Monday, September 20, 2010

Creating a kit: shelter

The next item on the discussion agenda is the shelter. Cowboy camping is nice, but not always possible/safe. So we shall indeed discuss ways to stay dry.  Most of my life, I have been thrilled to sleep on the hard ground. From early childhood, camping out was the greatest thing ever. Just pitch a WallyWorld tent and throw your bag in. Play with the zippers until they bind up. Admit it, you've been there. These days there are hard choices to be made. 4 season/mountaineering tents, 3 season tents, bug screens with a tarp, lightweight big name brands, cottage-manufactured ultralight tents, tarps made of all sorts of interesting new materials, etc. Well, I don't see many mountaineering trips coming up, so I'll focus on the likely adventures in my own future.
     Currently, I have a Sierra Designs Sirius2(4lbs 11oz including footprint) that has worked well for both backpacking trips and car camping. I like that it is a freestanding tent that can be used as a bug screen in nice weather. It works great for a backpacking trip so long as you can share the weight with a fellow hiker. Otherwise, I think I can do a bit better. At one time, I owned a Sierra Designs Clip Flashlight(3lbs 13oz), which was VERY ultra-light back then. Great tent, but not enough wiggle room for me, and I disliked the non-freestanding design. In fact, I have always detested being required to stake down a tent. I'm learning though, that it's costing me extra weight on my back. People I trust have suggested either the MSR Hubba(2lbs 15oz-3lbs 6oz), or the GoLite Shangri-La1(1lb 3oz)  with a "nest"(net tent) available for another 1lb. Not too shabby. It uses your trekking poles for setup.
       Leaving the big-name brands behind, I am looking at a Henry Shires Tarptent, specifically the Contrail. As Backpacker Magazine 2009's "Top Solo Ultralight" it shouldn't be a secret. It weighs 24.5 oz and has a sewn in floor and bug mesh despite it's name. It's basically a single man tent, but their site says "2 in a pinch", so perhaps my 45lb son could fit in as well. The only drawback is that you need a trekking pole to set it up . I'll consider them if I decide on another tent.
Bivy Sacks have been out for a long time, but I always thought that I wasn't willing to reduce my living space by that much for so little drop in weight. I'm not exactly claustrophobic, but what if I had to sit out an 8 hour torrential downpour in a bivy sack? The thought disgusts me. For the purpose of contrast, I'll show a few examples of bivies I've seen where the weight reduction makes it (almost) worth it. Keep in mind, I have zero experience actually using one, so I am NOT an expert on this. What I gathered first is that most of them are either designed to be used in tandem with a tarp, or users just don't trust them. Basically the concept is "light & fast". There are undoubtedly some that are bomb-proof, but if I were going to try it, the tarp would no doubt be in the pack. Backpacker Magazine reviewed 2 that looked interesting. The first is more of a 4 season bivy, the Integral Designs Penguin Reflexion(1lb 7oz). I bring it up because it is made of a material that actually reflects your heat inward, keeping your cocoon an estimated 15deg warmer. It has a center zip and a mesh vent that can be cinched shut. Again, if you were using a tarp, add that weight in, and you are looking at several lbs. probably, to a bag? The second well reviewed bivy I looked into was the Rab Superlight Bivy(1lb). It is made of eVent, a waterproof breathable fabric. It is considerably lighter weight and has upward guy points, a velcro storm flap, and even glow in the dark zipper pulls. That's nice for a midnight exit. This one is from a British company, but they have dealers stateside. For a non-waterproof approach w/tarp usage, consider the MSR E-Bivy(9oz). This could actually be an option for nice weight/volume reduction. Supposedly it packs to soda can size, so it would create more space in a smaller volume pack as well. And it's only $79!
Tarps are a gaining popularity amongst the lighter hikers these days. I've been looking into it. I remember when Sil-Nylon first came out. It was like someone had invented fire. Now there's cuben fiber. It's remarkable how light this stuff is. Most grades of it are less than an oz. per yard. Great Googly Moogly! Imagine a Zpacks 8X10 waterproof tarp as strong as a sail that weighs 5.4 oz.! Gotcha cursing Loki now don't I? When I first read about it I thought,"next they'll tell me they put a man on the moon!" But I have spent countless hours searching for the weak spot. Apparently the backpacking community hasn't come full circle on the durability yet, and it's kind of pricy. Try $230 for the one I was talking about. Maybe cuben fiber is kinda of expensive for a stinkin' tarp, eh? Sil-nylon may not be so bad at this point. At least for experimentation purposes, anyway. There's a million tarp makers it seems, but I'll mention Oware 8X10 tarp(15oz), since the best YouTube video about tarp usage that I found was using one. Check out this 6 minute video link showing how best to use a square or rectangular tarp.    
         I'm not sure if this last one will actually be too tight for me, but I may be willing to give it a shot. I remind you that multiple use gear is the only real way to achieve the best pack weight in my opinion, so it must be considered. What if your raingear and your shelter are one in the same? It's possible, with a tarp/poncho. Most that I found were 5'x9' or smaller, but once again, I found a video that actually enlightened me in the ways of the ultralight packer. I entreat you, if you look at none of the other links on this post, this one is NOT TO BE MISSED! The Gatewood cape weighs in at 11oz, is self packable, and for another 7oz you can have the Serenity bug screen as well. So, for 18 oz, you get a cape/poncho/tent? What's not to like? Maybe the need for trekking poles? I don't mind, I love those things. These are just some of the options for a shelter that I have found. I know which way I am leaning, but I almost feel remiss for not including sleep systems in this post, because the two are "involved". What if my old back no longer wants to actually sleep on the ground?

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Creating a Kit: Pack

     The idea of backpacking is less about carrying the gear, more about GOING. From the dawn of mankind, those critters must have been thinking,"I need to go there, so how do I transport all of my needed gear?" So it goes without saying, that we should aim to carry exactly(and only) what we will want to have when we reach our destination. I usually picture setting up camp, and imagine what my gaze will fall upon when I get there. Will I have time to lounge around in camp, or just enough time to crawl into the sack for the much needed "Old Man Muscle Reset"? This helps me decide which items are must haves, and which are luxuries, or completely unwanted.  Choosing the makeup of my pack is the way I decide which pack to carry. I still have a 1993 North Face Indri II, which will hold something like 7000c.i.+, but I never want to carry that much gear again. I only keep it because it really was a great pack, and I can imagine having to carry most of my son's gear on a trip someday soon. I also have a Lowe Alpine Expedition 65L+15L that is very sturdy, but very heavy(7lbs, 2oz.). I'd also like to retire this pack, but I may still have use for a pack that big. My latest is an Osprey Exos 46L. I love this one. Very light(2lbs, 5oz.) for a pack with the features it has. It actually has a very thin external frame, but you'd have to really look in order to lay eyes on it. My goal is to be able to use this pack for trips of 4-7 days. In wintertime, it may not be possible due to the need for warmer clothing, sleeping bag, and a bulkier pad. In the summer, your camping style may change completely. For warm weather trips, I'm trying to decide between a tarp, a tarptent, or a hammock/tarp setup. But I'll likely remain a ground camper in winter. I don't mind springing for nice gear that suits my purposes, but like most, I am budget minded. I subscribe to the theory that a hiker will have a natural tendency to fill whatever backpack they pick up. So for the love of God, pick up a small one. Maybe a 25-35L for an over nighter, a 35-55L for a weekender, and up to a 65L for an extended trip. I realize that some people need to carry a 0deg bag, skis, crampons, climbing gear etc, so you guys can disregard these standards. Realistically for 3 season trips in the Ozarks, the gear list will not change much. Quantities of food, water, and spare clothing will be all that requires more space in the bag. No matter how minimalist a person gets, just remember that you must choose between comfort while hiking, and comfort while in camp. The pack is just the vessel.
     Unless of course, you are using a Moonbow Gear Powerpac.
         "The Powerpac is a modular camping system which combines the bulk of your camping gear into one integrated unit. It's a pack that uses your ground pad and sleeping bag and converts onto a shelter."

     And this is the reason that you should consider all of the gear that will make up your kit. If the key to lightweight backpacking is having multiple use items proliferating your gear list, then surely this is worth looking into. It replaces the pack with a sleep system and shelter. Basically, it trims the fat. Now, if I could only speak to someone who uses one. Otherwise, I will always need room in the pack for my sleep system and shelter.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Why I'm here

     As an employed father of a 5 year old boy, I no longer have the time to devote to my favorite outdoor hobbies that I once had. Ok, I may have the time, but I've failed to make it happen. My thinking is that if I can make up for a lack of general conditioning with a style change, perhaps the good times can return. To this end, I have been learning whatever I can about  backpack weight reduction and new(to me) techniques. I'll post things that I learn so that others may find them easier. I am an Eagle Scout, so my backpacking experience is tainted by the "Be Prepared" motto. I'm sure that sounds strange, but we were always told that you could basically never carry too much gear. If every tool has a use, and every use requires a special tool, then surely they need to build packs large enough to carry the kitchen sink. But what if being prepared could be done with knowledge of the woods, survival techniques, great first aid knowledge, etc.? Maybe great preparation consists of knowing more, researching newer techniques & lighter weight gear. As some friends suggest, changing the entire thought process in order to simplify not only the pack, but the entire lifestyle. Now this likely sounds like a soul searching journey, and it may be exactly that. At any rate, here I will chronicle my trek. I'm a bit scatterbrained, so it may consist of new gear or a hike I am planning, or maybe even an account of somewhere cool I've been.