Friday, July 24, 2009

Mighteous Lightfulness


Just back from a five day backpacking trip I have a renewed sense of how hard this sport can be.

I'm not a cross-country walker. The idea is appealing, but I don't have the chops. I'm old enough that I can't just take off half a year, do some stuff, and crash with my parents. They aren't around any more.

Not only that, my body wouldn't stand a multi-month trip, much as I'd like to do one. I've reached the point where I can do what I can do and have to let go of the rest. Then again, this isn't so bad. Everyone is only temporarily able-bodied. At least I can get out every now and then and live close to a lot of interesting country.

But given that, I have a fair amount of experience. I've paid attention, practiced, and thought things through. I know the drill, so when I do make a trip I can do it pretty efficiently and safely. If I pay attention.

That helps, but it doesn't cover all the bases. Walking with a full pack is still hard work. Walking with a full pack piled extra full of water in the hot sun, going up one side of a mountain and down the other while being eaten by flies is much harder.

I just got back from tramping across the north side of the Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Monument.

About a month ago I hiked around the mountain, and don't recommend that until two intense seasons of trail maintenance go by. It's just too torn up.

But north of the mountain things are better.

There is an area called the "Mt. Margaret Backcountry", which got the full force of the blast in 1980 but differs from the land closer to the cinder cone in that it is not flat. It's a series of ridges, peaks, and deep holes. Still, though, everything that was there at the time was blown away or incinerated.

Now, 29 years later, trees are returning. There are shrubs, flowers, grasses, and many small blue lakes quietly nestle in the deep holes among the peaks. And even farther north there is old growth forest (thick, tall, impressive western red cedar, douglas fir, hemlock and other species) and flat, smooth trails.

I wanted to hike across the Mt. Margaret Backcountry, skipping the required camping permit by traversing the whole thing in one day, and then hit the northernmost part of the Monument for a couple of days, and then backtrack out.

It seemed feasible. The first and last days would be about 17 miles. The map showed some up and down but it didn't look too bad. At least there were no deep, crumbling, dangerous collapsing canyons roiling with boulders and clouds of dust as there are all along the Loowit Trail, which circles the mountain. I had enough of those a month ago.

This is where some principles of backpacking in general, and lightweight backpacking come together to make things:
  • Possible
  • Safe
  • Enjoyable
First, and probably most important, is the reality check. You need to have enough experience behind you (especially if you're going solo) to know what your limits are, what the weather can do, and how to prepare.

You also need to keep current.

The first backpacking trip of the year tends to be a shakedown cruise. You take too much, or not enough. You forget that you really need to be in really good shape. Sometimes you think you can go farther than you really can. Things like that.

A trip or two (even a handful of day hikes) brings you back to reality, keeps you from going nuts and getting hurt. They also get you back into practice. A person needs to stay on top of the game. Given a decade or two of experience the first one or two trips every year bring back enough memories to pull up the focus. This is good.

Ideally, for the sake of sanity, you'd go out and do a trip, wait two weeks, and repeat the same trip. You would be sure to get everything right the second time around. But who would do that?

So you try to remember what you already learned the hard way, and prime yourself afresh with the year's first trip.

Or so you hope.

I kind of blew it. Not terribly, but I wasn't tuned in yet. The trip was too ambitious and the route was harder than I thought. I put on a lot of miles in five days but went only three fourths as far as I'd planned.

But here's where the other stuff comes in. I didn't get hurt, go hungry, get cold, get heat stroke, or get lost. The trip I did wasn't the one I planned but after some mid-course mental adjustments it turned into a shorter trip that was just hard enough and just long enough.

This is where ultralight principles kicked in. They saved my butt.

There wasn't much to do about the weather, the water supply, or the terrain. The weather was warm and sunny but not hot. The terrain was rugged, either going up or down (some of the trail seemed intentionally designed to be infuriating). Most important, water was nonexistent in some areas.

I couldn't control these, but could control the rest.

The first day I began hiking at 8 a.m. and didn't get to bed until 10 p.m., partly because I had to carry a full day's load of water. This was about six quarts or 12 pounds (6 l at 5.5 kg). Ascending a couple thousand feet (610 m) in the sun with that water weight added onto a five-day supply of food and all your gear makes it a completely different kind of party.

Although the air was cool, there were long stretches in full sun and dead air, which made it seem 20 degrees hotter.

Fine. Enough whining. Here's the rest of the story.

By practicing light hiking you can prune the stress level back and do more with less, which is what I had to do. The categories are:
  1. Simplicity
  2. Thoughtfulness
  3. Efficiency
Simplicity

Simplicity means taking only what's needed, and only enough of it to get the job done. Take the smallest, simplest, lightest items that can possibly do the job.

For example, I carry an LED light instead of a traditional flashlight with incandescent bulb. In fact I take two. They're only a quarter ounce (7 g) each, so the redundancy doesn't hurt. Since there is no substitute for light, taking two adds a nice safety margin. In a pinch I can use a piece of duct tape instead of medical adhesive tape (or vice versa), but can't replace light with anything else.

With everything else, though, I either take the lightest, simplest thing I can find, or leave it out altogether.

Thoughtfulness

Thoughtfulness is the key.

Thoughtfulness is based partly on smarts and partly on experience. To get really simple and really light takes thought. And good ideas are just that. Most good ideas fail on the first try, since they're really bad ideas, so experience is necessary as a filter. Once you get a handle on what works, what doesn't, and what's best your your very own self, you can break your gear and processes into categories and continue to think through them.

I have ten categories:
  • Shelter. No need for a tent, most of the time. Drop it and save two to four pounds (1 - 2 kg). Small tarps are the lightest way to go, but I can't sleep on the ground any more. My hammock is heavier than a tarp but intensely comfy and still lighter than a tent.

  • Bedding. A down bag works, preferably one that is too light. Wear all your clothing to bed and also stay out of the wind. A two-ounce (60 g) Mylar emergency blanket, folded and kept against the chest adds a lot of warmth without weight. Or use it as a bag liner.

  • Pack. Some are barely there. I make my own and although they aren't the lightest available, mine are less than half the weight of mainstream packs, and do exactly and only what I need. My packs are also getting smaller as the seasons go by as my philosophy moves toward using external stuff sacks for temporary overflow rather than having a big pack.

  • Food. Keep it as dry as possible, with as much fat as possible. I'm experimenting with two cold meals a day, for speed and simplicity though this might not be the lightest way to go. We'll see.

  • Water. For mass loads of water I use the 2.5 l Platypus bladders, which fold flat and weigh nothing when empty. Mostly I use an Aquamira filter + bottle for on-the-go drinking.

  • Cookset. My rig weighs around six ounces (170 g): stove, on-ground reflector, pot stand, wind screen, pot, lid, lighter and matches. It's about the size of my two fists put together. Tiny and light.

  • Clothing. Never take more than you can wear at once but always have dry clothes to sleep in, or come as close as you can. Overnight, clothes fill in as half of my insulation.

  • Protection: Rainwear and a wind shell. My full-coverage wind shell weighs six ounces (170 g). I wear it to bed, in the morning and evening, and during stops (if cool enough, to keep off bugs). If the weather is guaranteed dry I'll leave rainwear at home, or escalate by taking any of several outfits depending on what might come along.

  • Sundries. These are things like rubber bands, safety pins, a tiny blade, some bandages, emergency water treatment backup, extra line, needle and thread, and so on. Also a bottle of liquid soap, a square of fleece to wash with, maps, nail clippers. All things you can do without unless you need them or don't want to be dangerously filthy. Rubber bands, safety pins, and duct tape can be real life savers.

  • Footwear. I haven't worn boots for nine years, and shudder to think of going back to them. Trail running shoes work for everything I've come up against, and save huge amounts of walking energy while being much easier on the feet.

Efficiency

Efficiency kicks in when I've got all the above sorted out and remember how to do everything right. I try to focus on speed without sacrificing fun.

Going light means that on the trail you can go fast. Climbing is easier, descending is not so hard on the knees and ankles, and on level ground you can really howl with a light pack.

Efficiency means quick and organized setup at a campsite in the evening, and quick packing in the morning. With my hammock I simply pull a sleeve over the whole thing (hammockers call this a "snake skin") and the fly, the hammock, the under-quilt, and the supporting lines are all converted to one long sausage for easy stuffing into a pack.

Eating a cold breakfast and supper (pre-baked at home) means no need for cooking or any cleanup at all for those two meals, and less fuel carried.

Washing is efficient because I carry a bottle with a water filter in it. Pull out the filter and the bottle becomes a handy scoop for pouring water over myself. A small square of fleece fills in for sponge baths on cold days or when there's no opportunity to disrobe and splash.

So what's my conclusion? I did screw up on the last trip.

My plan was too ambitious and I wasn't fully prepared. I had to carry huge loads of water uphill for miles. This was hot, tedious, and slow.

The up side was that if this had been the old days when I thought a 40 pound (18 kg) pack was light, I wouldn't have made it past the first day.

By honing my technique and doing some thinking over the past several years I haven't achieved any miracles. While I'm getting tuned in and smarter I'm also getting older and weaker, but the advantages of traveling light, simply, and efficiently mean that I can still do better than at least 90% of backpackers out there, with less, and still have fun.

So it's OK for now.


4 comments :

  1. ooh, you are making me jealous (in a good way). :-) 5 days! I probably won't do much backpacking this season. Almost certainly nothing till Sept, and probably nothing more than one or two overnights.

    A question about your hammock and non-use of a tent: are we talking about the standard hammock you sling between trees? Is that really comfortable for sleeping, and how do you rig it to avoid getting wet in the rain? How can you be sure you'll always find a couple of trees where you can sling the thing?

    I use a small tent. I've been on a couple of trips where it rained and rained, and I was really glad that I had something underneath me that kept the water out, and something around me to keep the mosquitoes away. Never thought about using a hammock.

    when I thought a 40 pound (18 kg) pack was light

    What's your starting pack weight, excluding water? I mean, how heavy is your fully loaded pack before starting out, including everything you're bringing, food, etc., but excluding water?

    md

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  2. md:

    Not sure if I'll ever get Blogger figured out. There ought to be some way to contact you directly, but I can't find it. Maybe I'm just a total butthead.

    That's what Mom always said.

    But I digress.

    Q: Are we talking about the standard hammock you sling between trees?

    A: Yes/no. "Sling" in the sense of hang-from-two trees, one at each end. I've never tried using anything else, like cats, for example. I don't' think they have either enough upper body strength or patience. No in the sense of "standard" hammock. The shape is more like a canoe, and not flat. You can't tip over or fall out. My main one weights 19 oz.


    Q: Is that really comfortable for sleeping?

    A: INSANELY comfortable, though you need insulation underneath, preferably outside the hammock. Have never slept better anywhere.


    Q: How do you rig it to avoid getting wet in the rain?

    A: A rain fly. It's like sleeping under a tarp with a suspended sleeping pad. The fly comes with the hammock, though Hennessy flies are skimpy for serious weather. Easy enough to make or buy a bigger one. Can easily be rigged to keep out drafts, which is essential.


    Q: How can you be sure you'll always find a couple of trees where you can sling the thing?

    A: We watches for them, my Precious. And when we sees them we pounces. This worked fairly well even in the North Dakota Badlands. Had to keep an eye out for poison ivy though.


    Q: I use a small tent. I've been on a couple of trips where it rained and rained, and I was really glad that I had something underneath me that kept the water out, and something around me to keep the mosquitoes away.

    A: Rain is (a) cold, and (b) wet, and (c) both of the above. I need a bigger fly, and am planning on making one some day, but sleeping ABOVE all the wet stuff is dandy. I use a Hennessy Hammock, which comes with integral, full coverage bug netting. This also has a bottom entry. I hang my shoes outside, under the fly, on a string, and keep my pack under my knees. Everything stays dry and away from things with teeth.


    Q: Never thought about using a hammock.

    A: Poor dear.


    Q: What's your starting pack weight, excluding water? I mean, how heavy is your fully loaded pack before starting out, including everything you're bringing, food, etc., but excluding water?

    A: Depends. Base pack weight in summer is around 12 to 13 pounds. My low is about 10 pounds. Add food at about 1.25 to 1.5 pounds/day. Use a tiny tarp, a wisp of a sleeping pad, a six ounce pack, leave out some things, and you can get below 10 pounds. Some go under 5. (A subscription to BackpackingLight is worth it: http://www.backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/index.html)


    Q: Eh?

    A: More info. http://www.807north4th.com/bp/gear http://www.807north4th.com/bp/manufacturers (Site will be rebuilt soon, but all info will reappear.) http://ultralighter.blogspot.com/search/label/shelters

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  3. There ought to be some way to contact you directly, but I can't find it.

    No, I don't think there is. Usually if I leave a comment, I try to remember to check the box which tells blogger to email me replies to the post. Anyway, I found your reply.

    My current tent is a Eureka Solitaire, which weighs about 2.5 lbs. I'll take a look at the hammock, eventually (probably when my tent wears out). I wonder if I will find it as comfortable as you do! I've never found yard hammocks comfortable....

    I think the place where I could cut out a chunk of my base weight is the backpack itself. It is a Gregory, and weighs 5 lbs. I bought it before I learned about ultralighting. I don't like to buy new stuff if it's not necessary, so I haven't done anything about it.

    10-13 lbs base weight seems like something I could live with it. I feel like I'm carrying too much when I do several-day trips. It usually amounts to about 25 lbs, while I only weight 105 myself. I wind up bringing extra gear "just in case" (like winter clothing). Not sure what to do about that.

    I still have aspirations to do a really long trip (multi-month). Not sure if that's realistic though.

    Thanks for all the info!

    - md

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  4. The easiest way to lighten up is to focus on the big three + 1 in this order:
    * Shelter (usually the heaviest item).
    * Pack
    * Bedding
    * Stove and cookset.

    Shelter is especially good because you can take a tarp or single wall tent AND your existing one, set up both, and be assured that you always have a familiar, tested place to make a retreat.

    I started with my pack though, swapping a 4 pound, 10 ounce Kelty Tioga for a 12-ounce GVPGear G4. (Now GossamerGear.)

    Pack resources:
    * GossamerGear: http://www.gossamergear.com/
    * ULA-Equipment: http://www.ula-equipment.com/
    * Six Moons Design: http://www.sixmoondesigns.com/
    * Mountain Laurel Designs: http://www.mountainlaureldesigns.com/
    * Moonbow Gear: http://www.moonbowgear.com/

    I've met or talked to everyone except Ron Bell of Mountain Laurel Designs. All small outfits backed by people who do it because they love it.

    A lot of Appalachian Trail people seem to like Granite Gear: http://www.granitegear.com/

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