Friday, February 20, 2015

Sleeping system

Yesterday evening, I walked into REI to browse.  It wasn't my intent to actually purchase anything, but I do still have a few bucks left on a gift card, and I do need a few things.  Before long, I found myself drawn into a review and discussion with several workers there that wasn't exactly what I came in for, but which was very useful nonetheless.

One of the things I've mentioned about last summer's trip to the Uintas was that I didn't sleep very well.  Part of the reason for this was that I wasn't quite warm enough at night.  I also should have (and meant to, but for some reason didn't get around to it) brought some sleeping pills.  But that's easy to fix; the warmth was what I was less sure of.  I had a bag--a small one, it's true, but still--that was supposedly rated at 30°.  Along with a knit cap, warm base-layers, merino wool socks (midweight, although I wore two pairs to bed) and a fleece to keep my core warmer--as well as even breaking out my gloves--I should have been OK.  But I wasn't quite.

I've been thinking of replacing the bag with a slightly bigger one, but I won't find anything at a price anywhere near what I paid for that one; not without taking on a ton of bulk and weight.  I looked at liners, and REI had some pretty solid looking ones, although they cost twice as much as my bag did.  I still like them, but I'm not really looking to spend that kind of money to correct what is mostly a small problem.

I also saw tiny and inexpensive space blankets, and I thought both in terms of size/weight and price, that looked about right.  I asked one of the guys there what his experience with them was.  Naturally, he recommended the much more expensive liners, but he did make a few good points; the space blankets are very crinkly and loud, and they don't breathe at all.  On reflection, I have vague memories of one of the kids I was a Boy Scout with bringing one of them instead of a sleeping bag one over-nighter, and him having a bad experience being cold and uncomfortable.

I still think the idea has some merit, but I'm no longer seriously considering using a space blanket as a sleeping bag liner.  Oh, well.

But one thing that the guy at REI pointed out that I hadn't really considered was that I might have had problems because of other aspects of my sleeping system, notably my pad.  Without sufficient insulation from the cold in the ground, sleeping bags don't perform to their warmth rating.  Of course, he recommended me toward several REI brand or Thermarest brand inflatable pads that are also very expensive, which I'm not interested in, but he may well have a point.  In fact, I'm now thinking that he almost certainly does; using a single, cheap blue-foam pad was not a good insulator.

Luckily for me, however, I already have more options.  I, in fact, own three blue foam pads as well as a Coleman self-inflating pad.  The latter is probably bulkier and heavier than I'm interested in, but it wouldn't be hard for me to roll up two foam pads together, bundle them fairly tightly and stick them together on the bottom of my pack, where the (minimal) extra bulk won't actually cause any additional problem for me to carry.  Because the things are essentially weightless, carrying two of them is more a problem of bulk than of weight, but again; the way I can pack them will make that a moot point too.

So, I'm going to make a slighter tweak to my sleeping system than I had thought--I'll merely bring an additional pad of those I already own, and wear an additional skin-tight baselayer underneath what I wore last time.  This should, I believe, do the trick.  If, for some reason, I'm still feeling a little colder than I'd like, then I can investigate liners.  I might do that via much cheaper fleece liners that I've seen in the sporting goods section of stores like Meijer or Wal-Mart, because it's much cheaper, but it would be bulker, no doubt.  I do like the liners I saw at REI, but they're at least $60 a piece.

Thursday, February 19, 2015


There's some discussion from a long-time backpacker on the merits of boots, what kind of wear and when to wear them.  This is in contrast to other sites and advice I've read, which focus on the non-boot option significantly.  Such as:

In any case, I think they both make some bad, or at least non-universal assumptions.  Lanza assumes that it's worth it to folks to go out and buy multiple pairs of expensive footwear.  However, most people don't have the luxury of backpacking as frequently as he does.  Most people also don't have the luxury of being given all kinds of really pricey bits of gear from manufacturers because he reviews them.  I only want one pair of footwear, and I don't want a super expensive pair.  I don't want to worry too much about conditions I'm not likely to see since my backpacking season is limited.  I don't want to spend too much money, but I don't mind replacing them every few years if necessary.

Frankly, for day hiking, I can't imagine ever not wearing trail-runner type shoes.  Since I wear those as my day to day casual and workout shoes anyway, I have three pair of them currently (although I admit that at least one pair is starting to get a bit worn down and I probably shouldn't take them anywhere serious "in the field" anymore.)

Collins, on the other hand, seems to be really focused on the concept of thru-hiking long hikes.  The majority of his advice is geared towards that specific paradigm. And sure, he talks about hiking on scree fields and whatnot, and I'm sure that he has in fact done so, but when you're walking long distances on relatively well-maintained trails, then your choice in footwear is going to necessarily be geared towards things that occasional backpackers won't.

That said, my choice is really a lot more like his than it is like Lanza's.  Is it possible that if I take my shoes out on long trips in bad conditions that they'll get trashed?  Sure, absolutely.  If that happens, I'll replace them.  But--I have no reason to think that that will happen, given the trips that I have on my docket.

Certainly, what I'm wearing now should stand me in good stead when I go back to the Wasatch and Uintas this summer.  It should work well for day hiking (although I may not want to bother with my mid-hikers for day hiking.  Depends on how long and how far I'll be going.)  They'll be great for a traverse of the Lake Superior National Shoreline or Isle Royale National Park, or exploring Hocking Hills State Park, Cuyahoga National Park, the Smokies or Roans Highlands, the Guadalupe Mountains or in and around the Chisos Mountains, Coyote Gulch or various trails in and around Moab, or the Teton Crest Trail, etc.--in other words, any trail that I have any hope of doing any time in the next five to ten years.  I don't know that my boots will last 5-10 years of hiking trips, but if not, I can replace them with something very similar.

Right now, based in part on the fact that I like the brand and in part based on the fact that I like the look of these, these are near the front of my list for boots to replace them with.  Someday.  Danner Extroverts mid-hikers.  Lightweight but tough, synthetic and without a GORE-TEX lining.

After my experience with my current GORE-TEX boots, I may change my mind, though.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Backpacking on a budget

On Facebook (I "like" Backpacker magazine, so I get updates from them) there's a discussion brewing about "why does Backpacker (and other publications on the hobby) always review expensive gear that "regular people" aren't in the market for?

I actually may have talked about something similar before. Certainly, I've touched on it here and there in various posts.  There's a trap a lot of backpackers fall into of believing that if they don't have the latest, highest tech, brand-name, expensive gear that they're taking terrible risks to their life and safety.  This is of course ridiculous, since most of the stuff that is available now has only been available in something approaching mass market availability for the last couple of decades or so, and clearly people have been successfully backpacking for much longer than that.

I will say, however, that if getting the absolute lightest weight kit you can possibly get is your fetish, then you will spend money.  If simply taking a lot of pounds out and having a decent weight at a good price is your goal (more my speed) then you can still get under 20 lbs. with a gear budget for our entire kit that is less than that of a high end tent or hardshell.

Plus, a lot of the gear; especially the expensive gear, is simply stylish.  People want to have Mountain Hardwear instead of C9 by Champions from Target because it makes them look professional and BackCountry Chic.

Of course, what works for one person may not work for another--and what works for one trip may not work for another.  Lots of people swear by trail runners, to give one example.  I was reasonably happy with my $35 trail runners experience in my last trip, but I also decided that I really wanted ankle support.  The best I could find with lightweight, trail runner style shoes with enough height to give that to me ran $99 (but of course, I had a gift card that paid for half of that.)  On sale.  But that's because I want to feel confident on off-trail rambling and scree scrambling.  If I were simply hiking on maintained trails or other areas where turning my ankles wouldn't be a concern, I'd pull my shoes back out and wear them again.  I also didn't feel like my kit was warm enough at night; my sleeping back was technically a 30° bag, but even with baselayers, my fleece, double socks, gloves and a fleece beanie cap, I was still a little bit uncomfortably cool at night.  In that case, I think my $30 tiny little bag just didn't live up to what it was billed as.  But again; the solution isn't necessarily to run out and buy a $200+ bag, or suck it up and get a much larger and heavier one.  Hiking on a budget also requires being flexible, testing stuff out, and making sure it really works for you, and adjusting what doesn't quite work.

Of course that's also true for expensive gear, though.

Let me talk just a bit about my gear, I'll try and estimate what I spent on it, and I'll talk about how well it works and how "universal" it's applications might or might not be.
  • Shoes: I got Avia trail runners at JC Pennies for $35.  As mentioned above, I've upgraded them to Cabela's XPG Mid-Hikers (GORE-TEX) for $99.  I'm not unhappy with the former shoes, but on steep scree slopes, I nearly rolled my ankle a few times, and I'm not anxious to repeat that risk.
  • Pack: I got a Wenzel Escape 50L pack for $50 (it was on sale; normally it's still only $60, as I recall) at Meijer's.  They also have them at Kohl's.  Two and a half pounds, and it does everything I expect from a backpack.  It's a real steal.  I don't know how well it'd port a bear canister, though.  That said, they also have 65L and 90L packs, well under $100.  Comfortable, functional, and reasonably good looking and a fraction of the cost of a "name-brand" pack.  I can't praise this bit of gear enough.
  • Tarp: I got one at REI for under $10.  You shouldn't ever spend more than this on a tarp.  I could have maybe saved even a few bucks more, but I had a gift card, and it was easier than shopping around.  
  • Ozark Trail sleeping pad: Picked it up at Wal-Mart for $10?  $20 maybe?  Can't remember.  This is identical to the blue pads I used to use as a kid.  Worked well then too.
  • Ozark Trail Warm Weather sleeping bag: As mentioned above.  This is very small and light, but wasn't particularly warm.  While I'd like to replace it, I probably won't this year.  I have another solution in mind instead...
  • Ozark Trail 2-person dome tent: Cost $30, I think.  Maybe $35?  Bought it years ago meaning it to be an essentially disposable tent for the boys to use for local Scout camp-outs.  I've used it on backpacking trips now; it's light, small, packable, and the only time I got even a little wet was when I was in the tent reading for several hours in a severe Michican downpour that lasted most of the night.  I'd like to upgrade this too, eventually, but I feel no urgency to do so, because it performs pretty well and the alternatives are all really pricey.  And frankly, I suspect even the expensive tents would have leaked (or had condensation issues, more likely) if I'd done in them what I did in this one.
  • Clothes: You can spend a lot of money on hiking clothes, but I don't see the point.  Quick drying, moisture wicking, covers you from exposure to sun and scratches, etc; for the most part, what's good for hiking is what's also good for running, and you can get technical fabric running clothes at Wal-Mart, Target, or pretty much anywhere else for very little.  I tend to hop on stuff when it's on sale, but I got, for instance: $15 long-sleeved nylon mesh shirt (at an additional 40% off), Cabela's Look Out Trail hiking cargo pants (for about $15/pair; I bought three), Cabela's merino wool mid-weight hiking socks ($12 for a 4-pack), a boonie hat ($10-15), and a micro-fleece picked up at the end of the season on clearance (all kinds available for $10-$20).  Before you go, treat what you're going to actually bring with you with Permethrin,and you're good to go.
  • Rain suit?  I've got a Frogg Toggs suit I picked up at Wal-Mart for, I think $15.  I also got a packable jacket from Target for about the same price; maybe $20.  Now I have two.
  • Also bought some Target close-toed river sandals for about $15.  I've seen them also at Wal-Mart and Payless for about the same price.  Great for river crossings, and hanging around at camp.
  • I already have gloves and a fleece cap or two.  I live where it's cold enough that this is a necessity anyway, so I didn't spring for specific hiking options on these (for that matter, I have lots of pairs of "hiking" socks that I tend to wear day to day anyway.  Same with my fleeces.  I like wearing hiking clothes--when feasible--as day to day clothes.  That way, I also don't feel bad about taking them out in the woods and banging them up; I've usually got stuff that doesn't feel new and shiny.)
  • Same with base layers.  I've bought polyester rather loose-fit ones in January on clearance before.  I also got a set that includes spandex and is tightly fitted.  This time around, I'll probably bring them both and double up at night to stay a bit warmer.  The tighter ones I could actually wear under my clothes and probably be OK.  Last summer in the mountains, I found I needed my fleece pretty much all of the time during the day or I got cool; at least within seconds of stopping to rest.  But like I said; I don't have to buy these specifically for hiking; they come in handy during the winter even during my day to day.
  • I got a very small pocketknife for free somewhere years ago.  If I hadn't; I could buy one at Wal-Mart for very little anyway.  In fact, much of my gear was picked up at Wal-Mart (or Meijer or Target.)  While a lot of folks in the hiking community speak disparagingly of Wal-Mart, I have yet to understand why spending twice as much on a headlamp, for instance, or a spork or compass, makes any difference whatsoever.
All in all, I estimate that I was able to outfit myself to hike for considerably less than $500, maybe even less than $300.  I didn't keep very good track, I admit, and I tried to repurpose stuff that I already had if it was appropriate, rather than buy something new specifically to go hiking in (true for my fleece, for instance, and some of my other gear.)  Other stuff I've picked up here and there, not necessarily for hiking, but expecting that I would use it as such.  I bought my initial rainsuit and tent, for instance, for local car camping, and only later used it for backpacking.

Although I'm not a weight fetishist, I certainly agree that carrying less weight is worth the trouble to do so.  But not if it's going to cost me hundreds of dollars to get the last few ounces out.  Without trying particularly too hard, I have a base pack weight of almost exactly 19 lbs. That's not too shabby; but it'll go up to just over 20, I'm sure, when I decide to add a backpacking stove to the mix, or upgrade to a larger pack, or have to add a bear cannister.  While I'm sure weight guys will tell me that getting below 10 (just barely) is doable, keep in mind that I'm not talking about doing something like the Appalachian Trail or the PCT where I'm carrying it every day for months on end.  For smaller trips; up to a couple weeks max, a few times a year, carrying 20 lbs. of base pack weight isn't really a big deal, and it's worth it to do so with an extremely inexpensive set-up.  My pack doesn't really feel heavy to me; I hiked miles in the Uintas last summer without ever feeling like it was tough to lug my pack around; this was not true when I was a teenager and much more fit than I am today.  I remember on one of our trips as a kid, I had just about the lightest pack at just under 50 lbs.  Of course, that wasn't base pack weight; that was total weight, but still; I'd estimate that I can't possibly add much more than 10-15 lbs. of food and water at the beginning of a trip, meaning that I'm always going to be, even at worst, a good 20 lbs. lighter than I used to be in the 80s.

And I had about the lightest set-up of anyone as a teenager.  I still remember one guy topping out at over 90 lbs.