Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Occasional Definitions: "Little Dandy stove"

Nimblewill Nomad stove (a.k.a. "Little Dandy stove"): Invented by Eb Eberhart. A solid fuel stove made from five flat, thin steel plates that assemble without fasteners, and unhook again and fold flat for storage. Used by him in 1998 during his 4400 mile, 10 month walk from Key West, Florida to Cape Gaspe, Quebec. This stove allowed him to burn anything at hand, and thus to carry no fuel. Smart guy, that one.

From: Fire In Your Hand


Nimblewill Nomad's Little Dandy Wood Stove
Nimblewill Nomad's Wood Burning Stove Template (alternate source, PDF download)
Ten Million Steps: Nimblewill Nomad's Epic 10-Month Trek from the Florida Keys to Quebec, by M.J. Eberhart at

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Being Of Unbelievable Lightness

So far it's been fun.

I've been swimming in the light end of the pool since late 2000. It started with seeing someone cook for two on an alcohol stove. Up until then every source I read, if they included a mention of alcohol stoves, treated them as a cute footnote. A pointless plaything. Interesting but too cool, too slow, and too crude to bother with. Lame.

Yet here were two people, right in front of me, making it work. Odd.

In following up, and trying to find a seller of Trangia stoves (what they were using), I tripped over a lot of other things. Shelters, small flashlights, packs, a whole philosophy. The preeminent spokesperson was Ray Jardine, who a few years earlier, along with his wife Jenny, had reintroduced to the world the idea of traveling light, traveling simply, and traveling cheaply, often using equipment they made, and doing without a lot of things that everyone else knew were essential.

This was inspiring.

Back then, in 2000, and for a while after, there was a real shortage of light shelters, packs, sleeping bags, clothes, stoves, cook sets, and so on. But there was a serious supply of enthusiastic experimenters. People felt liberated. They felt like explorers at the border of a new world. They were filled with possibilities. Unbounded possibilities. Backpacking began to evolve.

Fringe Loonies

In the beginning was the weirdo. Some people would try anything. Go without food? OK, see how light you can travel. Sleep in a trash bag. Sure, let's do it. Shave your whole body to save time and expense by ignoring any fuzzy regrowth until the finish line. Yeah, that too. Don't cook. Bathe in the rain. Shop at rummage sales. All of the above.

Just Like That But Different

That generally hurt too much. Not all the time -- some things worked, but throwing out every sacred cow meant no steak dinners either.

So here and there, every now and then, a mind buzzed with thought, and some new thing came along. The obvious place to start was with existing designs of real stuff. Just do it smaller, lighter and better somehow.

So you started to see some home made shelters and packs. People tinkered. Instead of a big double wall tent, maybe a small one. A 30 liter pack of 500 denier fabric instead of an 80 liter pack of 500 denier fabric. Carbon fiber poles to hold up the tent, instead of fiberglass. Smaller canister stoves. And so on. The first glimmerings.

Ideas From Space

And they saw it and it was good. But not good enough.

Converting from high, heavy leather boots to high, not so heavy fabric boots helped, but there was more to do. Somebody tried trail running shoes, then sandals.

Shelters evolved from copies of double wall designs to new single wall designs. And these were easy enough for most anyone to make at home.

Then a few people stood out under the starry night skies and looked up. They wondered "What if?" Eventually the cold air got to them and they went back inside for warm cocoa and cookies but they kept on thinking. Then in the dark, while they slept, the ideas came gently to them.

Silnylon. Spinnaker cloth. Empty soft drink cans. Hmmm.

How about using radically different materials to make truly innovative items? We got the GVP Gear G4 pack, the Pepsi Can Stove, the Gearskin, the Tarptent. Hobbyists started rethinking everything from the ground up.

"Hmmm", someone thought, "What if I took a tiny amount of this newfangled waterproof fabric and made a shelter with no seams in it?" Carol "Brawny" Wellman designed the "Brawny Shelter".

"Hmmm", someone thought, "What if I took some brass and my jewelry making skills and made a small, durable alcohol stove?" So Aaron Rosenbloom started Brasslite, LLC in 2002.

Scott Henderson released his designs for the Pepsi Can Stove, and although he never manufactured them the ideas caught on. Who, before then, would have thought to make stoves from aluminum can garbage?

Glen Van Peski was interested in packs. He designed one for himself. Then he made it. Then he offered the pattern, free, to anyone else who was interested. The materials were light, the design was simple and effective, and practical, and it was a different sort of pack -- it used a sleeping pad for a frame, you could pad the shoulder straps and hip belt with spare socks, it was covered with pockets of light mesh.

Money From Space

But not everyone wanted to make their own equipment. Glen Van Peski couldn't give away his plans. People wanted him to make and sell packs. Henry Shire's original tarptent plans floated on the internet for a long while before he rethought and rethought again, and began selling even more radical shelters.

People actually wanted to buy these.

Kim and Demetri Coupounas found Ray Jardine, liked his ideas, and thought they could make a business based on them. GoLite. Still going. Still light.

New Age Light Industry

Before long there was Moonbow Gear, Six Moon Designs, and Then Gossamer Gear turned Glen Van Peski's ideas into a commercial venture. Count AntiGravityGear, Hennessy Hammock, Mountain Laurel Designs, Oware, Speer Hammocks and Ultralight Adventure (ULA) Equipment among the contenders.

Hey! We've got a whole new industry. First a few who would try anything. Then serious thinkers who shared around what they thought. Then a small crowd of people who thought they could make an out-of-garage living. Then after all that some full time businesses actually supporting their owners, with investors and warehouses and all.

A whole separate industry. Whooda-thunkkit?

Tiptoeing Toward Production Quotas

Now the big guns like North Face, and Sierra Designs and Kelty and REI all have "ultralight" equipment. Take a pack. Only four pounds, nine ounces (2 kg and a hair). Ultralight! Amazing! Unbelievable lightness of construction! Designer colors! Cupholders!

Nevertheless, the smaller manufacturers hang on. They have become established. They are closer to their markets, part of the team. Real backpackers. They know what their customers want because they are their own customers. They do their own thinking. They are the innovators.

In September I asked Ron Moak where his ideas came from. "Do you get a lot of requests from your customers?" I asked. "Is that where you start?" No, he said. He thinks about what he would like, and goes from there. Feedback, sure, that's invaluable, but he's a backpacker and he starts from his own experience.

Glen Van Peski is a backpacker. So is Henry Shires. Brian Frankle, Carol Wellman, Ron Bell, Jonathan McCue. And the others. They not only have a clue about what backpacking is and what kind of stuff backpackers want, they have a different business sense. Ruling the world isn't the goal. Neither is removing a forest to expand the corporate parking lot.

Some are gone now. Brasslite is closing. Aaron Rosenbloom is a psychotherapist and he prefers to do that. Carol "Brawny" Wellman no longer sells shelters. I heard that the sewing got to be too much. She has a YouTube presence now. Glen Van Peski consults and designs for Gossamer Gear. Some others have come and gone.

Even Scott Henderson's Pepsi Can Stove plans are off the internet now. That hurts. That was my biggest inspiration. But Mini Bull Design is going strong.

This is a new industry, grown from nearly nothing in a few years, but it's also a new kind of industry. It appeals to skilled practitioners of the trail arts. It may stay small, or smallish. But it looks like it's here to stay, and like it will stay lovable.

Meanwhile, I continue to learn.


Brasslite alcohol stoves
Brawny and Rainmaker at Trailquest
Brawny on YouTube
Glen Van Peski
Ray Jardine

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Under This Shall Ye Sleep

Even though I'm writing a book on packs, I can't stop thinking about shelters. I have to admit it -- shelters are endlessly interesting.

A pack is a utensil. It's a utility item. A pack is indispensable, like clothes, but somehow it seems hard to love a pack. I respect packs. I form close relationships with packs. Since I've been dabbling in pack making I've imagined, designed, cut and sewn them, and then used them, and through that process I've learned a lot.

But to me packs are tools, and though I can admire the intelligence that goes into the design of a well-formed tool, and even depend on the tool for my comfort and safety, I don't have much passion about tools. I like and honor good tools but don't love them.

Shelters are different. Shelters are also tools, I guess, but maybe there is something about the way they are used. Boots go on the feet, pants go on the legs, a knife cuts things. Sunglasses block glare. But a shelter enfolds. A shelter is a home. Put up your shelter and you instantly have a place that cares for you, and, in a way, a place that seems to care about you.

Maybe that's why I'm fascinated by shelters.

Maybe not, but it sounds good.

In the past few years I've been exploring ultralight backpacking, and a huge part of that is shelters. Shelters are the biggest of the big three: shelters, packs, and bedding.

If you want to make a switch to light backpacking the best way to start is by looking at the heaviest things you carry, and trying to do something about them first. Don't cut labels off teabags or saw toothbrushes in half. Focus on the big three: shelters, packs, and bedding.

It's likely that you can get the biggest benefit from going to a light shelter.

I did it a little backwards, switching from a four pound, 14 ounce pack to a 12 ounce pack. Then swapping out an 18 ounce stove/cook pot combo and aluminum fuel bottle for a half ounce stove and two ounce cup/pot. Soon I bought a one pound down bag.

Only at the end did I move out of my tent.

It's hard to find a double wall two-person tent under six pounds. Two person tents are convenient, and using one is dumb because they're big and heavy. But they are understandable luxuries in a rainy climate. Understandable after you spend hours each day with rain dancing on your head.

My first shelter move was to buy a single person double wall tent. This helped with bulk, but the weight savings was only a pound and a half. The double wall design can't be pared back very far.

I eventually moved to a hammock, so I'm not typical. I won't shoot for ultimate weight savings because it hurts me to sleep on the ground. The hammock is heavier, and I accept that, because it works for me.

But the big way to save weight and gain convenience is to switch from a double wall tent to a tarp shelter. The average backpacker saves four to six pounds at one shot. Even a huge 8X10 tarp weighs less than a pound. The space under it is like a parade ground. And there are lighter options.

Let's look.

The easiest way to classify tarps is by how you get under them: end, side, or elsewhere. This goes for plain tarps and the various shaped tarps and tent-like tarps.

Traditionally most tarps (and most tents too) have an entry on one narrow end. And it's low. You stoop to enter, or more likely, you crawl. One nice thing about Hennessy hammocks is that you enter on the foot end, underneath. You stand up inside the entry slit and roll backward into bed. Pop off your shoes, hang them outside on the guy line, and you're snug and set for the night.

With a traditional shelter on the ground you have to crouch and crawl, often in wet rain gear, and then you drip all over everything. With a sewn in waterproof floor you have to sleep with the water you bring along in.

Floorless tarps are good with water. Alongside your bed is bare ground. Get a mess on your ground cloth, or some water drops, you sweep it off. Set your wet footwear to the side, let it drain to its heart's content. No wandering water creeps into bed with you.

Most tarps have a traditional rectangular shape, and a traditional narrow-end entry. The rectangular shape fits the body. Lie down and you will be a lot longer than you are wide, and a tarp shaped like this gives good coverage with little waste. A flat tarp with enough tie outs can be jiggered to handle all kinds of weather. See Oware's illustrations. Ray Jardine's tarp book is good too.

A step beyond is the catenary cut tarp. These can be pretty much the same as flat tarps with scalloped edges. Or they can be fairly spacey looking things. The more extreme examples have such deep curves that useful area under them is almost imaginary.

Get something like the Integral Designs "SilWing" or the Kelty "Noah's Tarp" and you have a petty cool device, with a taut pitch. Able to withstand all kinds of gusty winds. But pretty skimpy against rain. Especially with the latter. Catenary cut tarps, at least the more extreme examples, are best as sunshades, though Oware takes a conservative, functional approach, obviously designed by a backpacker.

Just a note: catenary cut means that the fabric is cut so that it hangs naturally. A catenary is a hyperbolic curve that forms when something like a heavy rope or a chain is suspended from its ends. Planning for this by taking slack out during design means that you can pull a tarp tight and have it actually be tight. The cables of a suspension bridge are an example of a catenary curve.

So. We've got variations on the flat tarp, and entry at an end.

Move to the shaped tarp. Ray Jardine is a big proponent of this style. This has gables, or "beaks" as tarpers call them. The beak is an overhang, almost a vestibule, that partly closes off the ends. The tarp (and the beaks) can either be straight cut or catenary cut. The effect is the same either way. These tarps are still rectangular.

Slightly more extreme is the "Patrol Shelter" from Mountain Laurel Designs. It has a beak on the head end and a closed off, squared off foot end. This makes for a quick pitch and a slightly stronger shape offering good protection as long as you point the foot end at the wind. Again, see Oware for examples of pitching flat tarps for best effect. Entry remains at the end. Rectangular tarps are also supported at the ends, either externally by guying out to trees, or by using trekking poles.

Another sort of shape is more cylindrical. More like a hoop tent. Or like some of those bivy sacks with fabric-tensioning wands. The best example of this style is tarp tents from (where else?) The "Squall", "Cloudburst", and "Rainshadow" all follow this design.

Fabric is stretched taught between a hoop at the foot end and other support at the head end, where the door is. These are slippery and aerodynamic. They can handle lots of wind. But this is still a stoop-and-crawl kind of design. Support, like that for flat tarps, is at each end.

The next group of single wall shelters is harder to categorize. Let's call it generally "tent like". Tent like because these resemble traditional tents even though they aren't. Their heritage lies between tents and tarps.

This category has variety. Many designs. Take Integral Designs' "Sil Shelter". It's a tent that isn't. It's a sewn together piece of silnylon supported from inside by a single trekking pole. You get in through the generous doorway (at one end), and close the flap behind you. Then you get soaked by condensation. That's pretty well it.

Other designs are also simple, with varying degrees of usability, like Carol Wellman's "Brawyn Shelter", one seamless piece of fabric with a combination vestibule and doorway stitched to one side. Pretty clever. The fabric comes in a 65 inch width, which is good but not quite wide enough to make a shelter all by itself. If you were really small, and the rain came down vertically without any wind, and gently, you could make this idea work without door flaps.

The original design had only a beak, and a permanently open doorway. A later design has a closeable door. But this, like the Sil Shelter, has no ventilation system, so it can get pretty damp inside.

Henry Shires of and Ron Moak of Six Moon Designs both make innovative and well thought out tent like shelters. The Six Moon Designs "Lunar Duo" has a hexagonal shape. It is nearly round in floor plan, with a big entry taking up two of the six sides. It has a big door, and built in vents to defeat condensation. Tarptent's "Rainbow" and "Double Rainbow" follow the same basic design. Gossamer Gear's "The One" is similar to both of these, but more rectangular, resembling a refinement of the "Brawny Shelter" idea.

These all have side entries.

Integral Designs' "Sil Dome" is a spindle shaped single-hoop, single-wall tent. It looks as though it could have ventilation problems as well. But all single wall tents and all tarps can collect huge sopping amounts of interior condensation.

That's it for end-entry and side-entry shelters. The next group falls in between. These are pyramidal tents. Or pyramidal shelters. Or pyramidal tarps.

Pyramidal thingies.

The Pyramidal tent is an old design. It is reappearing, done up with new fabrics like silnylon, spinnaker fabric, and Cuben Fiber. All pyramidal shelters have one central, internal support, and a large, tall door.

Since this style of shelter has a squarish floor plan, its entry method falls between side and end. Both Mountain Laurel Designs and Oware produce classical pyramidal shelters, with Oware also selling the "Alphamid", a pyramid cut in half vertically. This has a no-overhang vertical doorway so there is no way to leave the door open during a rain. But for solo hikers this shelter is smaller and lighter than traditional pyramids. The internal support is in the doorway rather than the middle of the floor, which is nice.

We could say that the last type of single wall shelter has no ends at all. You can enter from any side. Call this an umbrella design. Mountain Laurel Designs has a pentagonal model called "Trailstar". It's something like a pyramidal shelter with an extra side. Support is in the center where all five panels of fabric join. A second, helper support can go at the apex of two panels to make a vestibule for calm weather use.

This design should be extremely stable since the shelter has solid central support and is guyed out well. Put a stake in the ground at the end of every seam, add one in the middle of every panel, and you have 10 stakes, evenly spaced, each pulling evenly against a central support, like spokes of a wheel. Five seams is a lot, and could cause problems if not sealed religiously.

Other companies, like GoLite, make six sided shelters. These have yet more seams. With the even number of sides supplemented by actual doorways, hexagonal shelters are close to the pyramidal design.

Beyond all of the above there is one last category not really fitting anywhere. The poncho tarp. Six Moon Designs has a "Gatewood Cape" named after the legendary Emma Gatewood who used a plastic shower curtain as her shelter. Six Moon Designs' shelter is fitting as a no-nonsense tribute to her technique. And this sort of dual use clothing is smart for mild conditions, when used by an seasoned traveler, but once it's set up as a shelter the wearer no longer has rain wear available. Entry is along one side. Anyone wanting to experiment can easily make one by sewing a hood into a single piece of fabric. No seams needed.

Check out the links below to see what's available. Maybe you can invent a new style. Let me know. I'm interested.


Brawny Tarp at
Gossamer Gear
Integral Designs
Mountain Laurel Designs
More Oware
Six Moon Designs
The Ray-Way Tarp Book

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Bite Me, Quick!

Traveling light means traveling fast.

Traveling fast doesn't mean walking in a hurry or getting out of breath. And it doesn't mean running your trail life by a stopwatch. You don't even have to keep notes. You don't have to graph your performance when you get home and compare against last time.

But it's still fast.

Traveling light means less of everything, including complexity. If it's less complex it's easier to do, and faster too, so traveling light means traveling fast. Even if you're going slowly. Got that?


Now let's get back to my favorite unsolved problem. Which is food.

Face it, you have to eat. I do too.

I like eating. Most people do. It helps pass the time.

If I eat the right stuff I get a nice feeling in my mouth, and another one in my tum-tum, and for a while I'm not bored. Eating is the fun part, though getting hungry isn't. On the trail it just happens, but in town real, honest, hollowed out hunger is hard to come by.

Which is too bad, since hunger before a meal means that your body needs food to live. And boredom before a meal means only that your brain has too many idle cycles to use up. Eating while bored doesn't relieve the tum-tum pangs, it only makes Mr. Tum-Tum get bigger and wigglier. Without any beneficial effects.

For me, food is fuel. Or should be. Used to be.

When things work out right, food is fun to eat. When things don't work out right, I still eat food, even if it's anonymous and tasteless. Because it's still fuel.

Mostly. It used to be like that. All my life I've been slim and right on the edge of starvation. Each meal came at the right time and none too soon. Now that I'm older, slower, and hang out indoors even more, food is tending toward entertainment, but it's still necessary. Mr. Tum-Tum likes it even if he isn't hungry, because he gets bored really easily.

If I could do without things, I'd choose sleep first.

Long, long ago I saw an episode of Nova on public television. It was about sleep. It seems that there are some people who need only about four hours. And there are some who need less. Like two hours. And there was one man who needed only 15 or 20 minutes, once a day, and he could hardly stand to do it. He hated the time he lost daily to unconsciousness.

Yeah, so I need eight and a half hours, maybe nine, so that's out.

Second, if possible, I might give up food. Food can be fun, but if it's only fuel think how much a person could save not having to buy it or prepare it. Hike all day and never have to stop. And if you need no sleep, then hike all night too, or do something else. Have a cup of tea every now and then, or coffee, just for fun, and skip all that chewing and dishwashing.

Life would be different though. Without dreams, without lying in bed in the morning and listening to the early birds, without those aromas, without sizzle. So we sleep and eat because we have to, and in a way we eat because we are.

So food is still a problem. But I have a couple of new ideas.

Shortbread is new to me. It is not a food of my people. I first had it about a year ago, and it's taken that long to sink in.

Before this I've tried the traditional trail foods (I'm thinking more of breakfast here). You get up, thrash around, try to get organized, packed, washed up, get your day planned, check the maps and the weather, and then, and then, waste endless amounts of time heating some kind of glop, and waiting for it to cool, and eating it, and cleaning pots, and putting things away, and all that.

There are shortcuts, like adding hot water to a plastic bag of pre-mixed food, or taking along some dry stuff like crackers. But cooking on the one hand is...still cooking. And taking "some dry stuff", pre-made and pre-packaged, ends up being expensive, usually. And it's hard to manage the expense to calories to edibility to nutritional balance ratios. Take along some manufactured no-cook food and it's too easy to come up short.

So the shortbread thing.

This is basically flour, sugar, and butter. Sounds yummy already.

I was already on this track a few years back, when I made some stuff with flour, oil, powdered milk, peanut butter, raisins, dates, cinnamon, and so on. Then I tried adding some high octane peanut butter. Then adding lots of cocoa powder to make it into brownies.

They were both fantastic. Yummy. Edible. Lots of energy. Pretty well balanced with carbohydrates, proteins, fats, sugar, and tasty bits.

One problem though. The stuff was heavy.

I mixed it all, and baked it in flat pans, and then left it in the oven on low forever, and it never really dried out. There was always a minimum amount of water left in the stuff, except maybe around the edges, and that turned to concrete.

But mostly it stayed heavy and chewy. And since it was a little damp there was a chance it could go moldy on a longer trip.

So the shortbread thing.

I finally got smart and tried mixing ingredients without using water. I think I've got it. Whole wheat flour, brown sugar, butter, and powdered milk. Mix. Make sure there is lots of butter involved. Mix and slide into the oven for half an hour, and then crumble it or slice it into bars or whatever.

You have about as many calories as you can get into a given volume without converting it into pure neutronium first. Sure, it isn't a totally balanced diet, but there is lots of fat for energy, with sugar and flour balancing that out. (No need to sweeten it beyond your personal taste limits.) The powdered milk all by itself is a complete protein and complements whatever is in the flour.

Munge the basic recipe by adding peanut butter and cocoa powder to the mix and you have extra flavor and alternate sources of carbohydrate and protein. You're pretty well set to go.

Easy to eat for breakfast, especially the sweeter versions. Same for lunch, and it can do for supper too. Not the only food to take, but pretty handy.

Easy to make at home. About all you have to do is buy the ingredients, mix a little, and briefly brown it in the oven. Do this and you have a food with no water content, that you can carry in a bag and break into portions of any size and eat at any time of the day. About all you need is some water to help wash it down.

And it goes a long way.

On a trip this season I had some shortbread brownie mix for breakfast around 7:00 a.m., and didn't get a chance to stop for lunch until 2:00 p.m., after hiking strenuously uphill most of the day. And I wasn't particularly hungry at that point. I just happened to be near water and it was a "now or never" situation. So I cooked lunch.

So this stuff looks good. I'm going to be working with it some more to make sure it pans out, but so far it looks like a great option.

Cheap too.

Recipes and References:

Water-based trail food: An approximate recipe:

5 pounds whole wheat flour
4 cups brown sugar
2 tablespoons salt
2 pounds Adams peanut butter (this stuff is just ground peanuts)
1 cup oil
6 tablespoons cinnamon
2 cups raisins
2 cups dates
2 cups powdered milk
5 cups water
Mix dry ingredients, then add water and knead briefly.
Bake at around 300 to 325 degrees until cooked through, with a good level of browning on top.

Plain shortbread (fortified):

1 cup butter (salted or unsalted, according to preferences)
1/2 cup sugar
2 cups flour
1 cup milk powder
Mix ingredients with your hands.
Press into a flat pan.
Bake at 325 degrees for about a half hour or until golden brown.


Some recipes to use as a starting point. (Try leaving out eggs and any liquids. Use extra oil or butter instead.):
Nutty Brownies
Chocolate Brownie Recipes
Butterscotch Brownies
Mom's Blonde Brownies
Butterscotch Bars with Chocolate Chips
Index of Brownies and Bars
Classic Scottish Shortbread
Index of Shortbread Recipes
Shortbread at "Undiscovered Scotland: The Ultimate Online Guide"