Sunday, February 26, 2012

Portable Backcountry Shelters

This is part 1 of a multi-part series on backpacking equipment
  1. Portable Backcountry Shelters
  2. Staying Warm At Night In the Woods
  3. Fueling the Furnace
  4. Dressing Appropriately
  5. All the Other Stuff We Like To Pack
  6. And, Finally, What To Put It All In
  7. An Example Gear List
If you plan on spending much time out in the back country you will eventually want to spend the night.  This transformation from a day hiker to a multi-day hiker is about the biggest that you will generally face, at least having to do with wilderness travel.  There are some significant obstacles that must be overcome to spend the night outside of a house/hotel/RV.  These include: staying warm, staying dry, being comfortable and not sacrificing too much of yourself to mosquitoes and other blood sucking insects.  This post will focus on the back country shelter:  staying dry and out of the reach of creepy crawlers.  Staying warm at night will be the topic of a later blog.

There are a variety of shelters that backpackers use, but the most common is a tent.  Other options include tarps, bivys, hammocks and none.  Shelters come is a variety of sizes and shapes and for different seasons.  Before selecting a tent you will need to know what you generally intend to use it for.  Are you solo packing over long distances, traveling with a group, setting up a base camp or winter traveling with a significant chance of snow and/or heavy wind?  A more difficult question is your tolerance for discomfort and/or pain.  How willing are you to sacrifice some comfort for a weight reduction.

I am generally a solo backpacker, but even when out with others I prefer not to share a tent.  I am a light sleeper and a snoring tent-mate will keep me awake all night.  Most of my backpacking trips are just 2-3 days, but I generally make at least one extended trip a year.  I do not generally travel in the winter so am not concerned with the snow carrying capability of the shelter; but rain and bugs are a frequent issue where I spend most of my time.  So my shelter can be as small as will comfortably fit my 6’2” height, should be light weight but not to an extreme, should be fully enclosed to keep out the mosquitoes and flies, needs to handle rain well but with no concern for the snow.

I have had several tents over the years.  The first was a two man pup tent from a local big box store.  First time out it rained for three days and the inside of the tent was pretty soggy.  Not fun!  Next was a cheap three man free standing tent with a bit of a rain fly.  It was palatial and reasonably dry, but heavy.  Neither of these tents have been used for years now.  My first real backpacking tent was an REI half dome.  This was lighter and smaller than the previous tents, with enough room for a second person if needed, reasonably roomy and dry.  This eventually became the tent I took when I expected a lot of rain and anticipated spending camp time holed up.  The Sierra Designs CD Lightyear eventually became my go-to tent.  This was a small solo tent that was plenty long enough for me and almost tall enough to sit up in.  Both of these tents have the option of pitching just the rainfly along with a ground cloth if no bugs were expected, thus reducing the tents weight, but I have never used that option.

I have occasionally considered using a tarp rather than a tent.  A tarp definitely has a weight advantage over a tent.  But, while I generally don’t have much of an issue with bugs when out and about during the day, I cannot bear the thought of fighting them all night.  And my only encounter in camp with a tarp camper removed any desire for using just a tarp.  He told about an experience where he had a field mouse run across his face one night.  No thanks!

Bivys also had some appeal because they seem like a light weight alternative to a tent.  A bivy is just a waterproof cover that you place over your sleeping bag.  Some, but not all of them, also include a little micro tent of fly screen that goes over your head to protect from bugs.  But they really need to be used in conjunction with a tarp for rain protection, and by that point you are up to the weight of a light weight solo tent, without as much room.

The major disadvantage of all of these is that you end up sleeping on the ground.  And even with a 2 inch Big Agnes Air Core, the ground just got to be too hard and my hips were sore long before I ran out of dark.  And after about 3 nights I was dreading bed time.  I had seen ads for hammocks for several years and had thought about trying one, but my little experience with cheap camp hammocks had not left me too impressed with my ability to spend the night in one.  Plus I had never seen anyone actually using one.

That changed at the end of the hiking season 3 years ago.  My buddy and I shared a small lake with a guy using a Hennesy Hammock of some type, and he swore by it.  I looked at it closely and began researching hammocks in earnest once I got back home.  During the research I found the Hammock Forums and was able to read the opinions and experiences of many hammock campers.  I ultimately bought a Blackbird from Warbonnet Hammocks, a small cottage shop.  This hammock allows you to sleep somewhat diagonally for a flatter night’s sleep and has a fly screen cover.  With an 8’ by 10’ tarp to stretch over it, I stay dry, protected from the bugs, and most importantly, sleep comfortably.  Easily the best night’s sleep I have ever had in the woods is when swinging between two trees.

There is one important trade off to be aware of though.  When using a tent you need a bare level place the size of the tent to pitch it.  With a hammock the surface you hang over is not really important, so long as it is not brushy.  What does matter is that you need a couple of trees that are big enough, between 12 to 20 feet apart and with no ‘low to the ground’ branches between them.  I seldom camp out of the trees so this is generally not an issue for me, but it does require a shift in thinking as to what constitutes a good camp site.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Extreme Backpacking Makeover

I love being out in the woods and mountains.  I enjoy the scenery and the solitude, the opportunity to sit on a rock and watch a river flow by; all day if I want to.  I have been backpacking for most of the past 30 years in the Olympic Mountains and have traipsed over most of its trails at least once.  And over the past couple of years I have also hiked parts of the Pacific Crest Trail.

Up until the past couple of years I would have a tendency to take pretty much anything I thought I might need to enjoy the trip and to have a relative level of safety/security/comfort.  As a result my pack always weighed at least 45 pounds and as much as 65 if I was going to be out for a week.  With this load I would generally shoot for about 8 miles a day with 10-12 miles being pretty much the limit.  This would generally take about 4-6 hours of hiking plus an hour or so for lunch and breaks.  Thus my non-sleeping part of the day was roughly divided up into two parts; trudging along the trail from camp to camp, and relaxing/exploring/hanging around camp.  Now by no means was the trudging all bad.  I did enjoy the walking and the scenery, but after a few hours my shoulders and hips were starting to scream at me and dropping the pack for the day became the primary thought.

During a significant portion of this time I always dreamed about cutting down on the weight, but never seemed to be able to pull it off.  There was just too much stuff I needed to have.  And while none of it really weighed all that much individually, when you put together enough little things they began to become pretty heavy.

A couple of seasons ago though I experienced a total makeover in my backpacking.  It is hard for me to remember back to a triggering event but I suspect the adoption of using a hammock instead of a tent was probably the key.  That in itself did not buy me any weight savings, but in making such a transformational change in my sleep system, it seemed to open the doors to everything else as well.  I ended one season with a 5 night trip carrying 65 pounds and started the next on a 2 night trip at around 30 pounds (that the previous year would have been nearly 50).  That is about 15-20 pounds of stuff left at home.

That first time out with a 30 pound pack was not just notable for the weight loss though.  I set out late the first day and stopped after about 7-8 miles as it started to get dark.  I felt good at the end of the day but anxiously looked ahead to climbing a pass in the snow the next day; something I was nervous about.  So I was up early and quickly broke camp, optimistically hoping to get 15 miles that day and over the pass.  I quit walking 27 miles later at my truck.  And that included several miles in deep snow and over a high pass with no visible trail.  Needless to say I was sold on the advantages of lightweight backpacking.

Now instead of trudge a few miles and then recover each day, I am able to walk pretty much from sunup to near sunset, day after day after day.  Where before the highlight of the trip would be the time spent in camp, now it is watching the scenery flow by along with the miles.  This has had the added benefit of allowing me to easily drop more gear that was only used for hanging around camp; it's no longer needed.  Now my base pack weight, before food and water is just under 20 pounds and will likely drop another couple of pounds this year.

I am noticing another transformation that is going on at the same time.  In my heavy-weight days I focused a lot on gear; gear for eating, sleeping, staying warm and dry, staying comfortable, handling emergencies, etc.  My experience in the back country was pretty reliant on having good gear to handle anything that might come up, a lot of which never did.  But my pack now is mostly concerned with stuff to stay warm and dry at night and food, plus a few other small essentials.  So I find myself becoming less reliant on gear and more comfortable with just being out in the wild and being able to handle whatever it throws my way.

I will share in subsequent posts more of the specifics of this Extreme Backpacking Makeover, but I have to ask myself: "What took so long?"  It's been very liberating!