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"Chart a Good Course" and Meet Phil, Solo Backpacker, Reviewer of the Month

by Alicia MacLeay
September 10, 2016

Phil hiking in the rain in Shenandoah National Park in May.

Congratulations to Phil May of Raleigh, N.C., our newest Reviewer of the Month.

Phil, a backpacker, paddler, and environmental consultant, began backpacking in the early '80s after moving to the U.S. from Scotland, where he grew up walking in the Highlands with his grandfather.

Some of his gear Phil recently reviewed includes his Merrell Moab Mid Waterproof boots, Old Town Pack canoe, Trail Designs Ultralight Glasses, and Vargo 1.3 Liter Titanium Pot.

Members like Phil are essential to the Trailspace community. In thanks for his contributions, he wins a 10 Essentials prize pack worth more than $300.

Phil, and every 2016 Reviewer of the Month, will receive examples of each of the 10 Essentials of outdoor gear, thanks to Adventure Medical Kits, Arc'teryx, Brunton, Good To-Go, Light My Fire, Mountaineers Books, Potable Aqua, Sawyer, The TentLab, UCO, and Ultimate Survival Technologies (check out the prizes below or see "The Year of Essential Outdoor Gear").



Meet Phil

Please tell us a little about yourself.  

Phil and his wife, Jessie, hiking in Shenandoah National Park in May.

I've been happily married to my wonderful wife for a quarter century, and we are transitioning into our empty-nest stage with both of our boys living at school now most of the year. This is good and bad as we miss them very much, but are enjoying newfound time together. A side benefit is more time on the trail with the decreased responsibility at home. 

I have been backpacking since the early '80s. I started briefly with the Boy Scouts (got kicked out!), and as soon as I could drive transitioned into solo trips and ones with a couple of friends. I still occasionally go with family or friends, but love solo backpacking and the peace and tranquility it brings to me.

My career path was also guided by my love of the outdoors, as I chose the natural resources field and have spent over two decades as an environmental consultant scrambling around sites throughout the Southeast. A little older, and maybe even wiser, but I still like to get out and about as often as I can.

What do you like to do outdoors?

Walking, hiking, backpacking, canoeing, fishing, and orienteering/exploring.

Any favorite stories?  

Here are three.

I took my wife to Glacier National Park for our honeymoon in 1989, as it was one of my favorite spots in the West, and not as crowded back then. We didn’t backpack but day hiked all week followed each evening by sitting on the porch of the Lake McDonald Lodge “rehydrating” with huckleberry daiquiris and watching the swallows fly about.

After two days we still hadn’t seen a mountain goat, but a ranger advised where we had the best chance to see them that time of year. After a long hike we finally found one of those ideal photo opportunities with a goat on a ledge overlooking a fantastic view. When we arrived back to the parking lot with that accomplishment still fresh in our minds as a reward for the long hike, there were four goats milling around the trashcans by the car!


My first solo backpacking trip was on the Appalachian Trail in north Georgia, a familiar spot for me being only an hour from the house. I was a teen with typical overconfidence, had just “guided” some friends on their first trip, and felt like I was a competent backcountry woodsman!

A friend cancelled out on the three-day trip due to rain so it became my maiden solo adventure. I survived pretty much constant rain in a leaking tent, but the last day was cold, wet, and windy. About mid-afternoon I was feeling chilled and stopped to rig up my poncho as a tarp and quickly boil up some tea to warm and energize me for the couple more hours of hiking to the car.

Feeling really good about my rain handling skills, I packed up and was ready for the last haul…then walked about two minutes round a bend in the trail and realized I had misjudged the map and was already at the car!

On one of my few night hikes (I avoid these when solo) arriving late in the day midweek at Grayson Highlands State Park, Va., I set up camp on a great night in an open grassy area with typical highland pony grazing land around it. I had a restful night until 4 a.m. when I was woken by something bumping into my back as I lay close to the edge of my thin solo tent. I am not a nervous sleeper in the woods, but this is about as scared as I have been when woken!

Turns out it was a young pony that nudged me while exploring my little campsite. I yelled and lightly swatted it away then tried to get back to sleep, but this commenced an hour-long game of tag. It would “quietly” come up to me, then push me again and run away. It must have happened five or six times until finally, enjoying the game thoroughly myself, I decided to get up and have coffee after mom hustled her kid away.

Describe your happiest moment outdoors.

There are too many happy moments with the better half and boys to choose from, but one solo event still stands out and surprisingly it is not backpacking. I was surf fishing over Thanksgiving at the beach in North Carolina. Out in the water with my thermal waders on, I wasn’t having a lot of luck. Just as I reeled in for another cast, a pod of about five dolphins showed up.

For the next 30 minutes I stood still as they rode the waves in to within a couple of feet of me (I could reach out and touch them), then circled back out to do it again and again. They seemed to be enjoying it as much as I was. An amazing spontaneous experience that had me laughing out loud! 

Phil hiking in North Carolina's Shining Rock Wilderness in 2015.

Describe your ideal day outdoors.

Waking up to a sub-freezing morning and brewing up a hot cup of coffee wrapped in my sleeping bag while watching the sun rise. Walking a while to warm up, then heading off-trail to attempt to reach a really neat looking little promontory on the topo map a couple of miles up the valley.

Finding the bushwhacking not too terrible (no large rhododendron thickets or brier patches, and minimal dead ends and reroutes), I reach my destination, which turns out to be a beautiful little flat glade with decent shelter and a good gap in the trees providing a great view of the valley below. It even comes with a natural little table-rock for cooking.  

Finishing the day with a cloudless, starry, and frosty night, with the tent fly rolled back and the doors wide open. (This is an actual day from a couple of years ago and it seems to repeat itself, if only occasionally).

What would be your dream outdoor adventure?

It has changed in the last year. I have a goal, as the last Scottish-born family member, to return to my home country and walk across the Highlands — either solo without time constraints or as part of the more social TGO Challenge. I haven’t decided which yet.

Who or what has been the biggest outdoor influence on your life? 

I think the main influence in my life is early memories of hiking in Scotland with my grandfather. Scotland has a strong walking culture, reflected in the ancient tradition that was set into law early this century (Outdoor Access Code) that allows anyone to camp and hike on undeveloped private land as long as rules are followed. 

What’s your most essential piece of outdoor gear? Why?

If I had to pick one item, I would say in the last year it is my Marmot Ether DriClime Windshirt with hood. I absolutely love backpacking in cool/cold and windy weather, but I still heat up very quickly while on the move. This is the ideal match for my metabolism and keeps light rain and wind off me while allowing me to vent. You will find me the majority of time in a T-shirt and shorts with the windshirt on top — at least down to freezing when I will begin to add pants and other layers.  Best 10 ounces I have ever carried!


Lunch break on the trail

What’s your favorite piece of outdoor gear? Why?

Definitely my Caldera Sidewinder Ti Tri stove, with Inferno insert. I am an admitted stove junkie having tried everything from white gas, multi-fuel, canisters, wood burners, and alcohol. The Sidewinder Ti-Tri, with wood burning Inferno, is by far my favorite.  

I love the flexibility of using wood, alcohol, or Esbit depending on conditions. It is very efficient and stable, and is its own windscreen. I really like fiddling around with the wood burning option to boil then simmer my dehydrated meals, and this also allows me to balance the enjoyment of a small fire after dinner with the goal of being as LNT as possible.

To top it off, it fits into my 1.3L pot nicely and weighs less than 5 ounces.

Got any good, bad, funny, or epic gear stories?

This is probably a common one — the last time I used my Coleman Peak 1 white gas stove was around 1991. Probably due to lack of maintenance in my younger years, we had a failure and the stove became about a three-foot diameter fireball!

I rushed to get something to smother it with, and in the meantime my companion (with boots on) kicked it in a perfect arch into the lake. We were on a canoe camping trip or would have been further from water. Not the safest approach to dealing with it, and definitely not good for water quality, but we fished it back out quickly. 

When not solo hiking in my younger years, we used to have a little competition to see who could sneak along the weirdest piece of gear and have it appear unannounced in the middle of a trip. Three days into one trip, I woke up to find the main tree in camp had a Nerf hoop and basketball tied to it. We had a good post-breakfast game to get the limbs stretched out! After that we chose our campsites carefully to make sure we had court space.

What’s in your backpack right now?

It's literally packed and ready for a four-day trip this weekend so this is easy…

What’s the best outdoor or gear advice you’ve been given or heard?

Actually from an REI staff member in the mid '80s: ”Most of this stuff you don’t even need.”



What's your favorite book (outdoors or not)?

Outdoor is a tie: Colin Fletcher’s Thousand Mile Summer or The Man Who Walked Through Time. The latter was what inspired me to start backpacking.

Other: Stephen Ambrose's Undaunted Courage. Come to think of it I guess it is an outdoors book as well, being about Lewis and Clark!

What's your favorite quote?

Again Colin Fletcher: ”Now that I look back at my footprints I detect patterns” and “Only in the wilderness can you slow down enough to rechart your life.”

I have used solo wilderness trips to help make most major decisions in my life. Something about leaving civilization behind and being on your own with nature for three or more days provides a simplicity and focus that has helped me chart a good course so far.

Where does your username (FlipNC) come from?

Boring...just part of my email address. I hike mostly solo and no long trail thru-hikes so am not into trail names (but have no problem with them).

What would Trailspace members be surprised to learn about you?

You may have guessed by my earlier responses, but I am a proud Scot from Inverness and even prouder naturalized U.S. citizen. On the other hand, if you expect an accent you’ll be disappointed as coming here at the age of 10 and living in the South has blended Scottish with Southern to result in what most folks say is Midwestern.

Anything else you'd like to share with the Trailspace community?

It’s an honor to be recognized for my recent reviews as I have been working hard to improve from my early ones and it has become a rewarding part of this pastime between trips.

I just realized that this August makes two years since I signed in as a member of Trailspace. I want to express to all staff, moderators, and members a big thanks for creating this great little corner of the Internet! 



The Year of Essential Gear

To celebrate the classic 10 Essentials of outdoor gear, we're giving all of our 2016 Reviewers of the Month, like Phil, the following prize pack ($300+ value). For more on the 10 Essential prizes read  "The Year of Essential Outdoor Gear.

#1 Navigation

#2 Sun (and Bug) Protection

#3 Insulation 

#4  Illumination

#5 First-Aid Supplies

#6 Fire

#7 Repair Kit and Tools

#8 Nutrition

#9 Hydration

#10 Emergency Shelter

#11 Know-How

Wide Photo Captions:
1) Checking out the view in the Southern Appalachians around 1991, "just before changing from the old faithful Jansport to an internal frame. Also, my cotton shirt days (rotating two to dry one out!)."
2) A happy and newly married Phil on honeymoon in Glacier National Park in Montana in 1989.
3) A long climb somewhere along the Appalachian Trail in Georgia or North Caroling around 1985.
4) A 2005 timer shot of the first dry night, after eight inches of rain in three days, in Wilson Creek, N.C. "Note the Vasque Sundowners when they were still made well!"
5) A 30-degree day in Virginia's Grayson Highlands State Park in 2014, "Scottish blood has some antifreeze in it."