Saturday, October 1, 2011

Making Money with a Blog - Year One.

It has been a little over a year now since I started this blog.  Several people have asked how much I made off advertising... I don't really consider it secret so I thought I would share what I have learned over the last year or so.

Like everything else in my life, I want this blog to eventually be self-sufficient.  My long term goal is to get my total living expenses down to $2/day by eliminating recurring expenses.  My phone and internet are about $150/mo. so I will either have to get rid of them eventually, or figure out some other way to pay for them.  Some may consider this cheating since it is still "earning money"... my theory is that if I build something once now to resolve a recurring expense forever then it is no different than building a dome to end paying rent.  The dome required $3000 up front to build.  The blog will require an undetermined amount of my time.  After they are done though, the problem is solved in both cases with minimal maintenance.

The direct costs are the domain name (about $10/year) and the hosting (free on  Other costs are my internet connection ($60/mo. DSL) and time (about an hour per post).  My phone (android/verizon) is about $100/mo.  I may decide to get rid of it and use skype or google voice instead.  Or I may get rid of internet and use the phone for that also depending on the price whenever the time comes.  So... if I can make $61 - $161/mo. then I will consider the blog to be self-sustaining.

Which brings us to how much I have managed to make in the last year.  Which would be $17.  Not $17 a month... $17 total.  But it is not quite so bad as all that really.  $11 of that was in the last 30 days.  I found some things that I was dong wrong initially and made a few changes and so far the difference has been huge although still rather unimpressive.

Things I learned:

1. The biggest factor is the number of hits you get on your blog.  You make money from people seeing and clicking on your advertising... the more people the better your chances that someone will click something.  I am getting about 40 unique visitors per day, which is up from about 25 per day last month.  From month to month this is mostly search traffic.  However, adding content with a link back to my blog in other relevant high traffic forums and blogs will increase the hits substantially in the short term and seems to continue to do so to a lesser extent in the long term.  For example, here is a graph of my blog traffic for the past 30 days:

On the 7th of Sept I was reading and added some comments with a link to my blog for more information.  I got about 563 extra unique visitors.  This died off pretty quick though and it was back to normal until I did the same thing on on the 15th.  These are both high traffic forums, I had more feedback and encouragement in a single day from each than I have had since I started my blog.  As a side note, I highly recommend both these forums, they contain far more information than my meager blog and the people are extremely helpful and friendly.  It is important that you not just spam places like these with links, you have to participate fully in the forum you are on.  This takes time and effort.  I made sure the places I posted were specifically on subject with a pre-existing post on my blog.  In this context, both these forums encourage you to link back to your blog.  If it was not on-topic, relevant and helpful, I doubt the response would have been positive.  I would also suggest that you not just participate where you can sneak a link in.  These are communities of real people, they don't mind you sharing a link but will notice if you are just trying to drive traffic and not really participating.
As you can see from the graph above the traffic again died off, but I was still getting almost double my previous traffic on a daily basis.  I did nothing on the 25th, the surge in traffic was due to other people leaving a comment on one of the above forums which brings the topic to the top of the list on that forum.

2. Get on the major search engines.  I have mainly focused on Google and Bing, but the more the merrier.  My understanding of how search engines work is that they will generally consider your blog more important if you have other known high profile sites linking to it.  This probably will take time to take effect, but the more external forums and blogs you participate in the higher you will rank on the search engines and the more hits you will get as a result.  The goal is to get as many other sites to link to your blog as possible... some people cheat at this, it is called "link farming", basically they own thousands of junk blogs that all just link to each other.  This used to be a common practice, but there is a constant battle between search engines giving you relevant results and people trying to "game the system" to get their own sites higher than they deserve.  I would suggest you not try to cheat, it may get you banned entirely from a search engine and then your domain will essentially become worthless.

A search engine finds content by "spidering" the web... basically following all the links on a site to new sites like a spider crawling over the strands on a web.  Because of this if there is not a known site linking to your site it may never be found.  If you use blogger or wordpress then there will be an internal index that will point to your site and you will eventually get on the search engine.  A better way is to manually submit your site to each search engine.  There are various sites that claim to do this for you automatically, but I would not trust them.  For the major three (Google, Bing, Yahoo) there are what they call "webmaster tools",  I believe that yahoo and bing are now using the same tools.  You have to go through these and jump through some hoops but if you do so you are sure to be in the search engine even if you are not in one of the first few pages.  Make sure you register your XML sitemap so that all your content is known to the search engine.

3. The more content you have the more hits you will get.  This is my 35th article, so my blog is still really small comparatively speaking.  For search engine traffic the overall theme of your blog is not important... it will index each article and send traffic to an individual page.  However, if you do have a theme that someone appreciates then they may bookmark your site and return regularly.  These are the most coveted type of traffic.  Return visitors are more likely to try to help you by leaving comments and suggestions that make your blog more interesting.  Sometimes a good comment thread is better than the original article and it is work that you did not personally have to do.  You can think of this as volunteer labor to add content to your blog.  Do everything you can to encourage it.  If someone asks a question, reply promptly and thoroughly.  If they have a criticism, take it seriously and don't be offended.  People value honesty and the ability to recognize and fix a mistake more than they value pride.

There is pretty much a direct relationship to quantity and quality of content to the amount of traffic you get.  I expect that if I am making $5/mo. with 34 articles that I will make at least $10/mo with 70 articles... although I expect it will be better than this since my blog will be rated higher with the search engines by this point.

4. There are several ways to monetize your blog.  The major ones are search engine advertising, and affiliate marketing.

For search engine advertising I use Google Adwords.  Search engines make money by selling ads to businesses.  These businesses pay for the number of impressions (views) that their ads get and for the number of times people click on their ad.  Impressions are not worth much (about 1cent per hundred).  Clicks are worth a variable amount depending on the keywords the advertiser bought... they are sold like an auction.  Usually you get paid from $0.25 to $2 per click.  You basically add a bit of code to your site that will take a fixed amount of screen space that the advertiser can fill with their own content.  They will try to make the content as appropriate as possible to both the visitor and where they have been in the past and to the content on your page that they are visiting.  If I am taking about my garden then the advertising should show gardening supplies or something that the user has shown interest in on another site.

WARNING:  Please do NOT click the ads on this article in order to try to help me out.  The search engines look for this kind of thing and will ban me if it happens.  If you see something that you genuinely are interested in then by all means, click away.  Just don't do it more than once... if a bunch of people click on ads and then don't buy anything they consider it "click fraud" and will terminate my account.

With adwords you have to exceed $100 before you are paid at all.

Positioning of the advertising is important.  A month ago I just had one ad-box half way down the right column.  Nobody paid any attention to this so in the year or so that I had the blog going I think I had made about $2.  Last month I added another couple ad-blocks to the top and made about $5 in the first couple of weeks.

Advertising is obnoxious and in a perfect world it would not exist at all.  People would buy based on the quality and merit of the product and not how much it is hammered into their subconscious.  Unfortunately that is not our world... I apologize for having it on here at all, but it is the only hope I have of making this blog independent.  With that in mind, there is a balance between content and advertising.  If you have too much advertising on minimal content I believe it will drive people away.... and people are always the first priority.  Without people there will be no income so don't bite the hand that feeds you too hard.

I have a friend who blogs as well... her blog is at  It is mostly about space and science type stuff, and she gets about twice the hits I do.  Last I heard though, she has only made a few dollars so far.  This could be because the type of things I talk about are things that my readers may be working on and therefore buying stuff for.  If you talk about abstracts and beliefs then people are less likely to be actively researching for information and products.  If they are trying to find specific information and the advertising is relevant then I believe they are more likely to click on it.

Affiliate marketing is showing specific products that are hopefully relevant to your content that people will click on and get directed to a  specific place they can buy the product.  This works really well if you are doing a product review.  I used to use for this until they canceled all their affiliates in Arkansas due to a new Arkansas law that claimed they should pay state taxes.  In the year or so before it was canceled I made $3.70 which I got last week as an Amazon gift certificate.

I would still recommend Amazon for this unless you live in one of the states they have black-listed.  Basically if someone clicks on one of the links on your site and then buys something on Amazon then you get a percentage of the sale... like 3%-7% depending on how many clicks you are getting.  I only sold a couple of books so I did not make much.  If someone bought something for a few hundred dollars though then the income could have been substantial.  Amazon is nice because they have just about everything.  I am looking into other alternatives now that Amazon wants nothing to do with me and my fellow Arkansans though.  You can still see the Amazon links in some of my older content.

5. Know your audience.  Hopefully you will have some interaction with them and will get to know some of them personally.  But before that you should at least identify the type of person who you think may read your content and try to keep that in mind as you write.  In other words your blog should have a specific style and tone that you use consistently throughout.  For this blog I am trying to accomplish the following:
-Write as concisely and informatively as possible.  The people that I want reading this are people who do stuff... they don't have time to listen to me ramble on about something.
-Write about stuff that I have personal experience with, people don't care what I like or what my opinions are, they want solid information as unbiased as possible that they can use to come to their own conclusions.
- Write about stuff that I would want to read about.  Before I write an article I check to see what is already out there... If someone does a better job than me then I will just add a link to their stuff.
- Write honestly.  This is not a vanity blog, I will be honest about both my successes and failures.  I don't want "fans", I would rather have partners.
- Write about what you care about.  Sometimes I will start ranting about something that means a lot to me personally.  It may not mean much to the reader so I try to identify it as a rant so they can skip it if they want.

Ultimately it is about a relationship... a distant and dysfunctional one to be sure, but you have to respect your reader the same way you would a friend.  When I learn to do that well I believe my little blog will be successful.  If you can do that then your blog will eventually be self-sustaining and maybe even profitable someday.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Garden Update Sept 2011

garden, sept 2011 001Just thought I would post some pictures of our garden.  Mostly because it is my first attempt at making a real garden of the scale that I can regularly eat out of, and I am kind of proud of it.  I am not a pro at this, and it is a community effort so I am only partly involved.  But for the sake of those who are thinking a small scale garden may be in their future there are a few things I learned that may be helpful.

garden, sept 2011 002We started this in the late spring with a single bed 24 ft by 4 ft.  There is a picture here, of when it started.  We made raised beds out of treated 2x6x8ft timber two high.  The original idea was to do square-foot gardening but lack of organization and muliple people being involved quickly ended that idea.  A few months later (early summer) we more than tripled the size, added two more beds with wooden walkways and a couple more corner beds.

garden, sept 2011 003

For fertilizer we used about 1 part old horse manure to two parts wood compost / leaf compost.  There are about 4 bags of store bought fertilizer in there somewhere as well.  We turned over the initial dirt that was there already with a pick and mixed this in as well to some extent.

We had to fence the whole thing since we are over-run with deer up here.  Any hunters want to come kill our deer?  Please?  It is only about 5ft high but the deer have stayed out so far mostly because there is not a good clear area inside that they could jump into.

garden, sept 2011 014garden, sept 2011 013I installed a automated watering system.  This has always been my issue with gardens in the past.  I would forget to water and a couple of weeks later the garden was dead.  The first attempt was to use drip-hoses but a couple of those burst within the first month... I think our water pressure is too high.  I could have gotten a pressure regluator, but decided to use cheap PVC instead.  I just drill holes where I want the water to go.  The water flow rate is not sufficient to run all the pipe so I had to make three separate sections, the water comes on at 5am and does each section for about 30 minutes.

garden, sept 2011 004The cost has been about $700 total.  $250 for fencing, $100 for automatic watering, $60 for PVC, $100 for wood and the rest for plants and misc. parts (hoses, connectors, etc.)  We also probably spend another $100 on watering.  This year we probably got about $200 of food out of it and will probably get another $200 by the end of the year.  Obviously this is not cost-effective yet.  Hopefully now that it is established, next year will be more productive.

garden, sept 2011 005Lessons Learned.
1. Gardens take time and practice.  If you are planning to quickly summon up a productive garden if things get bad then you are probably going to be in for an unpleasant surprise.
2. They take quite a bit of maintenance.  This garden probably gets at least 30 minutes of attention each day by somebody.  I am glad that I am not the only one working in it since I would probably neglect it more than I should.
3. Automate as much as possible.  Obviously the automatic watering saves about an hour of standing there with a hose each day.  There are way to plant things so that they control insects naturally, we are not very good at this yet, but we are learning.
garden, sept 2011 0064. Our garden is dense.  This is nice from a space perspective but it is hard to harvest stuff.  Given that we are trying to keep cost low we will probably make it just as dense next year, but it would be nice to spread out if we could afford it.
5. Bugs are irritating.  We are still "organic" so far, but we lost quite a bit to insects.  Hopefully in the coming years we will get an ecosystem of predator bugs to help but if you are thinking about a survival garden you may want to stock up on pesticides for the first few years.  Either that or plant twice as much.
6. Wood is cheap and fast to build raised beds with, but it will not last more than a few years.  We have started collecting old cement blocks, bricks and rocks to replace the wood with when it starts to fall apart.
garden, sept 2011 0077. Weeds require quite a bit of work to remove.  We have been putting down cardboard, old carpet, newspaper, wood chips and anything else we can find to act as a weed barrier wherever there are not plants.  It looks like a mess, but it prevents a lot of grass seeds from falling in the beds.

garden, sept 2011 008Like I said... I am not a great gardener.  I am trying to make as maintenance free a garden as possible and eventually will get back to the aquaponics, but in the meantime this is working nicely.  If you have any questions please leave them in the comments.... in this subject I could probably use any advice you might have so please leave suggestions also.

garden, sept 2011 009garden, sept 2011 010garden, sept 2011 011garden, sept 2011 012

garden, sept 2011 016

Friday, September 16, 2011

Thoughts on the Appalachian Trail.

img_4165.jpgIt has been over six years now since I finished a through-hike of the Appalachian Trail.  I still think about it.  It is interesting how my perspective on what it meant and what I got out of it has changed from when I first started thinking about it to now.

For those who have never heard of it, it is merely a thin, rocky path that stretches 2174 miles from Georgia to Maine.  It is almost never level or straight.  It is always painful, exhausting and beautiful.  Each year a couple thousand people try to walk from end to end.  About 10-20% make it.  The rest had the courage to try.  The pictures of my hike are here:

img_4479.jpgIt is a hard thing to talk about though to people who have not done it.  They don't have any way to relate, no similar experience to compare it to.  Most of them have done some kind of hike so naturally they think it is like that, just longer.  And while that is true, it is a very small part of the story.  It is like trying to understand the life of a soldier based on the fact that you too own a gun.  Because you have that in common you get it, you understand what he went through.  What could be said to communicate what the experience really meant?  Is it even worth the effort?

img_3976.jpgAs we would hike, we would see people at road crossings or in towns that were curious.  They always asked "Why are you doing this?".  Then they would look at us as if we could sum it up in a couple sentences.  We tried many times to produce what they were looking for.  Their slight nod and polite smile would tell us each time that we had failed.  Eventually I realized that they were just wanting a meaningless blurb, "because it is there.", or "why not?".  They wanted to admire what you were doing, but not necessarily to understand it.

Now, six years later people still ask me why I did it.  I have had some time to reflect so I hope I have a better answer.

img_4077.jpgIt was because life lived unintentionally is not living.  It is just doing what needs to be done so you can do what needs to be done tomorrow and repeat until the end.  You become just an actor in the life your circumstances scripted out for you.  It is as if we are born sliding into a long downhill rut and our lives are just coasting down that path of least resistance.  We "do" when we have to.  We deal with obstacles when required, not because we chose them but because they were just in our way.  An annoyance, a thing to be resented, avoided.  We "do" because it is prudent, because it is necessary, because we will profit from it in some way.  We "do" because we were told that we should, because it is expected of us, because that is just how it is.  Nothing has purity, nothing is done for it's own sake.

img_3236.jpgOccasionally though you have to "do" just because you choose to.  You have to make a deliberate choice against all reason, tradition, and habit to go to the hard and lonely place.  You have to make a pilgrimage, to go into the wilderness to enter the darkness.  You have to climb the walls of your rut not to impress or persuade anybody. Not to fulfill a requirement, but merely so that you know that you can.  To demonstrate, if only to yourself, that your life is lived by choice and not just the dictates of circumstance.  You have to choose something that tests the limits of your endurance, your will, your strength.  It has to be hard and long and painful and and can have no tangible reward... something that almost nobody will understand because it belongs to you alone.  It has to be something you will likely fail at, that you fear, something rational people would avoid.  It has to be defiant, a demonstration that this box you are in will not hold you and define you.  If you can ever fully explain it to someone who has not been there, then your task was too small.

It does not have to be the AT, it probably should not be.  You know the places where you meet your boundaries.  If you would be free, then choose your battle and begin to fight.  The war will never end until you are too exhausted to pick yourself up again, but by then you will have seen lands that few have dared to enter.  And even though you find yourself alone and misunderstood by all those you left behind yours will be a bigger world and you will know that you have lived. img_4554.jpg

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Straight Razor

Straight Razor 002When your grandfather hit puberty your great-grandfather likely gave him a straight razor and showed him how to use it.  Just like his father had done and so on back to before anyone can remember.  This had been going on since the 1600's when the classic "straight razor" design originated, but long before that men all over the world had been scraping their faces with some manner of sharp knife, or rock.  The straight razor evolved until it was a durable and efficient tool that with care would last generations.

And that was a problem.  The best way to save money is to get rid of as many recurring expenses as possible.  Conversely, the best way to make it is to convince someone to buy something off you that will only last a short time so that they will come back again and again to keep buying it.

This blog is about saving money, getting out of debt, and finding simple solutions to solve common recurring problems without becoming dependent on an external supplier.  In so many ways we have sold our independence out of convenience and laziness and have in effect accepted a number of parasites on our lives.

So back to the straight razor... it was a simple and final solution to a recurring issue, but in the 1950's our parents were convinced that disposable "safety" razors were the way to go.  There are still many thousands of people in the US using straight razors, they can attest that with a little caution and practice a straight razor is not dangerous.  But women generally don't want their young children playing with extremely sharp knives, so the "safety razor" seemed like a better idea.  Given that they were so cheap and convenient, requiring less care and maintenance they quickly caught on and the market proved once again that fear was the best motivator.

Now today it is common to pay $25 for a dozen mach-3 razor blades.  If you shave every day then you probably go through this in a month.  So you have a $300/year parasite to live with.  You can get by with cheaper razors, or you may go electric for about the same cost.  While the dollar amount is not much, it is the mindset that is most important.  When we make it a pattern to just throw money to external entities to provide us with quick short-term solutions in one area it becomes easier to do it again in another area until finally we end up with "the modern american lifestyle".  It is fun while it lasts, but if any kind of disaster interrupts the party then we will all become aware of how many dependencies we have come to rely on.  Most of these with a little preparation could have been avoided. 

So whether you want to prepare for a possible disaster, become less dependent on external sources, or just save some money please consider the classic straight razor.  It is not nearly as scary as it has been made out to be, and can serve you just as well as it did your grandfather long ago.

Straight Razor 003

Straight Razor Basics.

Unlike a disposable razor, the biggest difference is that you have to sharpen a straight razor.  This is not particularly hard or time consuming but it does take practice.  There are two ways to sharpen a razor, namely honing and stropping.  


Straight Razor 008Honing is using a very fine sharpening stone to put on the basic edge.  This has to be done every six months or so.  You basically lay the razor flat against the stone, the back of the razor provides the correct angle, and then you very lightly push the blade across the stone with the edge pointing in the same direction as the motion.  You then flip the razor over keeping the spine down and go in the other direction with the other side.  You use very little downward pressure during this, the weight of the blade is generally sufficient.  You start on the coarse stone for about 30 strokes then do the same on a finer stone until you run out of stones.  The best stones are called Japanese water stones and you want an 8k stone or higher to put the final edge on the blade.  There is a more complete explanation of the process here:'s_Guide_to_Honing

Water stones are expensive (from $30 - $200) you could use a very fine oil stone like marble but it would take longer and you would have to be more careful.


Straight Razor 004The next step is stropping.  This is basically polishing the blade and aligning the metal on the edge.  It should be done before and after each shave.  You will need a strap or a block covered in leather for this.  I prefer the block, but the strap is more traditional.  You essentially do the opposite of honing, by pulling the edge across the leather with the spine of the blade at the front.  Then flip on the spine and go in the opposite direction for the other side.  A more complete explanation can be found here:

Strops cost from $10 to $80 although you could probably use an old leather belt if you had to.

My personal favorite is a combination between stropping an honing.  Basically you can buy diamond paste with different grit sizes.  I got a block with four sides and got 1-micron 1/2-micron and 1/4-micron paste for the three sides leaving the fourth plain leather.  You sharpen the razor like you were stropping it, but it accomplishes the same thing as honing.  I found this method to be the fastest and it tended to be sharper in the end (for me).

Soap / Brush / Bowl

straight razor 002You generally don't want to use the canned shaving cream that you are probably used to.  Mostly because it it expensive and secondly because it does not work very well.  It leaves junk on the blade that is hard to remove.  One cake of $5 shaving soap with a brush if used conservatively will last at least a year.  I got a whole kit with the brush, bowl and soap for $5... this is probably the cheapest you can go.  Beaver or Badger hair is considered to be the best for brushes, but those will cost you around $30.

Alum / Stypic Stick

Straight Razor 006This is basically a block of alum or a stick or pen that will stop bleeding from a small cut.  You will likely get a number of these when you start.  It is not painful, you probably will not even feel it.  But there will be a small spot of blood that you can completely get rid of by touching the spot with the stick or alum.  This will sting a little, but is fast and will not leave a scab.

The Razor

The last part is the razor itself.  There are only a couple of good razor manufacturers left.  Dovo is the most popular, and Boker also makes a few.  The rest are by custom knife makers or are generally junk.  Another option is to find an old razor made before 1950, but make sure there are no nicks or cracks in the blade.  A decent razor will cost about $80.  You can get much less expensive ones but you will likely end up with a very bad experience.

So, with a $80 razor + $50 block + three tubes of diamond paste ~ $30 + soap/brush/bowl ~ $15 you will end up paying about $175 minimum to get started.  This may seem expensive but it will pay for itself in six months and last the rest of your life.

Another option is to get a straight razor with disposable blades.  There are several brands, I like the Dovo Shavette this will cost about $30 but will let you know if you like using a straight razor or not, and will give you an idea about how the blade should function when properly sharpened.  Even if you just stick with this, the blades are about $7 for 100, can be used several times and can even be sharpened if you really want to.

As for how to shave with it, search for "straight razor" on youtube and there will be hundreds of video demonstrations that will do a better job of explaining it than I can here.

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Earth Battery Experiments.

267For the last week I have been collecting parts to continue testing the earth battery. This is the second part in a series, for the first part which explains what this is and what it is for see here.  After messing with this for a while I am not really sure this can properly be called an "earth battery" anymore, but since it is kind of similar and I don't have a better name I will stick with that.

My long term goal with these is to just make individuals and organizations working in third-world areas aware of their existence. I may just end up sending a minimal kit with instructions that would allow them to make their own. Without seeing it work, I expect it will end up in the "if it were that easy everyone would be doing it already" category.

My original plan was to send a "joule thief" circuit so that they could just add some dirt and see it work. This may be the easiest on their end, but it will take me a lot longer to make and even though the circuit is very simple they may still think that it can not be done locally.

So the other option is to send just a LED a lump of charcoal and a few wires. They will have to put at least four cans in series which takes a little more effort but then they would not need the circuit at all. Somehow, to me, it is even more impressive when you just connect a light to a series of cans and out pops light... so I am undecided as to what I will end up doing in the end.

The Joule Thief Experiments

I ordered the parts for the "joule thief" since my scavenging efforts did not turn out that well. The components are less that $1 if you buy in bulk (around 100 pieces). The hardest, most time consuming and most expensive component is the ferrite torroid. They can be bought for about $0.50 each or they can be scavenged from computer power supplies and high efficiency light bulbs among other places.

The best instructions I found for making them is here, there is also a video here:

My original assumption about how they worked was wrong, they do not merely boost voltage at the cost of amperage. Instead they turn the DC current into AC at a high frequency. The AC current spikes at a little over double the DC input voltage so it works fine for illuminating a LED but will not do so well with anything else so far as I know. There are variations on youtube for lighting fluorescent tubes at higher voltage though so I will have to keep working on it.  I also found that at least with the earth battery you can skip the resistor so there are really only three parts.

I attached the first one I made to a aluminium can filled with dirt, a little salt and vinegar and water. I then wrapped another wire around a piece of charcoal and pushed it into the center of the dirt a few inches. The bulb lit nicely from a single can and remained at about candle brightness for about 15 hours. When it went out I added a couple tablespoons of bleach and it lit up even brighter than before for another 10 hours or so. Finally I dumped out all the dirt and filled the can with pure salt then pushed the charcoal into that and filled with bleach. That was this morning, now about 12 hours later it is still lit brightly.

The "Dirt" Medium Experiments

I should probably add that I sanded the inside of the can a bit before I added anything. There is a film on the new can that will not generally conduct well. Sometimes it works, probably from the dirt scratching through the film, but it is better just to lightly sand the inside of the aluminium can.

Here are the results of different combinations:

Aluminium can + charcoal battery experiments.
- Bleach + salt in sanded can = 0.93 volts x 160ma
- Dirt + water in sanded can = 0.575 volts x 0.23ma
- Dirt + water in unsanded can = 0.103 volts x 0.00ma
- Dirt + urine in sanded can = 0.75 volts x 68ma

Basically just dirt and water will not work very well, while adding salt or bleach or any acid will help considerably. I also figured out that urine, which contains both salt and acid, works very well. While it may not be the most politically correct thing to make a battery out of, nobody can complain about it not being easily available and renewable.

So far, there has not been any noticeable corrosion of the can or the charcoal, and the mud can be easily replaced. I expect the can will eventually corrode but it will be a while before I can see how long that will take.

The Charcoal Experiments

Next I tried different types of charcoal to see what difference that would make. My original assumption was that charcoal worked well because it was porous and so had a large surface area. This may be part of the explanation but there is something else going on that has me a little confused. It seems that charcoal briquettes do not work at all... I expected they would work at least as well as the camp-fire charcoal but that is not the case. Even with salt and bleach they would just produce a tiny voltage and no measurable amperage. I also found that different lumps of charcoal produce a similar voltage, but widely varying amperage. I have no idea why. Below you can see the charcoal pieces I tried and the amperage (ma) for each. It does not seem to follow any pattern that I can see, size does not seem to make much of a difference, nor does the amount of wire wrapped around the charcoal. They are arranged in order with the best (most amperage) on the left and the worst on the right. I tested them by inserting them each into the same mud in the same can.
(click on the pictures for a high-res version)

If anyone knows what is going on here, please let me know. I am totally confused, but the important thing is that almost any lump of camp fire charcoal will work (probably).

The End Result.

earth battery 002I wired eight cans in series using the best lumps of charcoal.  Filled them with dirt and added a little urine.  I ran out of urine so I will have to wait until tomorrow to renew the supply.  Although there was just barely enough urine to dampen the top of the dirt the attached LED is burning a little more brightly than the original version I made out of 5-gallon buckets.  That one BTW has been running non-stop for over a week and a half now with no change in brightness.  It is very helpful as a porch light... I can now find my doorknob to insert the key.

So the final verdict is that anyone can produce enough light to read by with 8 aluminum cans, some campfire charcoal, some dirt, urine and a 10-cent LED.  I will post more later as to how long it lasts.  If anyone knows some other things I should try to improve performance please let me know in the comments.  

Long live the urine-light.
earth battery 003

Friday, September 2, 2011

Hiking/Backpacking Notes

In 2004 I though-hiked the Appalachian Trail. Both before and after that I took a lot of inexperienced people on weekend hikes so at some point I made some notes to give out before we left.  

I thought these may be useful to anyone who is either preparing to go on a hike or making a "bug out bag", so here it is... some of the links are old and may be broken so let me know if I need to update them.


For more information contact Brandon Hoult - 479-264-7511

In 2004 I through hiked the Appalachian Trail. I have lots of pictures here: if anyone is interested. It is a cross country 2174 miles from Georgia to Maine almost entirely composed of going up and down mountains for about 6 months. Prior to this I had done many weekend and week long hikes and thought I knew what I was doing. I trained with a 100lb pack for 5 years doing about 12 miles a week up and down a 1000ft hill. I quickly discovered that I did not know as much as I thought I did. I bought heavy duty equipment “that would last” and started the AT with a 85lb pack. While I did finish, I changed a lot of my attitudes about what is “necessary”. If I did it over again, my pack would be no more than 30lbs preferably less than 20lbs, and it would be a fun walk instead of a death march. The single most important variable on a long distance hike is weight.

This is an overview of equipment you may want to consider. Keep in mind that you want to bring as little as possible, and what you do bring should be as lightweight as you can make it. Every extra pound you carry for 100 miles will take the equivalent energy of carrying 100 lbs for one mile.

You should be able to get down to less than 30lbs which includes a week of food. Some people have hiked the entire Appalachian Trail (2174 miles) with less than a 20lb pack. You will find yourself wanting to carry all kinds of stuff “just in case” which will make it more than 30lbs. Resist the urge, it will make the difference between an enjoyable hike and a death march where you are likely to be injured.

The best tasting, lightest, most nutritious food I have found is the freeze-dried meals made by Mountain House. These are available individually or in bulk here or here. You can get breakfast, lunch and dinner for 7 days for $124 or you can get them individually for about $5 - $7 each. The only disadvantage to the bulk packs is that they will have to be repackaged into zip-lock bags while you can just add boiling water to the individual packs.

Other foods that work well are the rice and noodle Lipton-sides, ramen noodles, instant mashed potatoes, granola bars, gorp, instant oat meal, macaroni and cheese, cheese, tuna packets, summer sausage, soup mixes, and anything dried. These will all take a little longer to prepare and will be heavier than the freeze-dried stuff, but will be a lot cheaper. Also bring lots of candy bars or power bars or gorp to snack on while you walk.

Coffee, tea, and hot chocolate, and hot cider mix are also really good when you get to camp, and Gatorade powder is helpful during the day if you want to mix it with your water. I usually have one Lexan bottle for flavored drinks (hot and cold) and one for just water since in spite of what they say, the bottle always ends up keeping the flavor of whatever you put in it.

Most stuff you can get at Walmart, but you can get much higher quality, lighter, more durable equipment by ordering online. Some good places to look are and REI good for browsing, but Amazon might be a little cheaper. Also Amazon seems to have a better variety and you can usually get everything in one place. Everything in the "Award Winners" section at REI is gong to be some of the best you can get. REI Award Winners


LED Lights generally work the best as you will probably only use one set of batteries for the whole hike. If you bring a non-led, make sure you have extra batteries. Head lamps are more convenient than hand-held as they leave both hands free so you can read/cook/whatever. You can get a cheap LED headlamp at Walmart or Lowes for < $10. If you want a really good one I highly recommend the Petzl Tikka XP


Lexan Bottles make good almost indestructible containers that you can pour boiling water into without worrying about it melting. You should have at least one of these. Empty Gatorade bottles work well also and are lighter and cheaper than the Lexan bottles. Plan to carry at least two quarts of water if streams are plentiful, and more if not.

You will be re-supplying at creeks along the way, so you will need to purify your water. If you take the risk of drinking untreated water you can come down with several illnesses that can put you our of commission for weeks or even months, like giardia. Many people consider it safe to drink out of clear cold springs coming directly out of the ground, but will treat any creek water no matter how clear. There are several options for this. The lightest and least expensive is probably Aquamira. This is a chemical treatment. It has the disadvantage that you have to wait 20 minutes before drinking the water. There are other chemical treatments but Aquamira tastes better than any of them that I have tried.

There are also various pump filters, these are nice since you can drink the water immediately but are kind of heavy and bulky. You also have to be careful not to contaminate the hoses by letting the intake hose drip water onto the out hose.

I kind of like the steripen, which is a UV water treatment. It uses batteries and there have been complaints about it being unreliable so have some aquamira as a backup. It can only be used in clear water, but you can drink immediately, and there is no chemical taste.

Bring some coffee filters to pre-filter water before you use any of the above, it will get most of the larger stuff out and extend the life of the filter. There are also various filter straws that can be used in emergencies. My favorite combination is a filter straw with some aquamira and coffee filters. If you need water immediately then use the straw, otherwise use the aquamira and if it is really bad then use both.

It is also a good idea to bring a small bottle of bleach. You can use it to clean your bottles and filters and in an emergency a couple of drops per litre will purify water after an hour or so.

Also if it is hot outside consider adding gatoraid to your water since it will both give you energy from the sugar and keep you from getting heat exhaustion and cramping from a lack of salt and potassium.  If you sweat a lot and are going on a really long hike then consider potassium tablets.


You should only bring at most two sets of clothing (shorts, t-shirt, socks, underwear). The one you are wearing and possibly one other. Your rain clothes could count as your one other that you can wear while you are washing what you hike in. This may seem odd, but clothes are bulky and heavy and everyone will smell bad anyway. In general bring stuff that is light and synthetic. Cotton dries slowly and is cold when wet.

If it is cool outside you will probably also want a light jacket. Microfleece works really well, is light, packs small, dries quickly, makes a good pillow etc. You will probably not need this when walking but it is good to have at camp. Also remember your sleeping bag is what you will use if you get really cold. You may want to bring some lightweight microfleece sweatpants to wear at camp as well.

It will probably rain. When it does you will be walking in it. Unless it is really cold the easiest thing to do is just get wet... as long as you are moving you will stay warm. When you stop you will want something to wear that will keep you dry. There are all sorts of different jackets and pants that you can get for this. The more expensive ones use Gortex which has some breathability as well as being waterproof. If you sweat a lot this will probably not help, but in theory if you just sweat a little it will still evaporate through Gortex while you are standing in the rain. REI has all kinds of raingear you may want to look at. There is also cheep plastic raingear at Walmart for about $10, which should be sufficient for standing around camp. It is not breathable, and you will not want to hike in it, but it will work. Alternatively you could use a poncho which can also cover your pack and serve as a tent, although it will do all of these badly. Oddly enough, a small umbrella works pretty well for hiking in the rain. You poke the handle in the sternum strap on the pack and put the umbrella on your head like a hat. Looks funny, but I was surprised at how well it worked.

Keep in mind that if you are hiking in the cold, as long as you are moving you will be warm, but a few minutes after you stop you can get extremely cold. I was hiking up a 4000ft hill in a sleet storm in below freezing weather wearing just shorts and a t-shirt. I was fine until I got to a shelter at the top but a few minutes later I could not feel my hands and I could barely get undressed and into my sleeping bag. If this happens you are on the verge of hypothermia, try to get dry and eat something as soon as possible to help your body generate heat.

DO NOT WEAR NEW SHOES! Make sure you have broken in anything you want to walk in. Especially if you have leather boots. If possible they should be ½ to a full size larger than you normally wear, your feet will swell and you will have heavy socks. There should be at least an inch or so extra in the toe so your toes do not hit the front when you walk downhill. I would recommend something light and comfortable, it helps if the soles are stiff (less rocks poking your feet) and if they are waterproof (there are sprays to help with this). I have had really good experiences with stuff made by Merell and Lowa. If you can easily bend your shoe in half you may want to consider insoles. These will stiffen the bottom and make them generally more comfortable. Superfeet work really well for this. Socks are also very important. If you get nothing else you should buy good socks. I highly recommend Bridgedale. You should also get a sock liner, these are basically thin synthetic socks that you wear under your heavy socks. They tend to keep you from getting blisters. You can use thin nylon dress socks, or panty-hose for this purpose, or you can buy sock liners.

You may also want to bring something to wear in camp and when crossing creeks. There are several brands of foam rubber shoes "Crocs" that are perfect for this. But sandals or flipflops will also work. You should have one pair of socks to hike in and another to wear to bed and in camp.

If you do any kind of long distance expect your feet to hurt. A lot. People on the AT routinely loose toenails and treating blisters is a constant ritual. In general take your shoes off and air out your feet whenever you get a chance. Keep toenails trimmed, remove dead skin from blisters as soon as possible, make sure your shoes don’t have any rocks or sticks in them, make sure your socks don’t have any wrinkles in them before you put on your shoes. Gold bond powder can help a bit with your feet and chafing elsewhere.


The most common option is a tent, check the award winners at REI. I prefer a hammock myself... Hennessy makes some really nice ones. The lightest option is a tarp get a sil-nylon one if possible. Tarps are a little harder to set up so practice in advance, and most don't have bug netting or a floor but they are inexpensive and very light and versatile.

The ones at Walmart will work, but are usually too heavy and bulky. Down bags are the most expensive but are also the lightest and pack the smallest but don’t work well when wet. Good synthetic bags are almost as light as down and are a lot cheaper, and work better when wet... but they are also more bulky. Check REI for various types of sleeping bags. You may also want to get a compression sack to keep the bag dry and make it as small as possible when packed. In general a 20 degree bag should be plenty in spring and fall. A 45 or up will work in the summer. You may want to wear a jacket or get a bag liner, or fleece liner (at Walmart) which will make it a bit warmer.

The cheapest route is to get a foam pad at Walmart for $3. Inflatable pads are much more comfortable and usually smaller as well. Thermarest makes some really nice ones. These are necessary for warmth as well as comfort since the ground will be cold at night and sleeping bags do not work well when compressed (on the bottom). I use a half length (short) Thermarest mattress which saves on space and weight, but means my legs hang off the end.

Do not think you will sleep comfortably on the bare ground in cool weather... it is not the hardness that is the problem it is the ground conducting all the heat from your body all night long. If nothing else, get a pile of dead leaves or even wood to sleep on.

There are a number of theories here. It basically all depends on how much weight you are carrying. The old external frame packs are fairly unpopular these days unless you are carrying a huge amount of weight (100+lbs). Internal frames tend to balance better and do not get caught on branches as much when you are walking.

Ideally you will be carrying less than 30lbs. For this your pack should have some kind of internal support and a good padded hip and shoulder belt, the pack itself should weigh about three pounds or less. If you can get down to 20lbs or less then you can get an even lighter pack without padding or internal support that will only weigh about one pound.

It is important to size the pack correctly. You may consider going to a local outfitter and trying some packs on even if you buy online to save money. Otherwise look at the sizing charts at REI.

Also don’t forget to get a pack cover to put on when it rains.

All you will probably need here is a large lightweight lexan or whatever camping cup. The idea is that you will basically boil water that you can then add to whatever in your cup. A nalgene bottle can also be used, but is a little harder to clean. The most popular lightweight stoves are homemade alcohol stoves. There are instructions for building these yourself or you can buy a commercial one. If you do this then you will also need a lightweight pot of some sort.

For speed and convenience I like the Jetboil this basically just boils water really fast and has it’s own pot to boil in. There are all kinds of expensive fancy stoves, but I would not recommend any of them over the above two. You will also want a spoon or spork to eat with. You can also just get a lightweight aluminium or titanium pot and use a camp fire, although this is slow, inconvenient, and illegal sometimes.

Other things you might consider include the following: a cell phone, a gps, a small knife, spare batteries for your flashlight, a small book to read. A light cloth or nylon bag to hang your food with. A 20ft length of parachute chord (string) available at Walmart. Some ibuprofen, helps with swelling and sore joints. Vasoline and gold bond powder for chafing. Moleskin and duct tape for blisters. Deet (bug spray) if you are not allergic to it, and some soap (Dr. Brommers works really well). A hiking stick is also handy a piece of bamboo works really well, although lots of people prefer the double lightweight hiking poles these days. For a really long hike you might also consider a kindle and a small radio.

Recently SPOT Messenger became available. If you are going alone, or are worried about injuries and lack of cell phone coverage then this is probably something you should seriously consider. It allows you to use satellites to call for help or let someone know where you are. Also useful for coordinating food drops etc.

Finally, you might consider loosing some weight before the hike. If you are kind of heavy to start with this is probably the best way you can prepare. I was 280lbs when I started. When I finished I was 205lbs. But it would have been a lot better to loose 30 or 40 lbs before I started. There are a couple of good ways I have found to loose weight quickly. One is to go on a few week long hikes. I tend to loose a pound a day no matter how much I eat on these. For a day hike you will probably be starving at the end and will gain most of it back that evening at dinner, if it is a week or more then that is not an option, you can only eat what you carry.

Another method I discovered recently is a juice fast. Basically get a juicer (aprox. $50) and just drink fresh fruit or vegetable juice. I lost 17lbs in two weeks this way recently, often people go for 60 day and loose over 100lbs. There is a documentary on netflix called “Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead” that is fairly convincing. If you can loose the weight of your backpack, then it will be just like walking without carrying anything.


3 lbsBackpack
2 lbsShelter (Tent / Tarp / Hammock)
2 lbsSleeping Bag
1 lbsMattress
1 lbsRain-gear / Spare Clothing
15 lbsFood
2 lbsWater
Total: 26 lbs

Parachute Cord
Water Purifier
Cooking Gear
Bug Repellent
Tooth Brush
Small amount of duct tape
Trail Guide
Lighter / Matches


Camp Shoes
First Aid Kit
Spot Messenger
Cell Phone
Gold Bond
Sewing Kit
Hiking Poles / Stick
Spare Light
Extra Batteries

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Foraging: Sumac Lemonaid

sumac tea 006 Well, the dome is pretty comfortable and it is still kind of hot outside so I took a break for the past couple of months to work on other smaller projects.

My long term goal is to get to the point where I am living off $2 a day, fairly comfortably, in the USA.  This is actually what the majority of the worlds population manages to live on.  I will likely spend over $50,000 in the next few years getting to that point but after that I hope to spend the majority of my income on things with greater long term importance than just myself.  I could insert a paragraph about the impending economic collapse or say this was about personal survival, fear is a great motivator as the media knows well.  I wish that was not part of my personal motivation, unfortunately it is... but I don't want it to be.

I realize that for those living off $2, investing $50,000 up front to make their meager budget practical is not really an option.  This blog is probably not going to help them much, but if I can convince a few of you to reduce your expenses and get out of debt, it will free up your time and money so that you can make the changes in the world that you would like to see.  Whatever those changes may be I think it will be an improvement.

sumac tea 003So with that in mind I decided foraging was going to be part of my long term strategy.  Foraging is basically finding food around you growing wild.  It involves a lot of new and unfamiliar flavors, and can be dangerous if you eat the wrong thing.  With that in mind, I have started reading books and blogs and am going to try and go into it slowly and carefully.

Which brings us to Sumac.  This stuff grows wild all over the world and you can use the red berries to make tea, or lemonaid, or a sour acidic spice.  This is not to be confused with poison sumac, which has white berries and is kind of like poison ivy, make sure the berries are red.  Look carefully at the pictures, the shape of the leave and the berries, you can click on them for a bigger version.  The new chutes are apparently edible in the spring... so I will have to try that when spring gets here.  But now (after July) in Arkansas is the perfect time for the berries and there is a patch of them a few hundred feet from my dome.

sumac tea 002To make the tea you soak the berries in cold water for 30 minutes to a few hours depending on how strong you want it.  You don't have to  remove the berries from the stalks, just throw the whole thing in.  I did this as a kid in hot water and it turned out terrible.  Hot water apparently leeches out all the bitter tannin, so use cold or room temperature water.  After you add the water reach in and crush the berries with your hand to bruise them a bit.  Finally after they have sat for a while,  filter it through a cloth, or paper towel or coffee filter into a container add sugar if you want (I use 2 spoonfuls for a large mason jar) then refrigerate or microwave and that is about all there is to it.

sumac tea 009In an attempt to keep with realistic expectations I won't say that it is the best thing ever... but at the same time I will say that it is quite good.  Certainly the same quality as something like red-zinger herbal tea.  It is good enough that I have gone through the process three times now and keep a refregerator full of the stuff... very refreshing.

sumac tea 010I also add some mint at the same time.  If I had some stevia growing (which I don't this year) then I would probably add that instead of sugar.  Sumac is very high in vitamin C which is quite important.  The early pilgrims often died from scurvy just because they ran out of lemons, while this stuff grew all around them and would work just as well.

Apparently the berries dried and ground up are also used as a spice. Some articles claim that in Mediterranean countries it is used as a table spice as common as salt and pepper.  It has a sour and slightly bitter flavor that goes well with fish or grilled meat or rice dishes.

Anyway... sumac... good stuff.  Other things I have tried, including grass seeds, new pine chutes, and the inner bark of a pine tree were not so good.  And the new tips of green briers are ok but not great.  I will try to post the good stuff when I find it, but if I was hungry enough I expect it would all be good.

Here is the finished product... which will last me about a week or so.
sumac tea 011sumac tea 012

While I am on the subject, it is not wild but sweet potato leaves are also very good.  Basically you cook them like any green and they taste great.  Very common in asian countries but almost unknown here.  Sweet potatoes grow very well in hot climates and given a chance will cover an entire area year after year with almost no maintenance.  I would advocate growing this stuff instead of grass in your yard.  If you needed to you could feed your whole family with sweet potatoes and sweet-potato greens and have most of your nutritional needs taken care of.  Just a thought...