Friday, March 30, 2012

What To Carry Your Stuff In


This is part 6 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
So now you have a pile of stuff that you will be taking on your backcountry trip and it is time to determine what you will put it all into.

Gear Weight & Volume
Backpacks are a big part of the back country experience, and the temptation is to go out and buy one early on in the outfitting process.  And while your local outfitter might like that approach, I would recommend that you delay purchase of a backpack until you have most everything else.  Why?  Because then you know how big a bag you should be looking at.  Otherwise you might end up with a bag that is either too big or too small.

The more stuff you take along, and the heavier it is, the bigger your pack needs to be and the more important the suspension becomes.  If you are not taking as much stuff, or your stuff is small and/or lighter, then a smaller and lighter bag is more appropriate.  Remember that the weight of your backpack is added to the rest of the load you need to carry.  The difference between a 2 pound and 6 pound backpack is substantial if you are going to be carrying it very far.  Work toward the lightest backpack that will comfortably carry the load you will be hauling.

To estimate the proper size for your backpack, put all your stuff into a large cardboard box, including your food and water  Be sure to include enough food to cover the length of trip you are expecting to take.  Now weigh the box and determine the volume of the box with everything compressed or packaged the way it would be in your pack.  You can get a rough estimate of the volume by measuring the width and length of the box in inches as well as the depth of your stuff in the box.  Multiply all three numbers together and you will have the volume of your stuff as packaged in the box.  This won't be quite the same as when it is in your bag because of the differences in shaping and packing ability, but it will get you close.

Now you can go looking for backpacks with a volume that is appropriate to your stuff, and with a suspension that can carry the load easily.  There are other things to take into account, but I believe this is the most important.  

Internal, External or Frameless
Most backpacks that are designed to carry more than about 15 pounds will contain a frame that helps to support the load.  The frame gives the backpack some rigidity and keeps the hip belt and shoulder straps a fixed distance apart.  The intent of this is to allow a significant portion of the pack weight to ride on your hips rather than hanging on your shoulders.

Internal framed backs hide the frame inside the pack itself and it may or may not be directly attached to the hip belt and shoulder straps.  An internal frame pack will generally hug your back closer than an external frame, providing more stability but less breathability.  Internal framed backs are the most commonly used backpacking packs today.

External framed backpacks have a metal, generally aluminum, frame that the hip belt, shoulder straps and bag all attach to.  An external frame pack will generally stand further away from your back, providing better ventilation to your back but also less stability if you will be scrambling.  External frames are also generally easier to attach other stuff to if that is important to you.

Frameless packs are just a bag with shoulder straps, and maybe a hip belt, attached.  Since there is no frame this pack is lighter, but it also will put more of the load on your shoulders.  These packs are favored by those whose load is below about 15 pounds.

Accessibility
Some packs are simply a big bag; you stuff everything into it from the top and then close it up.  Other bags have lots of compartments, pockets and attachment points for stuff.  And there are an endless variety between those extremes.   Which you get depends on how important it is to you to be able to easily get at all your stuff during the day.  My current pack, a ULA Circuit (at right), has a big main compartment, a wet stuff compartment on the back, a pair of side pockets for water bottles and a couple of small compartments built into the hip belt.  

Alternatives
Belly Bag
I usually take along a small belly bag to hold some of the smaller stuff that I like to be able to access while walking, as well as to serve as a trail wallet.  My belly bag is pretty lightweight, has no padding and three compartments.  In the small back pocket I keep my drivers license, a credit card, a $20 bill, a check and any keys that I might need to a vehicle or house.  The small front pocket holds a whistle, chap stick and nail clippers.  The larger middle pocket holds my reading glasses and a couple hours of snacks.  All that stuff does not really need to always be handy, but it is nice to have it always with me, even if the pack is dropped somewhere, or I'm wandering away from camp.  

ARN Bodypacks
ARN Bodypacks are an interesting twist to the traditional backpack.  In addition to a main bag at you back, it also includes a pair of smaller bags attached in front of the pack, between the shoulder strap and hip belt.  There is a gap between the two front bags to allow you to see your feet.  The theory is that it more evenly distributes the load, reducing back and shoulder issues caused by the use of regular packs, eliminating most of the weight from your shoulders.  Those who use them seem to like them a lot.  They come in a variety of sizes and configurations.

Dixon Roller Pack
The Dixon Roller Pack looks similar to a wheel barrow that you pull rather than push.  It has a long narrow frame that fastens to a hip belt at one end with a big wheel at the other.  Your load is then placed on the frame and you pull it along behind you.  Seems like a challenge trying to get over fallen trees, rocky trails or swollen creeks, but they do have a small following. 

How to Choose
Choosing the right backpack can be challenging, and you may ultimately end up with several of them before you find one that really works for you.  Or you may have several that you use depending on how long you will be out and the conditions you will face.  If you are buying a big name brand pack you might be able to go into an REI or some similar store and actually have one loaded up with some weight and carry it around the store.  This will help you to know if it is comfortable carrying the load you expect to carry.

One thing to be careful of regardless the style of pack you pick is that you get one that actually fits your body.  I have a fairly long torso and many pack manufacturers do not make a pack that is long enough for me.  It took me a long time to actually figure that out and realize that there was really no way to get the straps off my shoulders if the pack was too short.

Determine what is important to you in a pack.  Do you want light and simple, heavy load carrying capability, the ability to get to everything easily, lots of attachment points, super rugged construction, etc.  Packs are generally not cheap, so ask around, read a Backpacker gear guide, borrow a friend's pack, make sure the store you buy from has a good return policy.  You will spend a lot of time strapped into your pack so make sure it will work for you, the way you hike.  The trail is much better when your pack is a good friend rather than an evil necessity. 

Friday, March 23, 2012

All the Other Stuff We Like To Pack

This is part 5 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
So you've got a shelter, can stay warm at night, well fed, and dressed; so what's left?  Well you don't have to read too many issues of Backpacker or look at the REI web site to realize that there are an endless number of other treasures that you just have to have if you are going to be able to conquer the wilderness.  And while some of them are indeed useful, many of them do little beyond add weight to your pack.

First Aid Kit
First aid kits are kind of in a class of their own.  You hope to use pretty much everything you take out into the backcountry with you, except for your first aid equipment.  That's the one part of your gear that you would just as soon stay buried deep in your pack.

But, even though you will likely not use it, you should be prepared for at least the most common medical disasters that might strike while you are out.  Just what that constitutes will depend on where you are going, who else is with you, and your own abilities to deal with minor medical emergencies.  I remember when I first started getting serious about backpacking I bought a pre-packaged first aid kit from REI, along with a small book on backcountry first aid.  I carried both of these for several years, along with an ever growing array of additions to the kit that I had read about and felt would be good to have ... just in case.  My first aid kit slowly grew to what must have been nearly 4 pounds; for one person.

Today it weighs just about 5.4 ounces.  The book is long gone.  The SAM splint for a broken leg is gone.  The tick puller and tweezers are gone.  I hardly ever get blisters on my feet, so why cart around all the blister packs.  The amount of burn I might get with a canister stove is pretty small, so most of the burn stuff is gone.  And maybe most importantly, I know how to deal with most of the things I am likely to encounter without needing a massive first aid kit.  I realize that if I ever break my leg I would like to have the SAM splint, but I can get by without.  If I ever get a tick, I suspect I can get rid of it without the puller.  

There is nothing wrong with being prepared for dealing with backcountry first aid.  And I would highly recommend that new comers go overboard in this area.  But as your comfort level and skill improve, you will most likely find that you are leaving more and more of your first aid kit behind.

Toiletries
The first thing that comes to mind under toiletries is toilet paper.  And this is, at least to me, an important element.  I know there are those who use leaves, grass and pine cones, but I have not yet brought myself to that point except in an emergency.  Be frugal in your use of TP and it should go along way.  And take along an extra ziplock bag or two so you can bag up your used TP and bring it back rather than leave it out in the woods for others to find.  The use of wet wipes and anti-bacterial hand cleaner are also recommended as a part of your kit for cleaning up afterwards.

If you are going to be out long, you may want to make provisions for taking a bath if you can.  Some use soap for their bathing, but I recommend against it.  Take along a bandanna and use it as a washcloth and just scrub down and rinse off.  It takes care of most of the stench and leaves you feeling refreshed, without polluting the wilderness with your soap.

You can get a pretty small toothbrush and toothpaste to take along.  I have a toothbrush with a little tube of toothpaste built into the handle.  Pretty handy.  And really nice to brush your teeth after a day of non-stop eating.

Depending on where you are, insect repellent may end up high on your list of essentials.  I generally wear long sleeves and pants and soak them in permethrin before leaving.  That leaves only the back of my hands and my head as targets for the blood suckers.  So a bit of deet and maybe a headnet are all that is needed to avoid becoming a pin cushion.

Again, depending on your destination, you may need some help with sun protection.  It's not fun getting sun burned and having no place to go to get out of the sun.  Long sleeves and pants help here as well, along with sun glasses and a wide brimmed hat.  But having a small tube of good sun screen can help those parts that stay exposed.  A lip balm with a high SPF is also recommended, burning your lips is no fun.  Be generous with it when needed.

There are a number of medications that I keep apart from my first aid kit because they fall more into the area of consumables rather than emergency items.  These include acetaminophen to ease the aches and pains before bed; benadryl to deal with congestion when sleeping, and some vitamins.  Your list may vary, but I would recommend you keep them separate from your first aid kit so you don't have issues with using up what you need in an emergency before the emergency happens.  It's a bit easier to remember to resupply as well if they are kept separate.

Navigation
A map and compass are considered essential by most folks.  But they only have value if you know how to use them.  A map and compass without the skills to use them is just dead weight.  That being said, get a decent lightweight compass and a decent topo map of your trail and learn how to use them.  Your chances of needing them is slim so long as you stay on well marked trails,  but they can be very valuable if the trail is poorly marked, or you are leaving the trail all together. A map and compass are also useful to help you to identify mountains and lakes as you go by and to help visualize where you are in the day's journey.  I will seldom go out into the wild without them.

A GPS serves some of the same function as a map and compass, especially those with built-in topo maps.  A GPS can simplify discovering your location if lost or uncertain and can also give you a rough idea of your altitude, which can also be useful.  The downside is that they are heavier than a map and compass, unless you have lots of maps with you, the screen is very small for replacing a map, and they consume a lot of batteries if used a lot.  I have a couple of Garmin eTrex units, but I seldom use them unless I am expecting a lot of snow.

Probably my most used piece of navigational equipment is a watch.  I have a Casio Pathfinder that I wear pretty much 24/7.  It is solar powered so it never runs down.  And it does an auto sync to the national time standard every night, so it keeps pretty good time.  Plus it is an ABC watch.  When out on the trail it is generally set to Altimeter so I can track my elevation up and down the hills.  So long as I generally know where I am on the map, the elevation can help to pinpoint a location.  At night and again in the morning I can check the Barometer and see what the weather might be doing.  And I always have a Compass handy to get a rough estimate of direction.

Electronics
A small digital camera is another piece of electronics that I pretty much will always take on a trip with me.  I take lots of pictures so that I can better share my trip with the wife when I get home.  

I have begun taking my phone along as well, although until recently it was not as important.  I have a Bible and a few other books on it.  I have also watched movies occasionally, although keeping the display active for several hours will drain a battery pretty fast.  I have tried a couple of the GPS apps for my phone but have never found them to be to satisfactory.  Most recently I have teamed my phone up with the newest SPOT Communicator to be able to send text messages home.

I have had a SPOT for about 3 years now and it has become a standard part of my gear.  Most recently I have upgraded to the Communicator which links via Bluetooth to my phone, allowing me to send any short text message I want.  I could drop nearly a pound by leaving SPOT, the phone and extra batteries at home.  But it provides a comfort factor for my wife.  Taking it along makes it easier on her when I am out and she can get periodic notices that I am OK and can see where I am.

If I will be out long I will generally take along my iPod Nano to listen to music when the day or the climb starts getting long and draining.  Listening to tunes can take my mind off the drudge and into a better place.  A charge will last over a week the way I use it.

All that electronics stuff uses electricity in the form of batteries.  Be sure you either have enough batteries with you or a way to recharge them.  I got a solar charger once, but it would not work with my Droid.  And after thinking about it I realized I could carry a lot of batteries for the weight of the charger.  So I took it back.  I still look occasionally but am satisfied at this point with extra batteries for the devices I take along.

Other Stuff
A headlamp is, at least to me, a very important piece of equipment to take into the backcountry.  I have yet to attempt to hike by headlamp, but I have setup and torn down camp using one.  And it simplifies getting up and going potty in the middle of a dark rainy night.  They are also useful if you want to stay up and read for a while before calling it a night.  I have had one trip out with a malfunctioning lamp, and while it was OK, the inability to see at night was a concern.

I learned to use trekking poles some years ago and am on my second pair now.  What a difference they make for creaky knees.  I don't use them as much now with a lightened load, but they still prove useful on steep ascents/descents or rough terrain.  I also use them sometimes to create a porch with the tarp over my hammock.  While I may leave them behind on a short trip, I can't see being without them for long trips.  

I seldom use a knife while out, or pliers or screwdriver.  But I almost always carry a small multi-function tool.  It is one of those emergency preparedness things that I like having available, jut in case.  They weigh very little and can be very useful if you have to fix something in the field.

Believe it or not I used to carry a real fly swatter when I would go out.  Somehow it made me feel better, being able to extract some revenge on the flies, especially horse flies.   Now a days I don't bother and will use my hat if I need to swat something.

A decent pair of sun glasses is very valuable if you will be in the high country on a somewhat sunny day, especially if over snow.  Having a strap on them to allow them to hang around your neck when not in use is also helpful.

Having along a few feet of duct tape can be pretty handy for repair of torn equipment.  I wrap a few feet around a trekking pole to have it handy and eliminate the the cardboard tube it is normally wrapped around

I used to take a small pair of binoculars, but no longer do.  I used them so seldom, and they didn't seem to help all that much, so why bother.  

A good book can be great when you are by yourself, all setup for the night, but not ready to go to sleep.  I have seldom taken an actual book but do have the Kindle software loaded on my phone with a book or two to peak at if the occasion warrants.

For several years I took along one of the camp chairs that you could stuff your sleeping pad into and would set it up for camp use.  But they are not as comfortable as sitting in a hammock so that is a pound plus I no longer take.  Plus I don't really sit around in camp all that much anymore.

I also used to take a chunk of light weight rope along with me, just in case.  And I did use it occasionally, mostly for hanging food.  But with an Ursack now I can't find an excuse for taking the rope, so it stays home now.

Choices
There are any number of other things that you could bring with you: showers, a kitchen sink (I have one), cook wear, etc.  Most of those things are unnecessary and only add to the weight of your pack and the chore of getting it into the backcountry.  Leave them behind and enjoy the trail with a lighter pack.  

Remember that everything you take, you have to carry.  Yes, it may only weigh an ounce or two, but it doesn't take too many ounces to equal pounds.  I probably take about 2,000 steps per mile, times 20 miles in a day equals 40,000 steps.  And if I have an extra pound in my pack that is 40,000 pounds of weight that landed on my feet, knees, hips and shoulders during the course of the day that did not need to be there.  Is the pound worth that effort?  Then by all means carry it.  But if not, then seriously consider leaving it at home.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Dressing Appropriately

This is part 4 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

The first time I took off to spend a few nights in the backcountry I figured that it would be good enough just to wear some warm outdoor clothes topped off by a set of rain gear just in case.  I wore jeans and a flannel shirt along with a spare set, a change of underwear and socks for every day, an old warm coat and a new set of rain gear from the local department store.  It's actually a wonder that I ever went out again.  Of course it rained pretty much the whole time I was out.  Four days in the back country and I was dry for about the first 10 minutes.  I have learned a lot about dressing for the woods in the years since then and can hopefully help you with it some.

Clothes for the Trail
My garb for the trail has changed considerably over the years.  Now I wear a pair of lightweight pants with zip off legs and built-in mesh briefs, an old long sleeve running shirt, a lightweight pair of socks and a pair of trail runners equipped with Dirty Girl gaiters.  If appropriate I will also wear a floppy wide brimmed hat for rain or sun, an eVent coat or poncho for the rain, and a second shirt and gloves if cold enough.  

All of these clothing items are lightweight, synthetic and dry quickly, unlike slow drying cotton.  And I will wear them every day while out on the trail.  If it is warm enough and I find a convenient lake or stream I might wash them, along with me, and then wear them dry.  But since I am outside and moving along the trail there is seldom any issue with the smell, at least for me.

I used to hit the trail in shorts and a tee shirt, and would then change when I got to camp and/or got cold or bug eaten.  But now I generally walk with my legs and arms covered and don't bother with the shorts and tee.  It's not really that much, if any warmer; I don't have to carry the extra clothes; my legs don't get scratched up; and I have built in bug and sun protection without lotions.  And if, for some reason, I need shorts, I can just zip off the pant legs.

I will generally keep a light coat easily accessible while on the trail to use while at lunch or on a break.  Slipping into a coat when it is cool and you are not longer generating as much heat can be very nice, especially if the wind is blowing much.

Boot or Shoes?
For many years I hiked in heavy boots with big thick wool socks.  Mostly because it was what one was supposed to wear.  I would waterproof them before each trip hoping to keep my feet dry, but it was always a futile effort.  If it was wet out my boots and feet eventually became wet and my boots took at least a day to dry out.  I hardly ever got blisters but my feet were seldom happy.  They just did not like being entombed in boots all day long.

A couple of years ago I went out with an old pair of running shoes and lighter ankle socks.  My feet felt so much better, and I found I could just walk through pretty much any stream or mud hole without concern for keeping my feet dry.  They would get wet and cold (which actually felt good), would be gooshy for a few minutes and then they were back to normal.  Even though my feet were wet, I couldn't tell it while walking.  I have put in 400-500 miles over the past couple of years in running shoes and never regretted it.  

Last year I spent some time wearing Vibram Five Fingers, the KSO Treks.  I like wearing them, and run in them all the time.  But walking a trail was a different story.  With very little in the way of sole I have to be pretty careful where I step.  If I get a sharp rock into my arch it can really hurt.  I can do OK early in the day when I am fresh and willing to carefully watch the trail, but as the day goes on, or I get tied of keeping such a close watch on where I place my feet, I begin to long for a heavier sole between my tender feet and the rocks.  I have not given up on them yet, but I am not sure they will ever be my backcountry shoe of choice.

This year I have bought a pair of Brooks TrueGrit trail runners.  At about 22 ounces for size 14, they are not much heavier that the KSO's but they have a pretty substantial sole.  I like them so far but have not yet had them out on the trail.

One of the bonus features of wearing running shoes is that there is really no reason to consider bringing along a pair of camp shoes.  With boots I always looked forward to getting them off and putting on something more comfortable.  Now I wear the comfortable shoes all day long.

I still carry an extra pair of socks and try to change them out every few hours.  It really seems to help keep my feet happier, getting them out in the air for a few minutes and then back into dry socks.  Even better if there is a stream to soak them in for a while.

Rain Gear
Rain gear has always been a challenge for me.  If I am walking unprotected n the rain I get wet.  But I seem to get nearly as wet wearing most rain gear.  The only real advantage of one over the other is that inside a coat at least the wet is warm.  

If it is raining I prefer to walk with a poncho covering me and my pack.  And for just sitting around in the rain watching a river flow by a poncho is unbeatable.  But it is less great when trying to do something around camp.  It just seems always to be getting in the way.  I have found that tying a short line around me, like a belt, can go along way toward keeping it out of my way in camp, and sometimes on a windy trail.  The poncho vents well and does minimize the extra sweat that comes from the additional cover.

I also have a lightweight eVent coat that is great for camp type activities, but overheats on the trail and does not keep as much of me dry when sedentary.  The coat is fairly breathable and is much better than my previous Marmot PreClip coat, although a little heavier.  I usually end up taking the coat on most trips because of its warmth, but for trips where much rain is expected it is always a toss up, although more and more often the poncho stays home.   The downside to leaving the poncho home though is that I now have to give more thought to keeping my pack dry, either with an internal liner or a pack cover.

I also have a pair of Marmot PreClip pants that are nice in heavy rain or wet brush, but they seldom make it out on the trail any longer either.  The pants do not have any real insulation, but they do block the wind, and so can be very useful if the wild and cold are overwhelming the rest of my clothes.

Clothes for Bed
At night I like to cuddle up in a down cocoon.  But down and body oils are not a good mix.  So, if for no other reason, you should not sleep in the clothes you have been wearing on the trail.  It will just get your bag or quilt dirty and greasy and degrade its performance.  Having a neck to toe layer between you and your bag or quilt is ideal for keeping it clean, with the added benefit of extending its temperature rating a few degrees.

I tend toward sleeping cold, and when cold I do not sleep well.  As a consequence I probably wear more clothes to bed than many folks do.  Unless it is pretty warm out at night, which is hardly ever where I generally hike, I will wear at least a pair of silk long johns, a long sleeve shirt, and a pair of Possum Down socks, none of which are ever worn while on the trail.

If it gets cold enough I can supplement that with a knit cap, gloves, down coat and pants and down booties.  The down pants and booties are not always taken but the rest of it usually is.  Did I mention that I sleep cold?

Clothes for Camp
Usually when I get into camp I am warm, and wearing the accumulated grime of the day.  I will generally set up the hammock first and then work at getting cleaned up and fed.  A swim, splash in a river/creek, or a wet wipe spit bath to cleanup followed by dressing for bed.  If bed is still more than a few minutes away, I put my pants and coat on top to keep the bed clothes clean as well as to stay warmer.  By now dinner should be ready to eat, followed by cleanup and bed.

In the morning it's up, start tearing down camp while eating breakfast, and slowly swapping out clothes as they need to go into the pack.  By the time the hammock is in the pack, I am dressed and ready for the trail.  The coat may stay on for a while until I get warm, but it will generally come off fairly quickly.

While this suits my current style of backpacking, it may not work for you if you find that you are wanting to spend more time in camp and less time on the trail.  In that case you may need some additional clothes that are a bit warmer than your hiking clothes that you can use while knocking around camp, while keeping the sleeping clothes as clean as possible.

You may also not be able to tolerate putting stinky clothes on after the third day.  If this is the case you should consider having at least a second shirt, and maybe a pair of pants, that you can wear while you wash your primary set and get them dried out a bit.  When I spent more time camped than walking, it was not uncommon to have a line stretched between two trees with a shirt or two, pants, a couple pair of socks and a towel hanging out to dry.

Final Thoughts
Dressing on the trail is something that each person has to work through for themselves.  It takes time to transition from our typical closet full of clothes and a hot shower a day to traipsing along the trail for days at a time with no real change of clothes and little in the way of hot showers.  But as you make that transition you will likely find yourself requiring fewer clothes and becoming more comfortable with accumulated layers of sweat, trail dust and squashed bugs.  Take along enough to stay warm and decent and don't worry about what you look or smell like.  The chances of encountering an REI catalog photographer on the trail are pretty infinitesimal.  Plus, the fewer clothes you lug along, the less you have to carry every step of the way; and that's the big pay-off.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Fueling the Furnace

This is part 3 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
One of the joys of being out on a long trip is that you can eat just about anything you want.  But this can also be a challenge; trying to carry enough food to fuel your motor can be a difficult task if you will be out very long.  And it is really more that just being able to eat what you want.  You do need to eat more than you normally would in order to have the energy to put in the miles under load that are typical on the trail.  How much more is dependent on the person, the load they are carrying, the terrain as well as the number of miles they travel in a day.

Nutritional Requirements
In no way am I a nutritional expert.  But it does make sense that if I am going to expect optimal performance from my body when out on a trip that I need to be providing it with a good source of fuel.  For an overnight trip this is not really all that important.  But for trips lasting a week or longer it becomes very important.  For simple laymen like me it is useful to realize that there are four different kinds of food that you can put into your system; carbohydrates, fats, proteins and other (including vitamins, minerals and micro nutrients).

Carbohydrates, including sugars, will provide the quickest metabolizing fuel source.  All that means is that it converts fastest from food to fuel.  Simple carbs will convert fastest but will not stay with you long, leading to spikes and crashes in your energy level.  Complex carbs metabolize slower but will also last longer, giving a more constant energy level.  It is generally recommended that complex carbs make up the bulk of your diet while you are traveling.

Fats metabolize slower than carbohydrates, but actually pack more bang for the buck.  Fats generally will have more calories than carbs for a given weight.  At home, and especially for those leading a sedentary life,  we need to be careful not to over indulge because any excess gets stored in your body as fat.  On the trail though, especially with long hard days, fats become very import in getting enough energy to keep you going.

Proteins will serve two useful functions for the backpacker.  They will help to rebuild muscle tissue and they are used to replace the glycogen stores in your liver, a quick source of backup energy for the rest of your body.  Protein is slow in metabolizing though and is most useful to you at the end of the day as your body rests and prepares for the next day.  Invest in faster metabolizing fuels during your marches and save the bulk of your protein consumption for longer stops and evenings.

Your body also needs a certain amount of vitamins and minerals to function properly, and while these can usually be obtained from your food at home, it is a good practice to pop a daily multi-vitamin while on longer trips just to ensure your body gets what it needs.

How much of each of these you need is really dependent on you and your trip.  Try different things and see how they work for you.  Over a period of time, so long as you continue to experiment, you should be able to discover the proper diet to keep you well fed and performing well out on the trail.

Types of Food
While your nutritional needs will go up when out on the trail, the types of foods that you will have available will be greatly diminished.  Does your food need to be refrigerated or frozen?  Then leave it at home.  Does it require fancy cooking or baking?  Then you should probably not plan on it.  It is fresh produce?  To heavy and bulky.  To be suitable for backpacking your food needs to be lightweight with a high calorie to weight ratio, be easy to prepare, and taste good enough that you will want to eat it.

It is easy to divide food into two general categories.  Those that require cooking and those that do not.  The cooked foods can be further divided into two sub categories.  The first sub-category includes food that actually requires cooking on a stove, while the second is food that only requires the addition of hot water.

About the only food I every actually cook is Top Ramen.  Anything more than that is just not worth the effort to me.  I do know that there are folks who will cook up fancy meals while on the trail.  But for me the time, effort and extra weight are just not justified for that type of meal preparation.

Most generally if I cook it is only to heat up water that is then poured into freeze dried or dehydrated foods. This puts the missing water back into the food and warms it up, which is especially good on cold mornings or evenings.  There are a large variety of dried foods that generally come in their own foil pouch; just add water, wait a few minutes and eat.  Little to no cleanup involved.  And some of them are fairly good now a days.  Oat meal is another example of food that works well with just adding water and makes a good breakfast to get you going in the morning.

There is actually quite a variety of no-prep foods that are good for the trail including: nuts, dried fruit, dried or foil wrapped meats, Cliff Bars and similar bars from other sources, granola, breakfast bars, pop tarts, candy, some breads, powdered drinks, and even a few cheeses.  Most of these foods are easy to eat while walking down the trail and, if you are a bit careful, will provide all the nutrition you need.  Some folks will actually limit the food they take along to those that require no preparation.  The eliminates the need and weight of a stove and fuel as well as the time taken to prepare and cleanup after a cooked meal.  If you can get by without having a hot breakfast and/or dinner and can live without a cup of coffee, then you should seriously consider this approach.  I quit fixing hot breakfasts last year and have just started exploring leaving the hot dinner behind on longer trips.  It easily drops nearly a pound off the weight you have to carry around and increases the amount of time each day that you can spend on the trail.

Stoves
If you want to have hot food or drinks out on the trail you will need to invest in a stove.  While it is possible in some places to use a camp fire to cook or heat drinks, it is much harder to do, and is not allowed in many places.  There are a variety of stoves that are suitable for backcountry use and each one has its advocates as well as detractors.

My first stove was a Coleman Peak1 stove that burned white gas.  30 years ago it was pretty much state of the art and seemed small and compact.  I don't suppose anyone uses a stove that big and heavy any longer, but white gas stoves are still popular, although much smaller and lighter nowadays.  Many of these stoves will burn a variety of gases which can be a plus, depending on where you like to hike.  I found my old stove to be hard to start when it was cold and a bit messy when refueling, but it appears like those issues have been mostly resolved.

My second stove was a Snow Peak canister stove.  I loved it.  So much smaller, lighter and easier to use.  Canister stoves are more challenging to use when it is very cold or at high altitudes, but neither of those really apply to me.  I also find myself with a collection of nearly empty canisters since I am reluctant to take a near empty and a full canister out on a trip.  And that, to me, is the biggest issue with canister stoves.  The canisters are not refillable and it can be a bit difficult to gauge the fuel level in one, especially out in the field.

I bought an original JetBoil when they first came out, but seldom used it.  It was just so much bigger than my Snow Peak that it didn't make much sense, nor did it heat a lot faster.  But I have a JetBoil Sol now and it has become my goto stove.  It is much smaller that the original and seems to be much more efficient.  I can use it to fix dinners for a week and still have fuel left in a small canister.

Alcohol stoves are a popular alternative, especially for the lightweight crowd.  They basically amount to a small can (tuna fish size) that you pour some alcohol into and light it.  Your pot sits on a platform above the can.  Alcohol stoves, along with a weeks supply of alcohol are a bit lighter than a Snow Peak type stove with a small canister.  The downsides are that you have no control of the flame, cannot turn off the fire until the alcohol is consumed, it is slower to heat, and there is more effort involved that when using a canister stove.  I have yet to explore this alternative, primarily because of the effort factor; it's so much easier to heat water in my JetBoil Sol.

Wood burning stoves are a fourth alternative that a few people are using.  These stoves are basically miniature fireplaces made out of a couple of small cans nested inside each other.  For fuel you can just collect a few twigs and small sticks and can produce a flame that can heat up a pot of water in a few minutes.  This is maybe the lightest weight alternative but requires the most effort.  And, along with the alcohol stove, it cannot be legally used where open fires are not allowed.

Food protection
One of the unfortunate aspects of carrying food into the backcountry is that you are not the only creature in the woods who wants to eat it.  Chipmunks, raccoon, deer and bear all want to help you to consume your culinary treasures.  There are a number of ways that have been devised to protect your food so that it is available when you get hungry.  It seems like the most popular is to do nothing and hope for the best, and oftentimes that seems to work.  But for every time it doesn't you have trained a wild animal that human camps are a viable source for food; food which is generally not good for them as well as making them a nuisance.

One way that is generally effective is to hang your food up in a tree, or between a pair of trees.  This is generally effective so long as you get it high enough from the ground and far enough away from a tree or branch to prevent bears form getting it.  It is not overly effective against mice and other small rodents though.  I have retrieved food hung in a tree overnight to find small holes chewed in the bag with missing food.  It also requires you to carry enough line to use for the hanging, unless you camp in places with established bear wires.

Another alternative is to use a bear resistant container.  These are usually large plastic cans that can withstand a bear attack, making them useful against other animals as well.  Bear cans are relatively heavy though and most people prefer not to use them unless required to.  Ursacks, a lighter weight alternative to cans, are made of kevlar and are generally impervious to an animals teeth or claws, although the food they protect may end up mangled.  An Ursack is not always a legal substitute for a bear can but is my preferred choice where they are.

OP Saks resemble a very large zip lock bag, but are heavy enough that they keep food orders trapped inside.  These are generally used either alone or inside of an Ursack to prevent an animal from smelling your food and coming to investigate.

Water
Water is not strictly speaking a food, but it is vitally important for your bodies health.  I try to drink close to a gallon a day when out backpacking, although that number may vary depending on the climate and the terrain I am traversing.  But water weights about 8 pounds per gallon, making it something that you don't want to carry much of.  But always carry enough water to get you between water sources on the trail; if not you might end up in a sorry state.

It is generally recommended that you also treat any water you pull out of a lake or stream.  There are a number of creepy crawlies living in water found out in the wild that can play havoc with your intestinal tract.  Not all water has this problem, and not everyone seems to have an issue with it.  But from all accounts I have heard it is not something you would want to experience.  Whether you chemically treat, filter, boil or use a UV light source, I would highly recommend that you do something to keep those little critters out of your gut.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Staying Warm At Night In the Woods

This is part 2 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
In part 1 of this series I spent some time talking about backcountry shelters which enable you to stay dry and bug free at night.  But that is really only half of the equation when it comes to spending the night out in the woods, unless you are camping in the tropics that is.  The other half is staying warm through the night.  Even in warmer climates the temperature will generally cool enough at night that some protection from the cold is desirable.  And in colder climates that protection is mandatory.

The Sleeping Bag
The most common means of staying warm at night is to cuddle down into a sleeping bag.  The sleeping bag provides a layer of insulation between you and the cold night air, keeping your body heat where it will do the most good.  There is an almost endless number of sleeping bags to choose from and walking into your neighborhood REI in search of a bag, without some idea of just what you want, can be daunting.  There are at least three significant factors to consider and several others that will impact the ability of a bag to keep you warm.

Each bag will have a temperature rating, a value assigned to the bag by the manufacturer, that is supposed to tell the buyer the lowest outside temperature at which you might expect to stay warm using that bag.  But because this is a manufacturer assigned value rather than an industry standard, and because some people sleep colder than others, this should just be used as a rough guide.  Take the time to look at reviews of bags you are interested in and see how those who have used the bag rate its temperature assessment.  Be sure that the bag you select will be warm enough for the conditions you expect to travel in.  You might find that you end up with at least two bags, one for warmer conditions and a second for when cooler temps are expected.


A second factor to consider when selecting a bag is its shape.  Rectangular bags are roomy and give an active sleeper room to thrash around at night.  Mummy bags taper down toward the foot, generally contouring around your body.  The widths and taper of mummy bags will vary by manufacturer.   The downsides to a rectangular bag include the extra space inside that your body needs to heat to stay comfortable, and the additional weight that comes from the extra material required.  The upside to the bag is its roominess for those who move around at night.  The advantages and disadvantages of the mummy style are generally the opposite of the rectangular bag.  The mummy bag will be easier to heat and keep warm and will not weigh as much in your pack.  And they work best for those who move little during the night, and especially for those who will spend the bulk of the night on their back.  But that is not an absolute.  I seldom sleep on my back when on the ground and toss and turn a lot.  Yet I use a relatively narrow mummy bag.  The reduced weight and superior heating are worth the inconvenience of moving around in the bag or, in my case, having the bag turn with me.

The final big consideration is the type of insulation used by the bag; either down or some type of synthetic material.  Currently down has a superior loft to weight ratio to any synthetic material, basically meaning you can stay warmer with less weigh in a down bag.  But down bags have two disadvantages.  One is the cost; high quality down costs more than the synthetics.  The other, potentially more significant disadvantage, is that if down gets wet it will clump and lose its ability to trap heat, and it dries very slowly.  Synthetic insulation, on the other hand, will still continue to provide significant insulation even when wet.

Other things to consider include draft collars and tubes, hoods, how it's baffled, distribution of insulation around the bag, length of the zipper, the material used for the inner and outer shell of the bag, and your own comfort with it.  When I bought my last bag several years ago I went to REI with a list of potential candidates and actually tried out several of them.  The clerk would throw a bag up on the table and I would climb in, curl up, flip around, and generally try to get an idea of how well it fit.

Sleeping Pads
The insulation in sleeping bags generally works because it lofts up, trapping warm air between the fibers of the insulation.  But what happens when you lie on that insulation?  It flattens down and becomes nearly useless.  While we often think of the sleeping pad as something that makes the hard ground softer, its primary function is actually to provide a layer of insulation between you and the ground, taking the place of the flattened insulation in the sleeping bag.

There are three primary types of sleeping pads that are generally used in the backpacking community.  Closed cell foam is a cheap, lightweight alternative that many use.  Closed cell foam does not compress much and is usually rolled or folded to attach to your pack,  It is going to generally provide good insulation but not all that much in the way of making the ground softer.  

Inflatable mattresses will generally provide the thickest, and thus softest, pad although they do have to be blown up every night when setting up camp.  Many of them will actually provide very little in the way of insulation so you should choose this pad carefully.  

Self inflating pads are similar to an air mattress but with something like an open cell pad on the inside.  When the pad value is open the interior foam will expand, pulling air into the pad and inflating it.  When finished with the pad you will need to roll it up to push all of the air out of the pad and then close off the valve.  Self inflating pads are very common and come in a variety of shapes and sizes and are widely used.  They will have as much or more insulation as the closed cell pad and pack down smaller, although they will also be heavier.


I have used all three types of pads and have ended up with the Big Agnes Insulated Air Core pad as my go-to pad.  I have to blow it up in camp, but it is 2.5 inches thick and keeps the old hips and shoulders further away from the hard ground.  This pad packs down to just bigger than a quart Nalgene bottle and weighs about 1.5 pounds.

Quilts
An alternative to the sleeping bag is to use a quilt.  This is similar to an unzipped sleeping bag that is used to provide a cover over and around you as you sleep.  The difference is that the quilt does not go below you.  Using a quilt is a recognition that the sleeping bag insulation below you is compressed and of little value, and thus can simply be left behind, reducing somewhat the weight of your covering insulation.  With the pad below and the quilt above you should be as toasty as if you were using a sleeping bag.

The downside to the quilt is that an active sleeper may find themselves frequently having to tuck under the edges of the quilt to avoid drafts during the night.  Many quilts actually have a footbox either sown into them or some method of forming one as needed.  This footbox helps to keep the quilt in position around your feet at night.

Clothes
Your clothes can actually make a significant to your staying warm at night.  On trips where I anticipate colder evenings I bring a pair of lightweight down pants, coat and booties to wear around camp in the cool evenings and mornings as well as to supplement the bag or quilt that I am sleeping under.  Other clothes can be used as necessary to allow you to reach colder temperatures without having to buy a bag rated for the colder temp.

Pulling a large garbage bag or lightweight emergency bivy over your body, but inside your bag can also significantly increase your warmth by trapping the warm water vapor you perspire, even during a cold evening.  But be sure to put the bag/bivy inside your sleeping bag or quilt, otherwise all of the moisture will be absorbed into your insulation, reducing its effectiveness and increasing its weight.


Staying Warm in a Hammock
Hammocks present a different set of challenges to staying warm at night.  Being up off the ground, the wind has more of an opportunity to pull warmth away from your body.  The same measures you use on the ground to stay warm will work in a hammock but it is a bit more challenging.  Like those on the ground, hammock sleepers need to deal with both what covers them as well as what is underneath them.

There are many folks who use a sleeping bag in a hammock, although trying to manuver around inside of a closed sleeping bag in a hammock is a task that takes some getting used to.  I suspect most folks using a bag in a hammock will leave it unzipped and use it as a quilt to cover themselves with; I know I certainly did.  Alternatively you can just use a quilt, or top quilt, for this purpose.  The quilt will have a weight advantage over a bag since it does not have to be big enough to go completely around you.

Bottom warmth can be supplied by the same pad you might use on the ground, and many people do just that.  I have found it to be a challenge to keep the pad below me though.  Seems like it wants to be on top instead.  I believe the pad will work best for those who are relatively inactive sleepers, or those whose hammocks have a built-in pad pocket or dual layered bottom.  The alternative to the pad is to hang a quilt, or bottom quilt, underneath the hammock, pulled up tight enough to stop air flow between the hammock and quilt, but not tight enough to compress the quilt insulation.  I really find that laying in a hammock nestled between two quilts is very comfortable.  The downside to the bottom quilt is that it is heavier than a pad so those really concerned with weight will either use a pad or a shorter quilt that will cover the torso and use a pad under the legs.