081: Perfect Popcorn on the Trail

Show Notes: Episode 081

Today on the First 40 Miles, backpackers spend their time in the backcountry, but your first outdoor experiences were probably in the frontcountry. We’ll explain the difference! Then on today’s Top 5 List, you’ll learn the key factors for making perfect popcorn on the trail—a skill that we don’t take lightly. On the SUMMIT Gear Review, we’re trying a twist on the classic Buff. Next on the Backpack Hack of the Week, learn a simple first aid hack that will change the way you look at your fast food garbage.


  • Backcountry: a sparsely populated rural region remote from a settled area. This is where we typically go backpacking. Secluded, serene, rugged, untouched, typically lacking in amenities.
  • Frontcountry: day use and car camping. For the most part you can expect bathrooms, ADA compliance, running water, maybe a shelter or perhaps a visitors center.
  • How do you know when you’ve crossed from frontcountry into the backcountry?
  • Typical users of the frontcountry are the AWOL users. AWOL stands for “All Walks of Life”. These are people who may or may not have any outdoor experience, who may be in various levels of fitness, and who may or may not understand basic outdoor ethics.
  • Why is frontcountry ethics so important? Because frontcountry is the doorway to the backcountry.
  • Things that frontcountry users do, affect our experience in the backcountry
  • Yellowstone and the bears
  • According to the Outdoor Industry Association there are three times as many car campers and five times as many day hikers as there are backpackers in the U.S.
  • The number of day hikers is projected to increase from 47 million people to 74 million people by 2050, and car campers are expected to increase from 42 million to 62 million by 2050
  • USDA Forest Service study says day hiker days are projected to surpass the one billion days mark by 2020.
  • Leave No Trace Frontcountry Ethics

Top 5 Tips for Perfect Popcorn on the Trail

Generous oil

  • A generous coating of oil in the bottom of the pan will make it so your popcorn resists sticking and burning on the bottom of the pan PLUS the oil will the give the popped popcorn a light coating for the salt to stick to when it’s finished popping.
  • Oil storage options:
  • No matter what, store your oil bottle in ziptop plastic bag!

2 Quart pot

  • A short, fat pot will disperse the heat and cook the popcorn much more evenly than a tall, skinny pot. We’ve been using the Evernew Ti Pot 1.9 Liters (or 2 quarts). This size pan will cook 1/4 cup of unpopped popcorn perfectly.

Mini alcohol stove

  • Perfect solution: An aluminum tealight candle cover (just slide it off a new tealight candle), half-filled with denatured alcohol. It provides just enough heat to cook the popcorn. (Might need more if it’s windy)
  • Simply shake the covered pan about 1-2 inches over the lit mini alcohol stove
  • Shake it until you don’t hear popping noises, then extinguish the flame or let it burn off

Uncrowded popcorn

  • Do some test rounds at home to determine the quantity that will fit in your backpacking pot. Our 1.9 L pot will cook up to 1/4 cup of unpopped kernels. This amount doesn’t fill up the bottom of the pot. If we put in any more, the popcorn would be crowded and you’d have burnt popcorn stuck to the bottom of the pot due to overcrowding.

Enough salt

  • Without salt, your popcorn will taste like packing peanuts

SUMMIT Gear Review™: BUFF Merino Wool Neck Warmer

I love my buff, and I wanted to get a second Buff. When I saw this one, I thought it would be a great fit. Not as versatile as the original Buff or the wool Buff, but it has similar features that make it a great item to add to your clothing stuff sack.


  • 100% natural Merino Wool
  • Double layer, which means hot air is trapped in between the layers of wool
  • Merino Wool’s natural qualities include: water repellent, odor resistant, flameproof, durability, UV protection and natural stretch and elasticity
  • Semi-seamless — small, unnoticeable seam on top and bottom of Wool BUFF®
  • Provides wind protection


  • Great for shoulder season and summer backpacking


  • Weighs 1.7 ounces (49 grams)
  • Half the length of the Wool Buff that we reviewed in an earlier episode
  • Shorter than the Buff that we reviewed…but it’s a double layer, so it’s like having a Buff that’s twice as thick, but you have two layers—which is better than having wool that’s twice as thick—it harnesses the power of layering


  • Hand wash and air dry


  • $32


  • I wore it two different ways, mostly as a neck warmer—but then it also worked great to just pull it up over my head and wear it like a hat. It keeps the hair out of my face.
  • Less versatile than the original Buff, but if it works for what you need it to do, then it’s good

Related: Review of 100% Merino Wool Buff in episode 009: Backpacking with a Blind Chicken

Backpack Hack of the Week™: Ibuprofen in a Straw

Good old Vitamin I. Don’t leave home without it. Besides bandages, it’s probably the #1 thing that belongs in every backpacker’s first aid kit. But you don’t need the whole bottle.

Without the bottle, you’re going to need a lightweight way to protect your Ibuprofen until you need to use it.

All you need is:

  • A plastic drinking straw
  • Some Advil
  • A pair of pliers
  • A lighter or match

Heather tried this with store brand Ibuprofen and it didn’t fit in a standard straw. We used Advil and it fit perfectly.

Seal the end of the straw by pinching it with pliers and holding a flame to it. Then pinch the pliers over the melted plastic. Fill the section of straw with as many ibuprofen tablets as you want—leaving enough room at the end to pinch and melt.

You can make these little tubelets with as few or as many Ibuprofen tablets as will fit.

Trail Wisdom

“Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.”

-Henry David Thoreau