Author Archives: hikinghacker

Bug Buddies – Angela


My original idea  the hiking hack was a very practical, very serious soil testing shoe attachment, but my brain took a direction 180° from my initial thoughts – finger puppets! What could be more practical and serious than finger puppets, right?

2015-06-17 13.52.14

Although finger puppets may not seem utilitarian, potentially they can serve an educational purpose, enhance cognitive development, stimulate creativity, and increase finger dexterity. Kid wearables are an area that hasn’t been explored much beyond child-tracking safety devices. They offer an interesting opportunity to capitalize on younger generations’ affinity for technology in order to address what Richard Louv has deemed “nature deficit disorder.”


With the help of my more technically inclined teammates, I created finger puppets that light up, make noise, and vibrate. They can be stimuli for interacting with wildlife or characters for fanciful play. For my presentation to the hiking hack team, the puppets became a flashing flirtatious firefly, a chirping cicada with “Wilderness Idol” aspirations, a buzzing modern feminist honeybee, and a butterfly searching for greater meaning in life.


Matt and I have even brainstormed about creating interactive books with more kid-friendly themes to accompany interchangeable puppets. Is this the next step for Bug Buddies?


All the bug buddies together!

~ Angela

PhotoSphere – Matt

Part of the experience of hiking in the wild is the dramatic flow of changes in light as you move through the forest. To capture part of this experience we created a cap with photo sensors on it to record the changes in light patterns as we walk. The cap was made before we left for the wilderness.


[image of cap]

We created the PhotoSphere with 16 photo-resistors meticulously sewn into the cap. Each photo-resistor needed a 1000 ohm resistor as a voltage divider to be able to extract the voltage changes. A typical Arduino only has 6 analog analog-to-digital converters (ADC). We used an Arduion Mega instead, which has 16 ADCs.

[image of photo resistor circuit diagram]


[image of closeup of conductive thread]

[image of wire with loop]


[image of all loops connecting to wires]


[image of closeup of sewing mega into the

[image of the rtc sd logger shield]


[image of closeup of connector wires]

[image of windows error message for device driver not working]




-Written by Matthew Swarts

The Succession of Trees – Hugh

The Succession of Trees

image image image


The Tennessee/North Carolina Appalachians are renowned for their diverse tree population, and our trek took us from 4470 feet at Unicoi Gap to the Citico Creek Campground #14 elevation of 1720, providing an altitude-inflected arboretum. Different areas were logged off over the years, so at the higher elevations most were younger than in the lower areas, but of course we benefitted from hiking on old logging roads and a rapidly disappearing railroad grade.

There were the constants– rhododendron forming the familiar Appalachian green tunnel and, at least in these forests, a preponderance of maples. Early we hiked amongst those maples, a few poplars, several species of birch, and what looked like a buckeye tree (though I could only find one rotten buckeye on the ground). What stopped everyone in their tracks were the monumental dead hemlocks. The Wooly Adelgid is rapidly decimating the hemlock population in the area, leaving behind standing dead trunks that still loom ghostly over the surrounding forest.

Descending further down were fewer dead hemlocks, along with a number of smaller live ones, the occasional hickory, very large maples, and finally a few oaks (they were noticeably absent higher up). Soon the tulip poplars started to dominate, and around the base camp were the largest in the forest. Turning from the largest to the smallest, there were a variety of club mosses including one which was nearly six inches high, and a lot of stubby Sassafras trees. Located only in our camp was a specimen of the nearly extinct Owl tree (see picture), and just down from the base was another campsite located in a grove of mature beeches–the light, filtered through the leaves, was the greenest of green.

Hugh Crawford

Anechoic Haven

I love moss. I really do. I love moss so much that I can’t help but write about it. Moss is indeed one of the Great Thingsforest-scene-600x800Moss is like a sedative and its porous structure imparts such a stillness to its surroundings that the sound it absorbs seems to manifest as a physical presence. It’s as if moss must consume sound in order to survive. Moss loves dampness and decay and the forests of Citico Creek provide an ideal substrate for huge bryophytic colonies. A porous absorber, moss converts a minuscule portion of the acoustic energy it consumes into heat. Dispersing that heat as waste is perhaps what make moss seem so cool.


BOB SOS: Back off bear alert – Jeannette, Hugh

Context: First, a report that a young boy was lacerated by a bear in a forest near us and a suggestion that we build a bear detector. A week before, JY learned how to solder and program an arduino to make an LED blink like one of the firefly species. A day before, she got 2 servo motors to shake a noisy shiny piece of mylar. We took these starting points from the lab into the forest: NFCCDL: North Fork Citico Creek Digital Lab.

bear bagbear bag is placed away from camp


Marketability: In the forest, product took a practical side, shifting from an alert of mere presence of a bear to a lightweight, compact attachment to a camp tent to alert the camper.

Capability: Need to see all around so need to figure out how to station the system on the peak of tent to expand the perceptive field. There is no need to know direction, only presence.

Interaction with nature: design an output that would scare a bear.


close up


Detect the presence of a bear near the tent.

Wake up camper inside tent.

Simultaneously, start up a set of blinking lights in shape of eyes separated by a distance to signify a large size that could scare a bear.

BOB input input: sensing system 4 motion detectors

BOB outputoutput: LED to scare bear and buzzer to wake camper in tent


Input: 4 Motion detectors, range of 20 ‘ and 90 degree cone of detection.

Control system: Arduino, breadboard, battery pack

Output: LEDs, buzzer



Make a 3D attachment site for sensing system: a magnolia bud that smells like oregano.

Make platform for control system: a flat piece of oak bark

Get output to appropriate locations: long lead for buzzer to inside tent, 2 leads to scary LED eyes sewn onto a fabric with face-like decorations to hide wiring.

Programming a scary message to a bear: flash out SOS in morse code on LEDs and wake up camper with a buzzer using same program.

Attachment to tent: used set of strong magnets

close up BOB SOS in place on hammock tent tarp



Incident: unaware of a bear attractant still remaining within the tent

Bear approaches and is detected.

Camper is alerted and bear is scared off by illumination system.


2nd prototype:

Simplify attachment to tent.

Test whether bears are scared by flashing lights that look like eyes of something bigger than themselves.


Backpack design: Projection system as part of the function of backpack. -Jeannette

Jeannette Yen-

Scientists often rationalize that our advancement of knowledge is equal to the costs of the lives of living organisms. It isn’t. I took disdain at this idea.

Instead, with the advances in modern high image resolution in time and space of the digital age, we now can produce large magnified images that are comfortable for humans to view. This gives us the ability to observe living creatures in the wild without disturbing the community. One of the items I’d like to carry in the backpack would be a compact projection/image recording system: a vellum-like sheet onto which a lit Fresnel lens could produce a crisp magnified image so we could see the part of nature that is smaller than trees and birds. The camera looks into the lamp by focusing on the back of the image screen. Therefore the lighting doesn’t have to be super bright.


To my surprise, we actually did try to set up a projection system. It totally worked! It was too dim to easily take a picture of with a camera, but in the dark forest, it was awesome to share a picture, or video at a large scale for many people to check out at the same time!

Amazing Lifeforms at the NFCCDL (Owl Camp) – Angela

Maybe the mountains imprinted themselves in my dad’s DNA during his childhood in South Korea, and those highland genes are what always draw me to the spectacular sights and sounds of southern Appalachia. While camping in Joyce Kilmer National Forest, I was completely awed by all the life that was around us, and the cool, clear weather during most of our trip allowed us many opportunities to enjoy the incredible array of flora and fauna near our idyllic base camp by Citico Creek.


Hiking in TN mountains

While the 6-foot tall Hugh was contemplating the taller trees in the forest, those of us closer to the ground had our eyes focused on the plants near our feet. The pipsissewa, or striped wintergreen, had white berry-like buds and were just beginning to bloom. Traditionally, the leaves have been used medicinally for ailments ranging from rheumatism to kidney problems. The plant does have antiseptic properties and is still sometimes used as a flavoring for candy. We had just missed the lady slipper orchids and only saw the spent inflorescence, but we were too early for the rattlesnake plantain orchids. There were a few Indian ghost pipes, which are named for their white, nearly ghostly appearance due to the lack of chlorophyll. The wildflowers were growing amongst the groundcover of partridge berries surrounding the trees.


Appalachian azures

Around the edges of the base camp were young sassafrass, which attracted black swallowtail butterflies. There were also a few silver spotted skippers. Both of these species, however, were greatly outnumbered by the Appalachian azures that congregated around our site like a gathering of forest fairies.


Definite tussock moth caterpillar

Our more earth-bound neighbors included a definite tussock moth caterpillar that had yet to earn its wings. On the first day, we had picked up an oil beetle using a stick and managed to avoid the chemical it secretes to cause blisters on menacing predators. Shiva named one of the queen crater snails in our camp “Squickie” and its leopard slug cousin “Slickie.” Andy preferred the colored flatbacked millipedes and the giant North American millipedes, whose defense mechanism is to secrete a chemical containing cyanide, faintly scenting them of almonds. I came to think of a large fishing spider that lived in the dead tree above my head as my pet away from home.


Oil beetle


North American millipede

Although Shiva and I had some perturbed mammalian visitors by our tent on the first night hiking to the campsite, we didn’t spot as many vertebrates near our home base as we expected. We did hear a variety of birds: sapsuckers, a barred owl, red-breasted grosbeaks, cardinals, sparrows, wrens, chickadees, and warblers, including the black-throated green warbler whose mating call sounds like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles theme song – “Heroes in a half shell!” Laura caught a Southern toad on the trail, and Andy and Shiva startled a rattlesnake on their afternoon run. In the water, I managed to catch one of the smallest salamanders in the world, the pygmy salamander. It was so translucent that you could see all its internal organs and its beating heart.


Timber rattlesnake



Southern toad

While wishing for someone with foraging knowledge to prepare us a camp meal, we came across some chanterelles a quarter of a mile from camp. After scaring ourselves with horrific fungus poisoning stories, we left the chanterelles in the forest to decompose the decaying matter around them. The damp conditions were perfect for the toadstools, shelf fungi, and coral fungi. Their fellow decomposers, slime molds, also populated the fallen rotting trees. The log outside my tent became covered in white, marshallow-like poufs almost overnight. Other logs were covered in slime molds of various shapes, colors, and textures.

coral fungus

Coral fungus


Slime mold

The striking thing about the wildlife we saw was that quite a few are threatened or endangered, particularly in certain parts of their habitat ranges, and very few opportunities are left to see these species. Having the chance to see these organisms was certainly a wonderful experience. However, our hiking hack aspired to garner the potential of technology – something that seems to be incompatible with nature – to encourage people to engage with the natural environment and instill a sense of stewardship. Helping to preserve these natural wonders – that is a truly exciting prospect indeed.

~ Angela

Etho-Smock In the Field – Laura, Katelyn, Paul

One of the most useful, yet also most potentially frustrating, tools for ethologists is the handheld ethogram device. This pocket computer has re-programmable buttons that allow a researcher to capture details of organismal behavior including action type, order, frequency and duration.

The challenge in using a handheld ethogram is its un-intuitive interface. The design of the device parallels that of a calculator, with columns and rows of buttons are arranged in a grid.
This input organization makes sense in regards to space use on a rectangular device, but carries little to no meaning for a human attempting to quickly catalog a variety of different behaviors and events. The result is a tool that is potentially useful, but is also often confusing and frustrating to operate. The nature of the handheld device also occupies a researcher’s hands, preventing them from doing other activities like taking pictures or looking through binoculars. Finally, the types of data to input often limited to only tapping discrete, already programmed actions.
Our team’s solution to these ethogram challenges is the EthoSmock!
This wearable device has the same basic function of the traditional handheld ethogram, but keeps a researcher’s hands free while also allowing for capture of richer information like voice memos and GPS. Additionally, the placement of buttons along the body leverage advantages of embodied cognition, so that the user might learn the locations faster and the interaction has the capability of being more fun to use.

Here’s a short commercial “skit” describing its use!

Design Considerations

When designing the wearable aspect of the Etho-smock, we considered several factors critical for successful and convenient field use.

  • Comfort
    • Device needs to be lightweight
    • Comfortable in the heat
    • No interference with natural body motion (i.e. not tangled in arms or legs)
  • Compatible with field work
    • able to be worn standing, sitting, or squatting
    • able to wear simultaneously with backpack
    • easy to transfer device between users in the field
    • packability, can be compressed

We ultimately decided to pursue a smock inspired design.


This allows the device to be transferred easily from one researcher to another by simply lifting it over the head of the user. It can be worn simultaneously with a backpack.



We made the smock with a mesh. This made the device lightweight and breathable for the user to wear and we were able to weave the wires connecting the buttons to the microcontroller into the material of the smock.



Laura working on the smock in the field.

The buttons were two pieces of conductive fabric separated by a mesh with a hole in it. When the button is ‘pushed’ the conductive fabric on either side of the mesh touches and the circuit closes. An LED flashes to let the user know the days point was collected and the data point is written to an SD card, recording the timestamp and the button that is pushed.
New Doc 2_1
Future Work
To further develop the etho-smock, we would like to incorporate a playback feature, alternative data collection options, such as pressing a button related to the location of the animal behavior.
— Paul, Laura, Katelyn

Paul, Laura, and Katelyn with the Etho-Smock in the field. Echo-Smock was largely constructed in the field on a dress form/biologist sized tree.

Gimme shelter: Animal Homes in the Wild – Jeannette

This week, I left the hot sticky stoney enclave of urban/campus life at Georgia Tech in Atlanta and entered the cool dappled forest of Tennessee. I brought my own home with me: a hammock tent. Instead of carrying a support system, I used the structures in the forest, namely the trunks of rhododendron bushes. At the second site, taking the experience of the first hammock pitch, I pitched by tent close to rushing creek separated by dense bushes where the fireflies flitted in the night. The suspension system of the hammock fit in between and above a nice depression in the ground to give me clearance to stand below the tarp that protected me. My head faced the shrubs with the creek just beyond. Wrapped like a larva in a silk cocoon, the hammock rocked me to sleep like a sailing boat moored in the sea. This is my forest home, comfortably providing a swinging seat and a supported sleeping platform that was sheltered from the rain and wind, excluding unwanted biting insects but allowing views of nature while in the distance, laughter reached me from my Hiking hack comrades around the campfire.


Once my nest was built, I went to a habitat familiar to me: the aquatic community. When I was little, my family home was bordered by 2 brooks. I spent hours looking under rocks for salamanders and crayfish, moving pebbles to make pools to watch them play with each other and their surroundings. I watched snails and slugs crawl, and recently I’ve spent hours watching pteropods flap and spin, so it was easy for me to mimic one that was hallucinating as one of my character roles in our evening performances.


To my delight, after picking up only a few large stones in a still pond off the main rapids, I found some caddisfly pupal homes: tiny tubes made of sand grains. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Stuck to the underside of a larger stone, these cocoons faced into the flow in the still pool of the side of the stream. A laser light passed right through them so no one was inside these homes. Aligning the purple laser with the axis of the tube home, thin shafts of light escaped through the stained-glass-like windowpanes of clear sand grains OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

When I searched upstream closer to stronger flows as the creek ran down steeper terrain, OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

the cocoons were constructed of bigger stones. The neatest discovery was that the cocoons looked like little flies: were the caddisfly larvae selecting sand grains that matched in size and color [red] to place them where eyes might be located?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAcaddisfly coccoon mimics a fly: two red eyes and grey wings

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA three stone houses in a row, as found on underside of stone facing into stream flow


Now I wanted to know if another site would show me another form of their home. three stone houses in a row on underside of stone facing into stream flow

stream scene brighter

drawing of stream scene [need to brighten this]

Near this location, the little aquatic insects cemented smaller sand grains of slate, making a grey dense strong tubes,

Caddis Fly, Adult, Larva and Pupa Life Cycle

able to protect them from being eaten by trout 


Reflection: It’s More Than Seeing Yourself in the Creek – Katelyn

There are specific tools used in back country living and digital making. When we combined these tool boxes into heavy backpacks to bring on our expedition, we brought the infrastructure to support the most critical tool, our minds.


One team member’s pack on day 1, complete with camp stove, sleeping mat, tarp, and box o’ microcontrollers and misc. electronics.

My daily life as a hiking hacker began with coffee at the creek side. A warm drink with at least a little bit of caffeine is critical to both my making methodology and my backcountry lifestyle. With the constant rushing of Citico Creek and the caffeine through our veins, we would open each morning writing in our field journals, often responding to a prompt or design challenge. We would finish each night with a reflection on the day’s work and experiences and document each activity as it happened. Our journals became a way for us to communicate with ourselves and the other hiking hackers.


Sharing sketches from my journal after drawing the life I saw around me near camp.

One of the most valuable parts of this expedition was the opportunity to live in the milieu we were drawing inspiration from. On the first morning in base camp, we searched for scents. Not only did we wander the woods sticking our noses unusually close to any and all forest inhabitants, we needed to find a scent we could collect and return to the camp to share.


Paul takes some time to smell the slime mold.

Forced to engage with my surroundings in a novel way, I found myself asking fundamental questions about my perception. The first descriptor I thought of for the scent of a mushroom was ‘woodsy’ but what does that mean when everything is in a forest and inherently ‘woodsy’? Descriptors like meaty, rotten, warm, rich crawled through my mind, but all of these descriptors crossed senses. What does this indicate about the way I understand the woods? Am I constantly creating a coherent representation of my surroundings with little differentiation between modes of perception? Should I be striving to separate my experience of the senses? When I ideate and build a digital device for interacting with nature, should I attempt to create a unified representation of nature or break it down into different aspects of our surroundings? What are the consequences of each of these design choices? Is translating one sense to another enhancing or detracting from our experience of the nature? Or are we simply changing the experience and broadening our understanding of the world around us, without positive or negative connotations of that change? My conclusion from this smelly meditation was that there is no wrong way to explore nature, given that my exploration does not harm or change the world around me.

The point of sniffing things wasn’t only to experience the woods in new ways, but to reflect on the experience, our perceptions and senses, what we want to build, how we want to build it, and why we want to build it. Reflection like this is the key to hiking hacks and any joint making/exploring project.

— Katelyn

Leaf speaker

A Day in the Basecamp Life – Laura

One of my favorite things about working in the field are the natural routines you fall into without even realizing.
A typical day in basecamp commenced sometime between 7:30 and 8:30am. The ample tree cover and eponymous Smoky Mountain haze kept the sun’s heat and brightness from our site and let us wake slowly. Early risers would lower the bear bag, and the rest of us would waddle over to the fire pit to spark the JetBoils into that oddly comforting and satisfying “WHSSSSH”. After the first two days, I quickly realized that having filtered water from the night before was hugely preferred to having to stumble down to the ice cold creek without the benefit of coffee. Breakfast decisions were pleasantly simple – definitely coffee and a choice of a few dehydrated sweet meals including the ubiquitous oatmeal, a strange “smoothie” dust, and a couple of tortured English muffins. We’d quietly eat together and watch Paul work his magic on the drip coffee he had brought and generously shared.
About 10am, the sun was just high enough to peek over the mountain to our east and the first rays of sun began to cast scattered puddles of light around the camp. Throughout the day, we all staged a strange ballet of moving wet boots, socks, and solar panels into these small and fast moving sun spots. The first few days of basecamp, our mornings were spent on various missions set by Andy, such as finding interesting smells or sketching forest inhabitants.
Wildlife sketch project
My favorite morning project was building a leaf speaker. Having just 30 minutes to complete it, we all ran off to collect materials that might be suitable to use in the project. I wasn’t so confident that I was going to be successful in making a speaker that worked, so I went for a more aesthetic appeal. I used a rhododendron leaf as the firm base to support the magnets and wrapped it with beech, False Solomon’s Seal, and evergreen wood fern. Surprisingly, the speaker worked fantastically when I plugged it in! The frills and added accroutements made it a little difficult to use as a speaker (in fact, it was a bit of a hazard), but it made for a rather pretty centerpiece.
Leaf speaker
As the week went on, we worked on our own independent projects like completing the EthoSmock and seeing if the ubiquitous blue butterflies preferred salt or sugar (result: neither).
Appalachian Azures
Despite the variety of things people were working on and how we could become scattered throughout the day, we somehow always ate every meal together. The sound of the JetBoil at noon drew everyone back to the fire pit and we shared our growing knowledge of how best to rehydrate certain meals (e.g., critical that you re-hydrate the broccoli BEFORE the mashed potatoes). After lunch, we’d wander back to our projects and my favorite afternoon activity was sitting on a large rock in the middle of the creek just south of our camp looking for birds. Though the roar of the creek made it difficult to hear bird song, it was clear that the trees were full of Red-Breasted Grosbeaks, Carolina Chickadees, Field Sparrows, Song Sparrows, House Finches, Golden-Crowned Kinglets, and Louisiana Waterthrush.
Citico Creek
About 5pm, the light in our camp would start to dwindle and brought the campmates back to the fire pit to relax and prepare for the night ahead. People began filing down to the water collecting spot to filter water for cooking dinner and keeping overnight. The first JetBoils fired up at 6pm and information was traded on which Mountain House meals were the best, which needed more time to sit and re-hydrate, and which were destined to just be perpetually crunchy. After dinner, we all rushed to brush teeth and pile our fragrant items into the bear bags, which were promptly hung at 7:30pm each evening. Afterwards, we’d return to the fire pit and watch our expert fire tender, Shiva, create a stable and beautiful fire.
Shiva's fire
As the sun set, we’d talk, journal, and watch the daylight fade from the camp until we had lost all light at about 9:15pm. Early-to-bed campmates would trundle back to their tents, while the rest of us played word games around the fire and watched the fireflies invade our camp. The same few people would always still be up until midnight, and we’d sometimes foray out into the pitch black of the trail to call for owls, blink at fireflies with LEDs, and generally get spooked by the darkness of the woods surrounding our campsite. Finally, and usually after midnight, the last of us would stumble to tents and hammocks to restlessly sleep until the next day.

Hydroelectric Power from Citico Creek

We tried to generate power from Citico Creek using a fire hose and some sort of generator. This was originally Scott Gilliland’s idea, and we volunteered to put this craziness to the test by carrying an extra compatible hose all the way down the mountain with us!

We were trying to make it entirely gravity driven, but the place we were at on the creek didn’t drop far enough to create enough pressure to work with the equipment we brought.


Attempts to create a portable system for harnessing energy from rushing water. A 50-foot firehose was placed upstream connected to a PVC opener. At the low end, an electric generator was attached to hopefully created electricity. This generator was not useable with low-pressure systems, and thus a different generator will need to be attached in future trials. The basic proof of concept seems valid however!


Shiva with the top end of the hose in the creek

The fire hose was so heavy that the water wouldn’t even push the sides out enough to get unobstructed flow. Basically the hose was restricting flow through it. Also, the generator we brought was designed for higher pressure that we could create, so the water flowing through it wouldn’t even turn the turbine.

We could solve these problems from two different directions. We could have hike up in to the mountains to find a suitable waterfall, so that we really could have gotten a 50ft drop from the 50ft fire hose. That theoretically could have generated enough pressure to turn the turbine, but getting a hose to the top of a waterfall isn’t exactly easy, and if there’s not a waterfall near the campsite, getting the batteries to the base of the waterfall and on dry land isn’t really convenient.

Better would be to bring gear more suited to the environment and task that we were dealing with. We now know that in the location we were at the creek drops about 5 feet over 50 feet of length. We could calculate the pressure that could generate and find a hose that works with that low of a pressure and a generator that works with the pressure also. We’d generate less voltage, but there are ways to deal with that, like a voltage booster, that would do the job for recharging batteries.

We tried building our own, low-power generator from a small vibration motor and a plastic cap. It delivered about 50 millivolts of electricity. This amount is quite insignificant, but it does prove the entire concept of harvesting electricity in a quick portable way from nearby water sources is valid. if anyone has suggestions of good, pre-existing turbines we should use, let us know!


Late Night Hacking of our own turbine

We came prepared to jump start a car when all we really needed was to trickle charge a LiPo. Next time, we’ll be even better prepared to harness the power of the water!

Where am I? You are here. – Paul

June 11th, 2015

The first day of hiking was easy, until it wasn’t. I had planned it to take two days of walking to get to the NFCCDL (Owl Camp), but the early part of the day had been so easy that we’d gotten optimistic that we could make it in one day of walking. That turned out to not be the case. It started getting bad when we realized that my map was out of date and that the terrain would be somewhat different than we’d expected. At the end of the day, we had hiked 7 miles and still just ended up completely exhausted and camped on the side of a waterfall. It really was for the best that we stopped though. If we’d kept going, we wouldn’t have made it to basecamp before nightfall, and there’s no way Andy and I would have recognized it in the dark.


The second day of walking started out only moderately difficult, at least compared to the end of the first day, and it just got easier. Andy had scouted ahead and found the place we had eaten lunch on our scouting hike a few weeks before and had reported that the trail went downhill a lot and that it flattened out as it got closer to the creek bed. But when the group got down towards the creek, we never passed any landmarks that we recognized.

As I walked along the creek, I got more and more concerned that we had either missed our target or that it was much farther away than we thought it was. I didn’t see our lunch spot, and I didn’t even recognize the trail. We weren’t passing terrain that seemed familiar at all, and I didn’t remember walking on a raised spot in between two branches of the creek.

I’m getting more and more skeptical when Andy runs back up the trail and says that he thinks he’s found the campsite but that he needs me to come take a look, because he’s been having the same problem. He didn’t remember passing our lunch site today, and the campsite looks quite a bit different.


I followed him down the trail and took a look at the site. It looked similar, but I didn’t think it was the same place. Something seemed off, and I still didn’t think we were on a part of the trail that we’d seen before. But there was a nice fire ring, and a little knoll next to the creek with a couple trees that were just right for a hammock. Whether it was the right site or not, it would make a good site, and people were getting a bit restless (and maybe doubting my navigation and planning abilities). Each hiker who trickled in to this perfectly acceptable, yet possibly unknown place, asked a version of the question, “Is this it?” I had to answer that it seemed like maybe but that I wasn’t sure (not a very good answer).

We decided to eat lunch there regardless and to take a little break. While others ate, Andy and I walked down the trail a bit looking for anything we recognized, but all I saw were obvious landmarks that I definitely did not recognize. I was certain we’d never hiked this section of trail before and couldn’t reconcile the fact that that campsite looked so familiar even though nothing else did. There was a tree nearby that had been struck by lightning, which I knew could have happened since we’d last been there, and I was willing to accept that things may have changed, but I needed at least one more landmark to be certain.

Andy finally spotted it: the beaver dam. It’s probably not a real beaver dam, and it didn’t look the same anyway, but sure enough, there was a bunch of sticks blocking a branch of the creek where the trail crossed it, and you could either cross in the deep end or the shallow end over a kind of weird drop in some rocks. Andy wasn’t convinced it was the same, but I was.

We walked back to the quizzical looks from the crew eating lunch at the basecamp. Andy said he was like 75% sure it was the site. I said 90%. We hemmed and hawed until I saw the stick Andy had stuck in a hole in a tree, exactly where’d he’d left it on our scouting trip. This tipped the scales for me. There was no way we weren’t there, although Andy played the skeptic for a few more minutes. The thing that convinced Andy was me getting a GPS reading on my phone that showed us pretty much exactly where we thought we should be (that’s a discussion for another post though).

This experience had a pretty profound effect on me. It had only been three weeks, but so much had changed. Different plants were blooming, some severe weather had knocked down some trees, and we eventually figured out that there had been some really significant trail maintenance that changed things. Even a place established to minimize the impact of people can change with the blink of an eye, and when you aren’t accustomed to the landmarks and signs that do stay relatively constant, you can stand in the exact same place and think you’ve never been there. It’s very disorienting, and it made me want to learn or develop techniques for avoiding it. How can you observe and annotate the important landmarks in the wilderness? What even are the important landmarks in the wilderness? And if they change, how do they
change and how can you learn to see what was there before? Creeks rise and fall; flowers bloom and wilt; trees fall and crush other trees, and people clear the brush from the trail. Maybe environmental consistency is a human construction and requires concrete and alphabets to establish and maintain. Change may be the only constant, and when you’re confronted with it, how do you relate it to the things that you are actually certain of?

I don’t know, but we camped in a wonderful location for several nights. It began to feel very familiar, and each day I began to notice little things that had changed from the day before. Even though I felt comfortable, the forest seemed new and different every time I woke up. By normally living in an environment that is so severely controlled, maybe we forget that one of the things that makes the wilderness wild is the fact that we aren’t the thing that has control over the environment. And maybe, for me, that’s the thing that bothers me (in a very mild, non-confrontational way) about the core concept of the hiking hack. Are we going to the wilderness to tame it, or are we going there to observe it, and where is the line between the two?

North Fork Citico Creek Digital Lab (NFCCDL) (Owl Camp) – Hugh

Building the infrastructure for North Fork Citico Creek Digital Lab (NFCCDL) (Owl Camp):

From This: image  to This: P1060078

First day out of Unicoi Gap (TN) opened with an easy (albeit pack-heavy) stroll down an old logging road, later turning steep, wet, and slippery. After a night sleeping in a trailside encampment and a shorter hike down a much easier trail, we arrived at the NFCCDL (Owl Camp) site. Lunch was followed by a short but intense rain shower, what we erroneously supposed would be the first of many, so we scrambled to set up tarps for protection and as the first stage of the NFCCDL.

A 20×20 silnylon tarp stretched between four trees– a hickory, an oak and two dead hemlocks–and tied up by the Jeannette Andrew Elevation Team (JAET) became the main staging area, with headroom provided by another conveniently located uprooted hemlock trunk (probably the result of an earlier wind storm which also produced a ready stock of dead branches). Protected from water from above, the next order of business was avoiding the stream flowing through the nascent NFCCDL. Shiva gathered forked sticks, planted them upright, and we arranged and lashed rows of sticks, forming a 4×4 low table. Rain all you want, the designing can commence.

-Hugh Crawford

Standing on the shoulders of giants – Jeannette, Andy

J- I loved my role as Master Blaster. At 5’, 96 lbs and agile, I could stand on the shoulders of Andy Q and reach heights that we could not have reached alone. We raised the tent of our workplace to unprecedented heights.

Master-Blaster for hanging Ropes high!

Master-Blaster for hanging Ropes high!

A- Our formation as the amazing Master Blaster duo was an important tool for the camp. As a 3 meter high mega monster, we were able to hang the roofs of our hacking labs quite high, to make for comfortable making!



Hanging the tarp

Hanging Out – Laura’s Guide to Hammock Camping

The smallest things can make the biggest differences when you’re out in the field for long periods of time. After years of being a ground dweller in tents, I was ready to take to the trees and finally develop my hammock kit.
Since I got confirmation that I’d be going on this trip, I’ve spent hundreds of hours combing through hammock camping resources and making DIY modifications to my gear. Camping hammocks and accessories are largely driven by cottage industries and an active community of people trying, testing, and developing their own tools to get “the perfect hang”. There’s a wealth of knowledge on the Internet for people interested in getting into hammock camping.
Why choose a hammock over a tent?
  • They’re cooler in warmer temperatures
  • They can be lighter in weight and take up less pack space than a tent setup
  • They can be cheaper than a tent setup
  • You don’t have to worry about finding flat or debris-free ground
  • You don’t have to worry about flooding
  • No condensation issues commonly experienced in tents
  • Comfort!
Common hammock misconceptions:
  • You can’t lay flat – you can by laying diagonally!
  • You can’t sleep on your side – you can with asymmetrical designs!
  • They make you motion sick – once you’re in, you’re not moving unless you want to
  • It’s hard to find the right trees – this is rarely a problem and, in the worst case scenario, you can pitch a hammock on the ground as a bivvy
A basic hammock set-up consists of the following:
  • Camping hammock, with a built-in bugnet
  • Suspension
  • Tarp, guylines, and stakes
  • Bottom insulation (sleeping pad or under-quilt)
  • Top insulation (sleeping bag or top-quilt)
Camping hammocks are generally much longer (11-13 feet) than the standard ENO relaxing hammocks you see at the beach. This length is important in creating the diagonal flat laying position desired. Warbonnet Outdoors and Hennessy make excellent camping hammocks and were used by a few members during our trip. There are a few different suspension methods, but the most common is a simple cinch buckle with webbing looped around the tree and clipped to itself with a carabiner (see upper right of the photo below). It’s important that you use webbing of at least 3”, as thinner lines and webbing can cause damage by digging into trees and are actually not allowed in most national and state parks.
The tarp you use for rain protection should be longer than the hammock you’re sleeping in. The simplest diamond shaped tarps, like the Kelty Noah 9’, are great for all but the most severe weather. I use a tarp by Warbonnet called the SuperFly, which is cut to provide doors that protect from heavy downpours and also provides privacy. Basically, the setup becomes a floating tent!
Hanging the tarp

Here, I’m using a continuous ridgeline so I can perfectly position my tarp over my Warbonnet Blackbird hammock without running back and forth from tree to tree


This tarp with built-in doors looks like a floating tent, once staked down. I’ve added a couple of DIY short tent poles to pop out the tarp wall tie outs and this gives me more headspace inside.

The tarp ridgeline also makes a great drying line for wet clothes!

Tying up the corners puts your tarp in “porch mode” – a great way to get ventilation and views

A unique consideration in hammocks over tents is insulation. Hammocks are great for use in warm climates (particularly hot, muggy, tropical locations) because air flowing under you keeps you breezy and cool. However, most people suffer from what is known as “Cold Butt Syndrome” (CBS) in temperatures under 75F if they are not using bottom insulation. This bottom insulation could be as simple as a sleeping pad put in the hammock, but those can slip around and negate the natural comfort of having the hammock yield to your body shape. I prefer using an under-quilt, which is a rectangular quilt that hangs flush under the hammock. It’s important that this be under the hammock, because if you compressed it between yourself and the hammock then the quilt would lose its insulation properties and you’d get CBS.

The blue quilt is my underquilt that kept me warm and comfortable on the coldest of our nights

For top insulation, I use a down top-quilt with a cinch footbox at one end. Sleeping bags can also be used as top insulation, however, note that it’s easier to use them as a blanket rather than climbing into them (difficult to do while laying in a hammock). On the warmer nights of our trip, I found that I didn’t need the topquilt as the underquilt provided the only warmth I needed to be comfortable.

The black topquilt in this photo is stuffed with down and has a durable water proof protection that kept me toasty all week

My last luxury item was a little pillow, though I probably didn’t need it because the hammock gave my head and neck great support.

Packs up small and the synthetic down kept my head warm

That’s the basic setup, but the real fun comes in tweaking your gear to match your kind of camping. After a week spent in the hammock, I won’t go to ground willingly again!
Here are some great resources if you are interested in getting your hammock setup together:

Dirt on My Mind: Angela’s Initial Musings

Animals are sexy! We’re fascinated by them, fear them, watch viral videos of them, and feel a special rapport with them. Then there are plants, which help us breathe, feed us, shelter us, and provide satisfaction or awe when that prized orchid finally blooms. However, the biomass – all living things – in any given ecosystem is only a fraction of that with which we can interact. That’s why my mind has been turning to the nonliving foundation for most life – dirt! Being a generally pragmatic person, I want to create something that’s also utilitarian. What if soil testing could be done with the soles of your shoes? Step on a patch of soil with the perfect composition, and you get all tingly (from the wearable)! Or your toes light up. You could be the coolest geologist/archaeologist/environmental chemist/paleontologist! I’m not a gadgety whiz so I’m hoping my more tech inclined teammates can help me figure out a way to make this possible. Of course, there are questions about durability and the type of soil testing. Can soil soles be a possibility? Answer will becoming in the next few days.

Ethogram Jam – Laura

Perhaps the only thing more interesting than the history of ethology itself, is the history of the crazy contraptions that have been designed to support such a science. The most temperamental, yet pervasive, of these tools is the ethogram device.
A traditional Ethogram machine

A traditional Ethogram machine

Looking a bit like a bloated calculator, an ethogram is made up of rows of cryptic keys that can be programmed to code in variables of interest. For example, it could be coded to specifically describe the sequence of actions that make up a duck preening its feathers. It could also be coded to log bird songs as they’re heard in a forest. Unfortunately, both ethogram hardware and software has left a lot to be desired resulting in frustrated scientists wrestling a baffling interface. The biggest problem I faced in the field with ethograms was the steep learning curve to a newly programmed set of keys and the uncomfortable knowledge that high error is just part of the game (“Ugh, did I hit A3 or B3 just now?”).
Recording behavior is fun and a behavioral recording tool should be just as fun while also making the job easier! A wearable apron or smock with sewn-in buttons representing behaviors, actions, or species representations might be just the thing to finally re-design the much-maligned ethogram.
Imagine you’re interested in the frequency, type, and maybe even geospatial location of birds calling in a forest. You could program buttons located on your arms, shoulders, hips, and/or thighs to represent different species. By tapping these different locations on your own body as birds call, you’d be leveraging the benefits of embodied cognition – you might learn faster, with less error, and it would be more fun and engaging. Built in feedback using LED lights, and possibly sound, would reinforce your understanding that yes! You did what you thought you were doing (an unfortunately rare feeling using traditional ethograms). You heard a cardinal, you tapped the associated cardinal button and it lit red in response to your touch.This data could be stored and analyzed later to understand call frequency and order sequencing by species. By pulling bird call mp3’s to match with the logged data, you could also aurally recreate that environment any time you like.

Ethosmock realized later in the field!

This kind of wearable could also be useful for recording transect lines of plants, trees, and other animals or even logging firefly flashes. I like the idea that the “etho-smock” could not only be a passive logger of information, but also play it back in the form of light and sound (reminiscent of Close Encounters of the Third Kind).
Part science and part performance arts piece – the ethogram might finally enter the 21st century!

It’s Over There – a box with a good sense of direction – Paul

I’ve been thinking about navigation in the wilderness and how digital media can support it. There are a couple of things that are particular to the type of navigation in the wilderness we’ll be doing  (foot travel in a place where routes aren’t necessarily defined and never square)  and some related work that might give some insight in to that topic, which might be the subject of a later post (GPS, FeelSpace Belt, compass).

Having given it some thought, I’m still not sure where I fall with respect to a persistent sixth sense sort of set up because it fundamentally changes the experience of the world, which isn’t what a naturalist is after. It also adds a layer of complexity that’s not necessary for prototyping and testing tools. So I’m thinking of making a tool that can be used when needed or wanted, but not relied upon constantly (like GPS often seems to be for some reason).

This tool is basically a compass, but it always points to a user defined location. The simplest version I can think of would have a sensor (magnetometer or GPS depending on software) and a microprocessor in it, and a button and an LED with an arrow drawn next to it on the outside. The user pushes the button to set a location. From then on, if the arrow points at that location, the light turns on. I guess a vibration or anything could happen. Output shouldn’t be arbitrary, but I haven’t given it much thought yet.

There are lots of good uses for this, but primarily for me, it becomes a tool for developing a sense of direction that aligns with the type of movements, terrains, environments, and durations that are part of exploring the forest.

Sketch forthcoming.

– Paul