God doesn't actually offer special supervision of idiots. I don't either.
February 16, 2010 6:12 AM   Subscribe

Camping and general outdoor sports filter. Inspired by the camping stove question below, and a recent near disaster of canoe camping, how do vet potential sport companions?

So. A friend of mine bikes from a major west coast city to a not so major east coast city every summer. We've car camped together at Long Pine Key, so when he asked if I'd like to canoe from Flamingo to East Cape Sable (this is all in the Florid Everglades.), I was amenable.

Without getting into details (memail me if you want them, the story is funny but chatty), the trip was less than optimal, including his not knowing that the big strong guy in front does not second guess the steering (we argued about this for 15 miles. For the last 5, I put him in the back of the canoe and let him do both jobs.)

So. How do you ask fellow sports engagers questions to put your mind at ease?

Some that I am considering:

* who gets the short paddle? (but how do I word that so it's clear I know, without sounding like a jerk?)
* under what curcumstances do you stand fully upright in an overloaded canoe? (yes, he loaded it and he stood up in it)
* what are three this be we can find to eat where we're going, in case we have an emergency?
* where do you put the canoe on the shore?
* do you carry your first aid card with you?
(our friend boundary is firmly and confidently established. I would not go alone in the woods with a guy who rings any of Those alarm bells. In fact, if anything I'm potentially overzealous in my screening of male companions. But since this question might be helpful to other ladies, please include your tips on that front. (I'll start with - check him out online. Arrest record? Battery charges? Jail time? Sex offender? You'd be surprised sometimes.)

Some of my concerns could have been addressed if I had thought to do a gear check, so I'll do that in the future. (rain fly? Batteries for head lamps?) how do you tell someone they have packed way too much stuff for 2 nights camping?

But what else am I not thinking of? Clearly, I've been very lucky in my outdoor experiences, to not have died of idiocy out in the woods before now. I'd like to not keep leaning on that luck.
posted by bilabial to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (18 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Short trips aforehand and discussion of all those topics out in the open. You should be clear that you are vetting each other for a long, potentially dangerous trip.
posted by Seamus at 6:41 AM on February 16, 2010

Gah, this reminds me of a backpacking camping trip I took with some friends this summer where two of the people (a couple) couldn't help to carry much of the communal food because their packs were so full. However, unbeknownst to the rest of us, these two had packed in ALL of their water in individual 500mL bottles, as well as the fancy water filtration system they had just purchased, even though the rest of us had water purification tablets. Another of our companions wandered off into the woods pretty late at night by herself without letting any of us know and without a flashlight.

I don't think that people should necessarily be judged on their knowledge of your questions, but on their amenability to be taught these things; I would watch out for know-it-alls in particular, since these are likely to challenge your knowledge on that front. Display of common sense is also a good indicator, since in my case we knew that the midnight wanderer was wont to do ridiculous things sometimes, but we invited her along anyway. She was fine in other respects though.

The other two really had no alarm bells that would have indicated that they would go the way they did, except the female of the couple was a bit high maintenance in general, so maybe that's an indication that we should have picked up on...
posted by urbanlenny at 6:41 AM on February 16, 2010

I forgot to mention re: the water - we were at a national park in Canada, about a five minute hike from a camping area (so not far at all from semi-civilization) with typically-potable water.
posted by urbanlenny at 6:45 AM on February 16, 2010

You could skip all the questioning and just take a short shakedown or test trip one afternoon. Whether you are hiking or canoeing, people's weirdness and inexperience will show up as soon as you are out there. Lots of people know all the theory and lingo, but can't put anything into practice.

(And if you are going to be sharing a tent, ask the person's partner or ex about excessive snoring and farting issues.)
posted by Forktine at 6:46 AM on February 16, 2010

I'm sure your companion was a doofus, but your tale (as abridged here) tends to make you sound as if you are more concerned about "rules" and "correct" gear than having a good time. You probably are not. Pressing "rules" as you have above I feel would screen for the know-it-alls rather than screening out the know-nothings. I think urbanlenny is correct that at least the know-nothings are going to be a lot more open to being taught a more efficient or better way to do something rather than challenge you at every turn.
posted by Pollomacho at 7:16 AM on February 16, 2010

Also on the gear side -- pre-plan with your companions the list of things you expect individuals will need and the group will need. Make a list and assign items.

Double check that the individuals have their stuff.

For international traveling (admittedly *not* camping), I talk through the pack list. I don't want to travel with folks who are inhibited by having packed too much making the travel schlepping difficult -- or held back by folks who haven't packed the appropriate things (sensible shoes, dinner wear, swimming costumes).

I'd agree with the suggestion that a shorter trip be the first test before you plan a longer trip with a companion who has yet to be vetted.
posted by countrymod at 7:38 AM on February 16, 2010

under what curcumstances do you stand fully upright in an overloaded canoe

"never". Most canoers should know this.

I think it's always ideal to do a little practice run a few weeks before the trip on a lake, practice your c-strokes and j-strokes. Also, with guys (for what ever reason) it's important to take turns steering the canoe. Some pride thing I suppose.

Also, short paddle? I'm used to everyone having a paddle that is sized to their body, but you probably know something I dont.
posted by Think_Long at 7:53 AM on February 16, 2010

under what curcumstances do you stand fully upright in an overloaded canoe

"never". Most canoers should know this.

How are you supposed to pee or fish?
posted by Pollomacho at 8:14 AM on February 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

I whitewater kayak, so vetting boating partners carries a whole additional level of seriousness, since if you get into trouble in a rapid, your partners have between 3 and 10 minutes to rescue you. Knowing your partners' ability levels is also very important, so you don't have someone hiking out of a slot canyon in the middle of nowhere. Usually, this vetting happens through a shakedown run; some after-work, not-too-tough run that is within our comfort levels. Working down a river like that, we make sure that we use the same hand signals, move at the same pace, have similar thoughts about when and how to set safety for a rapid, etc.

If that's not possible, we usually have a conversation about what other rivers we've run recently, how things have gone, etc. If we're heading off on a trip to river A, and new partner says they had a lot of trouble on river B, which is a much easier run than A, it's time to start talking about an alternate plan for the day. Packing lists and the like are less helpful, since someone can easily pick up the right gear without having the skills to use it properly.
posted by craven_morhead at 8:18 AM on February 16, 2010

[few comments removed - please keep your wtf comments to MeMail unless you want this thread to go badly, thanks]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 10:02 AM on February 16, 2010

I missed everything that got removed. Sad face.

I know the answers to the questions I posed above, and my camping buddy didn't. If I knew he didn't know, I would have enjoyed sharing the information.

This trip was 2 nights and roughly 20 miles of paddling, in anticipation of a potentially longer trip.

I'm actually more interested in having fun, but a guy who is too full of himself to hang his butt over the side of a canoe is...high maintenance.
So. I assumed that his cross country biking trips, which were camping, not hotelling, indicated a level of adventurousness, respect for nature, and skill that were compatible with this kind of trip.

He suggested the canoeing, saying he had wanted to 'add the everglades' to his list for a while now. I wish I had asked what that list already had on it.

None of the things that happened were bad because the boat didn't tip over in croc infested waters (I'd be more worried about a croc investigating my tent on my way out to pee anyway) and I didn't watch him burn All of our toilet paper in his attempt to start a fire. I got there in time to gently suggest .... Smaller twigs. Which I had collected. I asked about his comfort with nautical charts, and to his credit he said he'd never read one. Good, we skipped the trip that required those, in case something happened to me, and took the east cape sable permit.

I'm not looking for camping partners who know everything, but I want a willingness to learn, and someone who isn't going to whine that he's in pain after tells me his paddle strokes are fine for him because he's big! And strong! And fighting a 9-11 mile wind with a paddle isn't
going to wear him out.

That said, I had a good time. A great time. I got to spend some time in one of my favorite places, doing physical work I love. I collected some great seashells. We ate well and sat and chatted by the fire for hours. He got exposure to all kinds of new things. Hopefully he has absorbed them.
posted by bilabial at 10:42 AM on February 16, 2010

* what are three this be we can find to eat where we're going, in case we have an emergency?

Is it a grammar emergency? What is this actually trying to ask?
posted by chairface at 12:45 PM on February 16, 2010

This should have been Things. Stupid iphone makes it really hard to edit. I was embarassed to post that sentence, but not embarassed enough to wait until Friday for a real Internet connection.
posted by bilabial at 2:58 PM on February 16, 2010

Oh, also, I don't think quizzing people on these sorts of things is a good way to go. If we, say, met through metafilter and were going to go boating and you hit me with a quiz like the one you suggested, I wouldn't run for the hills, but I would think of you as being pretty uptight for requiring me to pass this sort of a shibboleth, especially when it reveals disagreements about outdoor safety (e.g. I don't know the edible plants in the area because I can survive almost a month without food. On my list of Dangers of the Outdoors, starvation is down there with meteors unless I've accessed the backcountry via bush plane).

Also, talking generally about gear is a good way to get to these sorts of issues somewhat obliquely. Talking to someone about their preference between gas and canister stoves will tell you plenty about how often they've fired up a backpacking stove. Aluminum v. titanium will do the same for cooksets. Granted, not everybody is a gearhead, but you shouldn't need to be to be conversant about some of the basic gear issues. If we're going backpacking together and you don't 1) have your own gear and 2) know what to call it/how to use it, I can plan accordingly.
posted by craven_morhead at 3:28 PM on February 16, 2010

As others have said, this is something you can only find out by doing, and not really by asking. Sometimes it's hard to see how an otherwise calm, collected individual will turn into Calamity Jane (or John) away from everyday amenities.

Some specific answers:
who gets the short paddle?
On long trips, a common answer is that you both do, unless you both agree that you would prefer otherwise. It's comes down to preference and experience. I wouldn't put a novice paddler in the stern on a longer trip. You can steer from the bow, btw. Long-distance racers, the people with the funky bent paddles, have steering strokes for both front and rear paddlers. J-strokes tend to slow the boat down. If both steer with smaller corrective stokes, the boat can go a lot faster.

under what circumstances do you stand fully upright in an overloaded canoe?
When one wishes to tip the boat or fall out.

what [things] we can find to eat where we're going, in case we have an emergency?
That's a very big topic, deserving real study. In the short term, if you don't know, don't risk it. In the longer term, there are lots of resources to find out. This book can be a lot of fun to read through.

where do you put the canoe on the shore?
You want to be certain that it won't refloat or blow away. Pull the boat completely out of the water and, if necessary, out of the wind. Over night, you should turn the boat over and lean it against something, a tree, rocks, etc... so that a storm won't blow it away or fill it with water.

Do you carry your first aid card with you?
The actual card doesn't matter so much. The kit and the ability to use it, sure, but the card itself isn't that big a deal. It would be if you were leading a troop of kids, but for the two of you I don't think it would be that important.

How do you tell someone they have packed way too much stuff for 2 nights camping?
Because they've got too much stuff. How many shirts, pants and jackets do you need? How much food? About 2-4 pounds per person for a weekend would be about right. For a weekend, in a canoe without much portaging, I'd bring water too. A five gallon container would be lots. A realistic amount of equipment, a few first aid and emergency supplies. You really don't need much for a single overnight.
posted by bonehead at 4:48 PM on February 16, 2010

I want a willingness to learn, and someone who isn't going to whine that he's in pain after tells me his paddle strokes are fine for him

Yeah, that's the thing that catches most (all?) novice paddlers. You don't use your arm muscles to paddle, but your back. Twenty miles is about 6000 strokes. You can't do that with your biceps.
posted by bonehead at 4:54 PM on February 16, 2010

Your problem was that you were in the same boat. Always bring separate boats!

Seriously, most of these issues can be solved by talking ahead of time or doing shakedown trips but I've occasionally found myself in the middle of nowhere with someone who "forgot the map" or has vastly misrepresented their abilities or knowledge. And one of my friends is just basically an idiot. My general rule of thumb at that point is that I'm a careful, responsible, experienced person and I'm going to make the decisions I think are best and they can follow along if they want to or I'm leaving them there. This is a generally a quiet decision I make in my head rather than an announcement, although occasionally I've had to make my point strongly: "dude, kayaking through the unknown canyon as it gets dark? I'm not doing it". No one can make you do things you will regret later unless you let them.
posted by fshgrl at 9:45 PM on February 16, 2010

p.s. so far I have not had to abandon anyone but I nearly did last summer when one of my friends wanted to take a "shortcut" through a swamp. Next time I'm going to let him do it.
posted by fshgrl at 9:47 PM on February 16, 2010

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