Monday, October 25, 2010

Gear Review: Therm-a-Rest z-lite Regular


    This one will be short and sweet. I bought this pad(Therm-a-Rest Z-Lite Regular) to be a lighter weight alternative to my much heavier Therm-A-Rest Trail Long, and my Therm-A-Rest Ultralight. I purchased it in the "Limon" color. It is a closed cell foam pad with an egg crate design. Unlike most closed cell foam pads, this one folds up in an accordion style. It is 72 inches long and 20 inches wide. So a 6' tall hiker could stretch out on this one. The spec sheet at their website shows the weight at 14oz, but I weighed it out at 13.6 oz on my scale.  While only 3/4" thick, the egg-crate design made it seem thicker to me. It has an R-value of 2.2, which is only slightly lower than that of the fabled "NeoAir" at 2.5.

     The first night I slept on it was on the Ozark Highlands Trail, Hare Mtn.(section 3). The temperature dropped to about 45 degrees. I was in a Western Mountaineering Summerlite 32deg down bag. I was warm and toasty. I am a side sleeper, so I did notice that I was less comfortable than with either of my other pads. I purchased the "regular" size with the idea in mind that I could always cut away sections if I decided to go with a shorter length pad. With this pad, you could easily reduce the length in roughly 5" increments. Therm-a-Rest also sells it in a shorter verson which is a torso length pad at 51" and 10 oz. Also, they sell a 'Z seat", which is 13"x 16". The reason I bring this up is that I could cut away several sections, packing them as well, and have a good seat to set down on in wet conditions, then reuniting it with the rest of the pad for sleeping. I disliked that the pad folds up in a rather bulky fashion(20"x5"x5.5"), but I liked that I was able to attach it to the outside of my pack without worrying that I would damage it. This freed up a fair amount of room within my pack. For backpackers who want to use a smaller volume(and lighter) pack, this is an added bonus.
     I only used it once, so I will no doubt revisit this review upon using it in different conditions. However, I already consider it a great value, at only around $40 at my local outdoor store. I will use this on all of my 3 season hikes for quite a while to come. The basic question is whether or not I would recommend this to my teenaged nephew for his Philmont hike this coming summer. The answer is a resounding YES!

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Trip Report: Ozark Highlands Trail, Section 3+





Turtle(left), Jake(right)

The power of trees!
     Fellow Legends Patrol member Turtle and I started off by delivering one vehicle to our destination trailhead(Little Mulberry Creek, mile 58) and doubling back to Cherry Bend trailhead on Hwy 23, a.k.a. "The Pig Trail Scenic Byway". We arrived their about 10 minutes before 3P.M., and were on the trail by 3:15. We took some trailhead(mile marker 37) pics, loaded up our packs(Turtle at 37lbs, and me at 23lbs) then just got rolling on the obvious trail just to the right of the bulletin board. It took us down hill fast into the valley. about 30 minutes later we arrived at a dry wash with a nice 30ft drop off. Let me tell you, in the wet season, this would be a spectacular waterfall. We paused here to check the map and GPS. Here is where we noticed that somehow we hadn't even started at the preprogrammed waypoint #11(copied from Eric Strong's page). Not a great start, as we had dropped about 500ft in elevation over the course of about a mile. We decided to bushwhack up the hollow instead of doubling back up a very steep trail(likely causing further erosion). There were some interesting things to see while ascending the mountain up this wash.


Sunrise from Hare Mtn.

    After about an hour trudging uphill through briars and brambles of all sorts, we intersected the trail about 1/2 of a mile past the waypoint, and proceeded to launch ourselves down the trail. Our aspiration was to make camp at Hare Mt. before darkness. As sundown would occur at 6:36 P.M., we might have until about 7 P.M. before needed flashlights. We made good progress, and only stopped for 1 or 2 short(standing) water breaks, and arrived at the top of the aforementioned mountain(mile 42.8) just in time to need flashlights to set up camp. At nearly 2500ft, Hare Mt. is the highest point along the OHT. Elapsed (on trail) mileage to this point is about 5.8 miles, with roughly 500ft. elevation gain. There is an old homestead with a very neat standing stone chimney, and a water well concealed by a 3ft diameter metal lid. There was water there in the morning in good quantity and we poured it through a bandanna to filter the particles. When we went to add our Iodine tablets, we found that I had forgotten to pack them. Instead, I had packed the Potable Aqua Plus neutralizer tabs. A great trip caught it's second hitch. Oh well, we had plenty of stove fuel, and had 1.5L of water left from last night between us, so by 9A.M., we were headed down the mountain towards our destination. We saw some nice views southward across a wide valley.
     Making good time, we reached our next watering hole at Herrod's Creek(mile 47.5). We had dropped almost 1500ft elevation in 6 miles so far today.  It wasn't even noon yet, but since there was cool running water, we decided to eat and boil some drinking water here, so we could cool the water bottles in the creek. We tested the Enertia Trail Foods "Switchback Shells", and "Pinnacle Pasta", and both were very good for cook in pouch meals. While we were waiting for the meals to rehydrate, I set to boiling water in my Jet Boil Flash. I was pouring the boiling water into a Nalgene bottle to cool. Upon adding the second 2 cup batch to the Nalgene, the plastic lid ring had expanded from the heat and when I picked it up by this, the bottle dropped out, bouncing on a rock and splashing all up and down my nearly bare left leg. I tore off the knee brace, sock, and boot and hotfooted it directly into the cool creek. It was very fortunate that  we had decided to do our boiling there, as it may have saved me a lot more grief. We spent the next 25 minutes trying to figure out the best way to utilize the guaze, medical tape, and 1 packet of burn ointment. It amounted to Neosporin on the 2in. sq. of blister that had torn away while removing the knee brace, and just taped gauze on the worst part of the calf. The thigh was left bare, and shorts leg tied up with my bandanna. We were now aiming to finish the remaining 10 miles before dark, so that I could get home to better first aid. 
     The going was fast and furious. We had passed more waterfalls than you can imagine since daylight, but as we are in drought-like conditions, there was no flow worth photographing. Indian Creek(mile 51.1) was the next water hole, but we were fixed up on water already. From Herrod's, we had gained roughly 400ft in elevation, then dropped close to 500ft. After Indian Creek, the going gets a bit more strenuous. Over the next 2.6 miles you will gain over 400ft in elevation before dropping down a bit into Briar Branch(mile 53.7) The trail is a narrow track through some very nice pine forest with good views to the south. My guess is that in leaf off, you can likely see a long way towards the Mulberry River. Briar Branch is an absolutely stunning array of stone waterfalls. The running water here is crystal clear and VERY cool. We sat and had snacks and did another boil here, cooling the water in the creek afterwards. It was very shady, and I don't think this area gets as much sunlight as is common along the other areas of the trail. There is a lot of moss and lichen on the rocks, and it feels about 10 degrees cooler. It is exactly the kind of area you would like to camp in, though there might be a challenge if more than 2-3 tents needed to be set up. It is narrow, and the ground might be a little harder than you would like. This area is part of the Marinoni Scenic Area-Not to be missed! We grudgingly kept onwards toward our goal.

Me flexing the lobster leg near Briar Branch 
     For the next mile plus, you are gaining roughly 300ft in elevation while climbing out of Briar Branch before beginning the final 500ft drop towards Lick Branch(waypoint 17). At mile 55.3 when while you are walking along the edge of a small bluff-ish outcropping, the trail actually takes a sharp right down into the bluff and redirects. This is a nice place to have a sit down break, or lay-around if you are like my friend Turtle.  From here, you will coast out the last mile to Lick Branch. This is the end of Section 3 of the OHT as defined in Tim Ernst's Ozark Highlands Trail Guide, which is without a doubt, the definitive guidebook for the trail. Unfortunately for us, we had decided on a bit more of a hike, since we had an extra day planned. We still lacked 1.7 miles to Little Mulberry Creek. We paused for pictures at the Lick Branch trailhead, where I found another bottle of the Potable Aqua Neutralizing tablets next to the bulletin board. Think perhaps someone else had become frustrated with that product by now as well? The trail from this point on was perhaps 100ft gain in elevation, but was quite a bit more overgrown than we had thus far seen, and was more typical of the trails you might find in the Buffalo National River area. You can't hardly find a spot to place your foot without worrying if you are going to slip or twist an ankle. This section actually made my calves hurt and gave me hot spots inside of my boots. You exit through a corridor of trees and vegetation with fence lines 5-10ft of you on both sides with pastures flanking you. This section has some river cane and such that needs to be cleared out a bit. Perhaps I'll volunteer to do it for the OHTA. We emerged at 6P.M. sharp. We were glad to see the truck, but felt like we had added to our legend a bit. This was an extremely fast paced hike since my lobster leg injury, and we passed the test with flying colors. Roughly 22 miles hiked in under 27 hours, averaging over 2 miles per hour not including camp time or lunch break. All in all, we were in agreement that this is a must hike for anyone considering an OHT hike, and nearly anyone could easily average over 1.25 miles per hour, with the leaner, meaner hikers getting even faster than we did it. 

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Creating a kit: sleep system


     Now that we've covered the first 2 of the big 3 items for the trail, we come to sleep systems. The reason everyone calls it a "sleep system" is that there is so many different combinations of bags/quilts and pads. Let's start with sleeping bags. For starters, they all have a temperature rating. For instance, my latest purchase is a Western Mountaineering Summerlite 32deg bag. The temperature rating to 32 means that you will survive in the bag down to 32 degrees F.  It's impossible to rate the comfort because everyone has their own sleep temperature. It can be said that some sleep "hot", or "cold". You probably know which you are. Cold sleepers would have a tendency to try and steal warmth from their special someone, while hot sleepers may not want to even be touched while sleeping. Have you ever woken up freezing in a winter camp and when you complained about it, your friend says, " I was toasty all night long."? Most people consider a 3 season bag to be any rated from 32 to 50 degrees. Below that would be considered "winter" or "mountaineering". We'll stick with 3 season bags for now. There is basically 2 types of fill for the bags. Down is naturally provided, and one of the oldest ways of staying warm. Or you can choose any one of many different makes of synthetic fill. Basically, down tends to be warmer(especially when wet) and lighter weight than synthetic, but it does have its drawbacks. It requires a bit more care, has to be relofted before each use, and can be more easily damaged by compression. But it is very lightweight. Just ask the geese it gets stolen from. The synthetic fills tend to be more heavy, a bit more durable, and typically a bit cheaper. I must say that each year they seem to come out with a lighter, warmer fill material. I have a Kelty Silverstreak that I got for graduation back in 1993. It's so old that I can't even find a link for it. But it has held up very well. I believe it was a 32deg bag, weighing just under 3 lbs. It has been hung out after most trips, though I admit that early on I wasn't very good to it. Its synthetic fill is not as lofty as it once was, but as I said, has been very durable. 
     Another descriptive word you will come across when searching for bags is "top bag". What this means is that when you are inside the bag and laying on your back, the part of the bag that is exposed to air is made of a heavier material for either water resistance,  wind resistance, or added durability. Since the whole point of sleeping bags is to surround yourself with "dead space" and insulating yourself against your environment, many of the lighter weight hikers are now using quilts. If your sleeping pad insulates you from the bottom, and your bag is less efficient underneath your body due to compression of the loft, then you can likely save weight by eliminating the bottom side of your bag(and the zipper), creating a quilt. Think about it. In bed, you have a mattress, then a sheet, but above you is where the comforter or quilt is. If you can duplicate this while on the trail, then you can save a lot of weight. Some quilt options can be found at: backpackinglight.com, or at this blog
     As kids, our parents weren't so benevolent to even give us an air mattress to sleep on. Shoot, I remember sleeping in the bed of a pickup in just a bag. That would send me to physical therapy these days. I have played around with many different pads to date, going back to the swimming pool type blow up air mattresses, to the Kmart self inflatables, to foam to several different Therm-a-Rest self inflating. What I've found is that none are actually comfortable to me, but as I'm a sound enough sleeper anyway, I can make do with any of them. The only difference is how my body feels when I wake up.  The primary purpose is to pad yourself, but the pad has a serious ulterior motive- radiant warmth. Each pad has an "R-value", which is a very common way to rate how well it retains your body heat and insulates you from the cold ground. I'm not exactly sure  how it all works, but simply put, the higher rating, the warmer the pad. There is many different options these days; closed or open cell foam, inflating, self-inflating, full length, 3/4 length, torso length, etc. Shoot, you can get them in thicknesses below half an inch, ranging all the way up towards 5 inches thick. I have a closed cell foam pad that is very light at 11 oz. Not padded well, not very warm, but very durable. Also, I have a Therm-a-Rest Trail long( I think) that weighs just under 2 lbs. Fairly padded and warm, but doesn't pack small enough for me. But when I weighed my 15 year old Therm-a-Rest Ultralight long, I was shocked that it weighed over 1 lb, 12 oz.! I hadn't weighed it in so long I had no idea that was where my weight was coming from. Needless to say, it's available as a loaner if I ever find a tag-a-long that needs it. The Thermarest Neo-Air is among the market leaders for a self inflating ultra-light. The 3/4 length version is only 9 oz. And you can always use your pack to rest your feet on. Not bad, I say. Or you can go with a closed cell foam pad for a similar weight. The T-a-R Ridge Rest or Z Rest which has an R-value of 2.2 which is only slightly less than the Neo-air, at a fraction of the cost. My experience with Therm-a-Rest has been very good. I don't mean to sound like an advertisement for them, though. There are other makers with good reputations, but I have very limited experience even seeing their products in my neck of the woods. Here's a link to a comprehensive pad review page: backpackgeartest.org
     I want to also pose an idea about combining several different pads. Imagine if you had a higher R-value inflatable torso pad, and somehow combined a lighter foam pad for the feet that also doubled as a sit-pad. If you were using a frameless pack, it could also be pad your back in there as well. It's not my idea, but something that could add functionality to your gear. Next up: hammocks?