Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Six Easy Ways to Have Outdoor Fun With Your Kids

Getting the kids outdoors is a greater challenge today than ever before.  Smartphones, game systems, and social media have made it convenient for kids to hole up in their rooms.  Family time has taken a back seat and in some cases disappeared altogether.  There are some easy outdoor activities you can do with your kids to get them re-engaged with the big yellow ball we know as the sun and re-engage family relationships at the same time.

1. Hike the neighborhood park
You don’t have to drive out of town, or even out of state, to enjoy hiking with your kids.  Most neighborhoods and small towns have a park with some good trails.  You may know of a local farmer or rancher who would be kind enough to let you roam their land.  If you’re lucky enough to have a river nearby, there are typically some good hiking areas around these bodies of water that are typically public lands.
2. Camping at a state park
If you’re somewhat adventurous, state parks are a great option for a short camping trip.  Most states have a system of parks that are well maintained, very inexpensive, and have some great outdoor activities available.  Most will offer tent and RV camping spots, and you can find several that will offer small cabins for rental if tents aren’t your thing.
3. Chillin’ in hammocks
There are some great camping hammocks out there that are easy to set up and comfortable for spending a day being lazy or even spending the night.  All you need is a couple of trees and a few hours to just hang out.  Kids love hammocks, and they’re a great option for a few hours lying around in the park or camping out overnight.

4. Family bike ride
Again, you don’t have to drive anywhere to get a thrill out of this option.  Getting outdoors and taking a bike ride around the neighborhood can be time well spent with the kids.  There is always the option of heading out of town and riding bikes on mountain trails or that same landowner that lets you hike his property.
5. Get a Frisbee
What kid doesn’t love throwing a Frisbee around.  This is another one where finding a local park or an empty lot can make for a fun time at little to no cost.  There’re all kinds of “Frisbee” options these days, so find one or several at your local store and go toss them around.
6. Go hunting
Now I know not everyone is into hunting deer, hogs, turkey, etc.  Some of the most fun can be hunting for different kinds of bugs, unique rocks to put in a rock collection, strange plants, or any other thing you can think of that interests you.  It’s about getting outdoors and enjoying time together.

Now grab your kids, drag them away from the Xbox and iPhone, and get outdoors.  Vitamin D and great family memories are in store!

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Seasoning Cast Iron Cookware

Cooking with cast iron is an easy and fun way to make delicious meals while camping.  Most people, including myself, can be intimidated by dutch oven cooking when they first see it done.  There is some art to the process that takes some trial and error, but if you have any cooking skills in a kitchen you’ll be able to figure the dutch oven out pretty quick.

Once you’ve found some quality cast iron cookware, you’ll want to perform the all-important seasoning process.  Properly seasoned cast iron cookware can last multiple lifetimes, as is the case with a cast iron skillet I use that belonged to my grandmother long before I came along.  It’s not difficult, but it’s the most important thing you’ll do as it prevents rust and corrosion, and it creates the non-stick surface for easy cooking and cleanup.

The initial seasoning process can take an hour or more.  This process will ensure you remove any factory applied coatings and contaminants and get a good surface to make your first meal.  Each time you use your cast iron cookware, with proper cleaning and treatment, you’ll be adding strength to the coating and look of your cookware.

When you first acquire cast iron cookware, it typically has a factory-applied waxy coating to protect from rust while waiting for its new owner.  Some cookware comes pre-seasoned, getting you to the camp cookout sooner rather than later.  Even with pre-seasoning, I still like to go through a heating and cleaning process before my first use.

To get started you’ll need a grill or oven; however, it is suggested to season your cookware outside as there will be quite a bit of smoke created.  For the true old-school experience, you can build a substantial fire to put your cookware in, but we’ll focus on using the grill for now.  The steps are as follows:

1. Heat your grill to around 400 degrees Fahrenheit, or about 204 C.
2. You’ll want to use warm to hot, soapy water and a good scouring pad to remove any waxy coating or rust buildup.  You need to get down to a clean metal surface.  After this first seasoning, you should never use soap for cleanup again.
3. Dry the cookware thoroughly and place it over the grill to remove any remaining moisture.  Remove it from the heat and let it cool until you can touch it with a bare hand.
4. Use vegetable oil or shortening and rub it all over the surface of your cookware, inside and out.  Do NOT use flavored shortening or butter.  You can use a paper towel or cotton rag to spread the coating into the corners, holes, and pores of the metal.  Wipe off excess oil until you have a smooth, clean-looking surface.
5. Now place your cookware on the grill, upside down and close the lid.
6. Bake your cookware for at least 45 minutes and up to an hour.  If you do choose to do this inside, open windows, turn on fans, and disconnect your smoke alarms.
7. Turn off your grill, but leave the cookware inside to cool for at least 30 minutes.
8. Find a good oven mitt or welder’s glove and remove your cookware.  Allow the cookware to cool until you are able to handle it with bare hands.

Your cookware should have a dark brown to black appearance with a smooth, glossy surface.  You may need to repeat steps 4 through 8 two or three times to get the desired look.  Now you’re ready to cook some great meals and enjoy the great outdoors.  As you use your cast iron cookware, you’ll see that the grease, oil, and fat from your foods will further coat and season each piece.  Acidic foods can strip the coating, so pay particular attention to clean up and recoating after cooking these types of dishes.  With proper use and cleaning, your coating will become stronger, cleanup will be easy, and your meals will be delicious and satisfying.

Enjoy your cast iron cooking!  What are some of your best (or worst/funny) stories about using cast iron at your campout?

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

My First 14er

I had been hearing people talk about doing “14ers” for several years and my interest grew over the years.  Although I previously mentioned we have mountains in Texas, we don’t have any 14ers.  Colorado is the closest, and one of the best places for a variety of 14er experiences.  A few years back I had the opportunity to take my son on our first backpacking trip, and ultimately our first 14er.

The trip was with a group consisting of teenagers and adults.  We were to be guided by a group of twenty-somethings who spent their summers taking groups like us up and down the mountains in an area between Buena Vista and Leadville.  Our group would get to summit Mt. Elbert, the tallest mountain in Colorado and second tallest in the US at 14,440 feet.  It had been some time since I had done any exercise routines, so I knew I’d better get started early for this trip.  I later came to appreciate two pieces of advice I received for altitude management:  start taking antacids and aspirin a month ahead of the trip to help combat gas buildup and blood thinning in the higher altitudes.

Upon our arrival, we were given our backpacks, sleeping gear, tents, cooking utensils and food for the five-day journey.  We trekked through the woods and up a couple thousand feet in elevation to slowly acclimate ourselves to the thinning air.  This also allowed us to get used to the heavy packs, as well as the process of processing clean water cycles to stay hydrated.  A side note, I learned quickly that taking in water at elevation requires much more diligence and volume than at our typical lowland elevations in Texas.  Our first night was cool and crisp, but very comfortable.

After enjoying a beautiful mountain morning and some breakfast, we broke camp and headed up to the tree line at around 11,000 feet.  This out of shape dad was glad he got in some exercise, as the heavy backpack and steep climb was having its impact.  We made our destination for the next couple of nights and set up camp.  The mountain scenery is a wonderful experience, but one thing surprised most of us at this altitude and temperature.  Mosquitos were rampant!  This was the most unexpected event of the trip.  We had no warning and never thought to ask about these little demons.  We all hoped we had left them behind in Texas for this trip, but they were alive, well and hungry.  Anyway, we managed with what repellant we had.  Day two and three were primarily spent acclimating to the elevation, exploring around the area, and preparing for our early morning summit on Day 4.

On Day 4, we awoke well before dawn in an effort to make to summit and watch the sunrise.  The sound of rain was not what we wanted to hear that early in the morning, but we all drug ourselves out and headed up the mountain hoping it would clear before we got to the top.  Our prayers were answered shortly after heading out as the clouds dispersed and we hit the top of Mt. Elbert.  The scene was unparalleled with the sun peaking over the horizon and showing us the majestic expanse of the Rocky Mountains.

It was a great trip, made better by the fact I got to do it with my son.  Hopefully, we’ll get to go back and do some more in the future.  We had always loved camping, but this trip took it to another level and really piqued my interest in doing more hiking and backpacking in the future.  I just have to save up for the right gear, get back to exercising, and get out on the trail.  

I’d love to hear from anyone out there who has had 14er experience and are there any favorites.