africa, book your flights and fly to your favorite locations. Rafting is often played for the adrenaline rush enjoy it with all safety measures.

Guest Post by Sophie Morgan

10 Reasons to Bring an Umbrella When Hiking, Rain or Shine!

November 7, 2013 by  

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When I’m out hiking on an adventure trail, hikers often ask, “Why are you carrying an umbrella?”

What they’re really thinking is: “Hey moron, what’s with the stupid umbrella?”

An umbrella seems out-of-place in the wilderness. It’s for city folk, not for macho backpackers and hikers in the wilderness. However, hiking with an umbrella is not as foolish as it looks. I’ve used umbrellas on the Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, and Continental Divide Trail. An umbrella has protected me also during treks across Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula jungle, Slovakia’s Tatra Mountains, and Ukraine’s tallest peak. They’ve also served me well during by trek across the Pyrenees and El Camino de Santiago. Most recently, I’ve been using umbrellas extensively during my 4-year trip in Africa.

I find an umbrella superior for most backpacking and hiking adventures. Here are 10 reasons why . . .

Umbrellas are useful in the Sierra Nevada

1. Umbrellas protect backpackers in rainstorms

Let’s start with the obvious: umbrellas work. They stop rain. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t sell throughout the planet. As obvious as this is, some backpackers act like umbrellas just don’t work.

But if they didn’t work, then Americans wouldn’t buy 33 million umbrellas every year. That’s remarkable: 1 in 10 Americans buys an umbrella each year. Why? Because umbrellas are one of the most successful ways of protecting humans from precipitation.

2. Umbrellas provide more ventilation than any rain jacket

I usually don’t backpack with a rain jacket because I find that no rain jacket offers as much rain protection and ventilation as an umbrella. The ventilation is important because it postpones overheating.

For example, on the Appalachian Trail, my hiking partner Lisa wore a rain jacket, but by the time she would get to the top of a mountain, she would be soaked—in sweat, not rain. That wetness would help take her down the path of hypothermia because of the cold winds at the summit.

Taking a break with the umbrella at Banner Peak on the JMT/PCT

An umbrella helps regulate your temperature because it lets the heat that your body generates while hiking evaporate quickly. Even “breathable” rain jackets trap a significant amount of heat.

With an umbrella, as you near the top of a mountain, you can add a layer of clothing before your body starts to cool during the descent.

3. Umbrellas weigh less than most rain jackets

At 230 grams (8 oz), the super light umbrellas weigh about nearly half as much as a typical “breathable” rain jacket. Thru-hikers are fanatical about minimizing their pack weight, so this is yet another good reason to use an umbrella for rain protection.

Lisa discovered that I was staying drier than she was, so after New Hampshire she sent her rain jacket home and used a light umbrella for the 12 remaining states on the Appalachian Trail.

An umbrella protects against the sun

I had a $5 umbrella in the Pyrenees, but it still helped protect me when the rain turned to slow as I climbed higher.

4. Umbrellas work in snowstorms too

Snow effortlessly flakes off an umbrella, thereby protecting you. In Eastern Europe, people often use umbrellas even in the snowy winters.

Of course, if you’re going to do winter camping, then a rain jacket (or a parka) is probably better than an umbrella (see below to understand why).

Still, for a freak summer snowstorm, umbrellas do the job.

5. Umbrellas excel during off-and-on rain periods

When it’s raining on and off all day, the poor rain jacket wearer has to go through a complex, time-consuming ritual every time he removes or dons his rain jacket.

Meanwhile, an umbrella user can effortless whip out or stow her umbrella during the intermittent rain (the photo below shows how I stow my umbrella behind my back because it’s comfortable and easy to access).

Notice how I stow the umbrella between my backpack and my back. It's comfortable and I can quickly whip it out. In 20,000 km, I've only lost one umbrella.

Umbrella

6. Umbrellas protect you against the sun

What did your mom tell you to do when it was cold outside?

“Put on a hat!”

OK, my mom didn’t say that either, but she should have.

It’s smart to put on a hat when it’s cold. You lose about 15% of your body heat through your head. And that’s precisely why I prefer an umbrella over a sunhat when the sun is beating down on you. The sunhat just traps heat in, offsetting most, if not all, the benefits of the limited shade it delivers. Hats give you limited shade (barely covering your face unless it is wide brimmed, which then could get blown away by a gust of wind).

An umbrella gives you a ton of shade (usually down to the knees) and lets heat escape from your head, keeping you cool. Moreover, you can shed layers and walk around shirtless (or a sports bra if you’re a woman) and enjoy the airflow and shade.

Did you know?We sometimes make a distinction between an umbrella and a parasol (which means “for the sun” in Spanish). However, the word umbrella comes from the Latin word umbra, which means shade. Indeed, the first reason someone invented an umbrella was to protect against the sun, not the rain. So don’t feel strange using an umbrella to protect yourself from the sun―that’s its original purpose!

You can be almost naked when you hike with an umbrella, and avoid the sun's pummeling rays/heat, while enjoying the airflow!

7. The umbrella offsets its weight penalty

Lightweight backpackers whine about the umbrella adding weight to their minimalist gear list. However, hiking under shade all-day long will dramatically lower your water needs, especially on hot days. If you don’t have an umbrella, you’ll need to carry at least an extra liter of water to make up for the sweat loss. You’ll also have to carry more sunscreen to protect a greater portion of your body. All this extra weight will be more than an umbrella.

When it's hot and dry like New Mexico, you'll need to carry extra water, like I'm doing here. Since you sweat less with an umbrella, you'll need less water than without an umbrella

When snow blew sideways under the tarp, I plugged the hole with my umbrella in the Wind River Range

8. Umbrellas provide a micro-shelter

  • A privacy screen: As thru-hiker Christine Haffner said, “One of the biggest reasons why I was sold on the umbrella: it offers a place to pee behind. This is most beneficial for women, but also for men. Especially in really crowded areas where you cannot find a place to pee, you just find a tree to block one side of you, and the umbrella to block the other side. There is really no other piece of backpacking gear that will provide this for you. SOLD!”
  • Map and meal cover: When it’s pouring rain, it’s awkward to study a map or to prepare a meal, but an umbrella’s canopy makes it much more pleasant.
  • Plug a tarp hole: If rain is sneaking into your tarp (because you did a sloppy setup), then an umbrella can plug a hole.
  • A poor man’s pack cover: With a 40-inch canopy, you can drape half of the umbrella over the top of your backpack, providing it with partial cover, while still protecting you.
  • Eyeglass protector: If you wear eyeglasses, umbrellas let you gaze around easily without getting your eyeglasses wet. A rain jacket’s hood forces you to stare at the ground or get your eyeglasses wet.

9. Umbrellas can be an anchor point for your tarp or shelter

I’ve sometimes used an umbrella as an anchor for my tarp when trees are lacking (as the photo below illustrates).

On the crest of the Wind River Range there are no trees, so I used my umbrella as an anchor for my tarp. In this camping spot I was stuck between a rock and hard place. :)

10. Umbrellas can be an all-purpose stick

Umbrellas can be a:

  • Poor man’s ice ax.
  • Short stick to balance on when fording a river.
  • Way to defend yourself against a snake.
  • Great way to smack someone who says you’re ridiculous for bringing an umbrella into the woods.

My cheapo umbrella in the Pyrenees was still better than nothing

Although those are 10 great reasons to use an umbrella while hiking or backpacking, critics still have questions. So let’s answer them….

Umbrella overlooking the CDT in Colorado

Let’s address the top 10 questions people have about backpacking with an umbrella.

1. But don’t you need a jacket anyway?

Probably, but unless you’re hiking in freezing temperatures, an ultralight (sub-4 oz) jacket is good enough. Despite all the advertising, there’s no such thing as a truly breathable rain jacket. Breathable shell jackets are much more breathable and lighter than rain jackets. My ultralight jacket weighs 3.5 ounces. The lightest rain jackets weigh 8 ounces, but they suck in truly rainy weather. To get an excellent rain jacket that will keep you dry in a sustained downpour, you’ll need something that weighs at least 12 oz and probably more like one pound.

I'm wearing a sub-4oz shell that protects against mosquitoes and is breathable. My umbrella is by my side.

Compare that to an umbrella (8 oz) + soft shell jacket (3.5 oz) = 11.5 oz. A good rain jacket will weigh 25-50% more than an umbrella + soft shell jacket combo.

What’s the point of a soft shell jacket? It protects you against a little bit against wind, rain, and cold. It also protects you against mosquitoes. If you really need something to keep you warm, a fleece or insulated jacket will do a much better job than a rain jacket. If you need something to keep you dry, an umbrella will trump a rain jacket, especially if it’s warm enough to make you sweat with the rain jacket on.

2. Do your arms get tired holding the umbrella?

I never get tired of holding the umbrella and I often have it deployed for 10 hours a day. There are two secrets to not getting tired:

  1. Get a light umbrella (300 grams / 10 ounces or less).
  2. Lean the umbrella against your body and switch hands occasionally.

Often the angle of the sunlight allows you to rest the umbrella shaft against your shoulder. While you still have to hold the handle, the weight is distributed against your body/chest/shoulder, so it doesn’t feel heavy at all.

When the sun his setting in front of you, you have little choice but to hold it out in front of you (see photo below). This is the most taxing position, but it rarely lasts long since the sun does set, trees block it at that angle, or the trail changes direction.

The most uncomfortable position to hold an umbrella is when the sun is facing you and is low in the sky. It forces you to block most of your view, but fortunately it rarely lasts long.

If you do get fatigued, just switch hands. Let’s say the sun is hitting your right side and you’re tired of holding it in your right hand. I’ll hold it in my left hand and have the shaft rest against the back of my neck so that the canopy is still sheltering my right side from the heat and UV. It gives my right hand a break and since most of the pressure rests on my neck, my left hand doesn’t get tired at all (and the umbrella is so light that my neck doesn’t tire either).

3. What about fixing the umbrella to your backpack so you don’t have to hold it?

Overlooking the Trinity Alps with an umbrella on California's PCT

Some hikers like to make some place to prop their umbrella on their pack so that they don’t have to hold it and can continue using their trekking poles.

However, it’s a bad idea because the umbrella is fixed. Since trails and sun are constantly changing, you need to adjust the umbrella to provide optimum shade. If you’re going to carry a half-pound piece of gear, you might as well use 100% of it, not 25% of it.

Unless the sun is directly overhead, propping the umbrella will provide sub-optimum coverage. If the sun is at an angle, then an umbrella that is pointed straight up is only protecting your head from the sun, whereas a tilted umbrella can cover 80% of your body (the only part of my body that was exposed was just below my knees). If you’re just interested in protecting your face from the sun, just get a wide-brimmed hat.

4. What about umbrellas with reflective canopies?

I have tested umbrellas with a reflective material side-by-side ones that have a black canopy. I’ve put a thermometer under each canopy to see if I could detect a difference. My tests were not scientific, but I was disappointed with the results. Yes, the reflective umbrella is cooler than the black one. However, the difference is small, just a couple of degrees.

On the other hand, a subtle difference adds up over time. If a couple of degrees saves you from tipping you into heatstroke-land, then it’s worth it. Perhaps it’s just psychological, but it sure feels cooler under a reflective canopy.

Despite the minor temperature difference, I still recommend the reflective canopy. It’s only $10 more and the umbrella will last for many years. You’ll appreciate those extra degrees when you’re walking across a hot desert.

One thing is clear: any umbrella has a dramatic effect on shielding you from a hot dry sun. When it’s blazing hot outside, it’s better to have ANY umbrella than just to have a measly sunhat which traps all the heat in your head.

When I was traversing a 44 kilometers (20 miles) of exposed beach in Costa Rica, I bumped into a red man. He was sunburned and said that he had heatstroke the day before after walking just 5 km. When he saw me, he said, “Duh! Now that’s what I should have taken!”

Everything above my knee is in the shade. If the sun is directly overhead, you'll get even better coverage.

5. So if umbrellas are so great, why don’t hikers use them more often?

  1. Some hikers can’t let go of their trekking poles. Himalayan Sherpas carry far more weight than the typical backpacker and their joints don’t let them down. If you lighten your total pack weight to under 10 kg (22 pounds), then you may discover that trekking poles are no longer necessary. Try it. Drink so much water that your pee is always clear.
  2. Backpacking gear manufacturers don’t want you to consider umbrellas. A nice rain jacket costs $300. A nice umbrella costs $30. You don’t need a Harvard MBA to figure out why the backpacking industry doesn’t want to encourage hikers to use umbrellas. If umbrellas would somehow cost $400, then more manufacturers would promote their utility. Even GoLite, one of the few outdoor companies that make umbrellas, buries their umbrellas deep in their catalog. (Another reason they bury it deep in the catalog is that there’s simply not that much demand for umbrellas.) Fortunately, GoLite hasn’t eliminated umbrellas from the product line.

6. But don’t umbrellas break?

Theresa, the manager of the Monarch Mountain Lodge, helps me hold up my shredded pants. See, even rain gear can fail just like an umbrella can fail.

Good ones are hard to break. The backpacking-specific umbrellas that I list at the end of this article are different than the standard $5 collapsible umbrella. The reason so many people believe umbrellas are weak is that they’ve only used cheap umbrellas. It’s like someone believing that all cars are slow, but they’ve never driven a Ferrari.

And so what if it breaks? Everything can break. Your tent poles can break. Your stove can break. Your inflatable pad can puncture. Your sleeping bag can get soaking wet. Your backpack’s straps can snap. You get the idea.

 

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