Friday, November 1, 2019

The Ebook version of this book will be FREE on Amazon 
Every Friday Starting Nov. 8th Until Dec. 6th

    This book is written with the thru-hiker in mind. It might help those interested in a leisurely weekend backpacking trip, but it is meant to be a mental checklist of hundreds of considerations when contemplating a thru-hike. 

    This thru-hiking handbook is not designed to give you all the answers, but to prompt you to ask all the right questions, help you imagine the effort a journey on foot demands, and consider gear choices.

    There is not one size fits all in thru-hiking. I have tried to craft a checklist of things you should consider when contemplating a thru-hike. The conclusions you come to will ultimately be your own. This tome is meant to introduce you to all the questions you need to ask. 

    I have included 100s of ideas, considerations, tips, and personal experiences that will give you some insight into tackling a long trail. 
Spending a few months traipsing through the wilderness will probably be life-altering, but you will have more blisters than epiphanies. The only way you are going to discover what it is really like along the worlds great trails, on a day-to-day basis, is to put boots on the ground—or trail runners.
    The information in this book will not prevent you from prematurely quitting a month’s long thru-hike, but it will help you understand the challenge so that you can approach this adventure realistically. 
Some long trails will still allow you to get away from it all, but the popular trails today will have you hiking in bubbles of backpackers. You will find yourself in a slow-moving current of people. No matter how hard you try to keep to yourself, a thru-hike will become a social adventure. It’s a great way to escape the mundane, switch gears in your life, or simply challenge yourself. 
    I have tried to condense my thru-hiking thoughts into short bits of information that will tease readers into imagining themselves in each situation and entice them to think their way through.
    You will find no clear picture here, but perhaps it will help you focus on what is important, for you personally, to complete a successful thru-hike.
Fully immersing yourself into the wilderness is not a Thoreau prose experience for the majority of thru-hikers. If you are considering a thru-hike and picture yourself cross-legged in transcendental meditation on a ledge overlooking a spiritual sunset—great. I hope this happens for you. But unless you learn to deal with simple trail day realities, you won’t make it to sunset.
    I hope the following information helps you dissect the intricacies of pulling off your dream. See you on the trail. 
                                 —Keep Smilin’, Packtoter

Friday, November 2, 2018

Hilleberg Enan Review


This month Backpacker Magazine kind of published a review I wrote on my Hilleberg Enan backpacking tent. I say kinda because once a publisher edits a piece down to a paragraph or two, what survives are a couple of original thoughts and a few things you never said. So here is a more indepth look at my tent for those who may be interested. 

The Enan is not the only tent that interests me, or that I would consider owning and carrying. I like innovation and I love the shelters and designs coming out of Zpacks. But when I think of overall performance to meet the extreme weather I often have to deal with, I could not find a better choice than the Hilleberg Enan. 
When you make a buying decision you really have to decide how you are going to use your tent. If I knew I would never have to deal with severe wind conditions I would probably haul a Zpacks Duplex. But after talking to dozens of thru-hikers on the PCT this summer, I know that in severe wind they just are not reliable no matter how well they are pegged out. 


PCT March 2018
The Enan has gotten me through a few nights when the wind was clocking in at 60+ m.p.h. I don't think Backpacker believed me because they reduced my wind speed down to 40, although I know they were not there with me. I am not talking about gusts, I mean wind that was flattening my center pole down on my legs most of the night. This was partly my fault, I removed the two center pole guy lines to save weight. With them the tent would have held its shape much better. Without them it still stood the test and kept me safe and dry all night. That wind was proof that this tent is Bombproof. Let me tell you some other pluses this tent holds for me and things you might want to consider in your buying decision.

Thru-hiking, I often walk until dark then find a small hidey hole to spend the night. As odd as it may seem in the big, wild, open spaces of our long trails, it is often hard to find a flat, debris free place to set up a tent. The nice thing about the Enan is the small amount of real estate it takes up. This opens up many tent site options that larger footprints will have to pass on.  
Think about setting up your tent in adverse conditions. This will happen often. Even in a wind storm I can pitch the Enan quickly and efficiently. The inner tent is hooked into the fly. I never separate them, although it is easy if you have a need. I snap the center pole together, unroll the tent, insert the pole, stake out one end, stretch the tent out and stake the opposite end. Basically, I'm done. Four more stakes stretch the ends wider, and two more sturdy the center pole if you use them. This insures the inner tent is tight, and guarantees all the room the tent was designed to offer.
Two large screened vents on each end give it great circulation and cut down on condensation. Condensation is a given in many weather conditions. Anything that helps alleviate moisture through better ventilation is a plus.  
Hilleberg would consider this a 3-season tent, but I would argue after my testing it would fit into the 4-season category.
Enan is a one person solo tent with just enough headroom in the middle to sit up. It has an equal amount of real estate in the vestibule for gear, but not something to spend a lot of time in.
If you spend a lot of time in your shelter you would be better off with a larger tent made of material which would allow much more outside light in. For stealth camping I prefer a color that blends into my surroundings.
Quality workmanship: I used a Hilleberg Akto for 17 years and sold it in like-new condition. I expect the same from the Enan. I have had to send the Enan back to Hilleberg one time for a rip repair at a seam point when it was new. I think this was a construction flaw that has given me no issues since. I also put a couple barbed wire points through the floor the first night I used it--Murphy's Law. But a piece of Gorilla tape patched it perfectly. 
Where both tents shine is in build quality. I don't think you can find a better made tent. You're paying for sewing detail, fabric choice and metal fasteners. That adds up to years of use compared to a few seasons or one thru-hike. 
This tent dries very quickly with a bit of wind or a short period of sun. I would often pack it up at dark-thirty with rain, frost or ice still clinging to the tent. If I found a short burst of dry weather during the day, I could pitch the tent quickly and let it completely dry out during a snack break.


Drying gear during a sunny lunch break
Enan has a lot more wind action because of its lightness, but still performs flawlessly, keeping the weather madness, just a ripstop nylon away, at bay.
The Enan packs up very small. I carry it in my water bottle pouch on the outside of my pack. I use a piece of Tyvek 1443R for a ground cloth. I wrap the tent in the Tyvek, slip it into the carry bag, then strap it into the bottle pouch. The Tyvek protects the tent from catching any passing vegetation and ripping. Carrying the tent on the outside of my pack enables me to completely pack everything else up while still protected inside. When I step out of the tent, in inclement weather, I only have to deal with quickly tearing down the tent and stuffing it into my side water bottle pouch. 

Does your tent have a tag with the name of the person who sewed it together? You might laugh, but that pride in workmanship is one reason a Hilleberg becomes a life-long piece of gear.
Both Akto and Enan tents use the same sturdy 9mm center pole. Enan also uses two less stakes to strike the same tent footprint.
The fabric is amazingly tough for its super light weight. 
I consider the weather worthiness of this tent to be cheap insurance when I compare it to other lighter weight options. It is not until you have to deal with constant wet cold conditions that you truly come to appreciate the protection a product like this offers.

The outer tent strikes tight to the ground. Even during windy snow conditions I have no snow in the vestibule.
The vestibule zips closed tightly compared to competitors that snap or button closed. The zipper is two way which allows opening top down, allowing more ventilation in good weather. If opened during rain, water would only drop into the vestibule area.
On the PCT I had a blonde, black bear, stick his head inside my tent. The fly was completely zipped. The zipper is very taut at the pole location. The bear pushed against the zipper and ripped it open. I woke up nose to nose with this bruin, just a bug screen away. Black bears are like black labs, all they think about is food, and if you yell at them you hurt their feelings. This bear ran off as soon as I screamed in wakeful shock. At first I was really upset thinking that furball ruined my tent, but as it turned out I just zipped it up and down, the zipper came back together, and it was all good. I turned over and went back to sleep. 
The inner tent has two-way zippers on the bug netting opening. 
The outer tent opening is designed to be rolled up and fastened open with elastic strap and toggle. It's comfortable to sit under the vestibule opening to cook and eat, and the area will accommodate a full size pack and boots.

The tent guy lines stay amazingly untangled. Adjustable tensioners make it a simple task to tighten all the angles. I really appreciate the metal stake rings and zippers. I believe whatever extra weight this may create makes this tent a bit more bullet-proof than competitive products with plastic fasteners.
The inner tent can be easily removed, although I never do this. For those that want to use only the fly, it takes just a minute to unfasten the inner tent from the fly. Mesh pockets make for easy access to small gear you want at hand.
The tent is not free standing, but I have yet to find this a problem in almost two decades of use and many long trails.

The design of these two tents is a tight outer tent fly with the inner tent suspended inside. In a wind-driven rain, the two shells can eventually stick together as condensation accumulates and the wind slaps the material against each other. Moisture is still directed down to the outside of the tent leaving the sleeping space as dry as can be expected in severe conditions. 
The tough, double coated, urethane bathtub floor, is durable without a footprint, but I prefer to protect my investment and keep my tent clean with a light-weight footprint.

I used the Enan during the winter on the Arizona Trail and on the first 650 miles of the PCT during the month of March. Severe drought in California during the winter season of 2018 turned quickly into what they call a "March Miracle." The Pineapple Express brought subtropical atmospheric rivers through California during the whole month. Below normal temperatures turned much of it into snow and sleet. Those who thought this would be a great year to start the PCT early, like myself, were sorely disappointed and would label this event not as Miracle, but Madness. Many people who carried less than adequate shelters dropped out very early. In my case, I was able to test the weather worthiness of my Hilleberg Enan striking it in snow, cold, driving rain, and heavy wind. In these conditions you are never going to be completely dry and comfortable, but this tent is as close as I have found to adequately keeping the elements at bay.

The time and method of setting a tent up and tearing it down doesn't get a lot of thought at point of purchase, but wait until the sky is falling, or your hands are frozen at dark thirty in the morning, and you want to get moving and stoke your internal combustion circulatory system. My system becomes muscle memory. Pull the stakes and center pole, start at one end and roll the tent and guy lines up as tight as possible, not worrying about dirt, snow or moisture. Roll the tent into the ground cloth, again as tight as possible. Slip it into the stuff sack along with the poles and stakes in their own sacks. When setting up, the tent unrolls the same way with all the hardware at hand. With practice this can be done in three to five minutes.




Recap and Repeat:
As the Akto and Enan tents are so similar, let me start with what I like about both models, and what I look for when making a buying decision on any backpacking tent. Some of these traits will be subtle points many first-time buyers never consider. 

Small Footprint: If you do a lot of stealth camping (stopping for the night wherever you end up), you realize quickly that you often lack the real estate you need to guarantee a level night's sleeping. The small footprint of each of these tents gives ample options to squeeze into tight vegetation.

Easy setup:  I have deployed and packed these two in severe wind, snow and rain. Both are quick and simple. I never separate the tent from the fly. In a storm I simply pull out the tent, insert the center pole, peg out each end and the tent is secure enough to then take my time stretching the sides out with the remaining pegs. This insures the inner tent is tight and guarantees all the room the tent is designed to offer.

Investment: If you think of a tent purchase as a long-term investment you will depreciate these models over many more years than a less quality brand. Both tents have the name of the person that assembled and sewed them as proof of pride in workmanship. Where both tents shine is in build quality. I don't think you can find a better made tent. You're paying for sewing detail, fabric choice and lasting hardware. That adds up to years of use, compared to a few seasons, or one thru-hike. 

Protection: I consider the weather worthiness of a tent to be cheap insurance when I compare it to other lighter weight or cheaper options. It is not until you have to deal with extreme weather conditions that you truly come to appreciate the protection a product like this offers.
When both tents are set up the outer tent is tight to the ground. Even during windy snow conditions the vestibule stays well-sealed from the chaos just a ripstop away.
Vestibule zips closed tightly compared to competitors that snap or button down. Zippers are two way which also allows opening top down, allowing more ventilation in good weather. If opened during rain, water only drops into the vestibule area.

So, is there a downside to either the Akto or Enan? In my opinion there is not. The lighter Enan offers the same amount of weather protection, but does yield a bit more to wind. The slight difference in wind performance can be almost eliminated by taking care to pitch the tent straight and taut. Will the lighter material hold up as well as the Akto? Only time will tell. I have put a 1000 miles on this tent in harsh Arizona desert conditions where Edward Abby reminds us that everything either “bites, stabs, sticks, stings or stinks.” I have also used it for the first 1500 miles of the PCT, half of that during the wet, 2018 "March Miracle." 
What first draws attention is the fact that the Enan has all the qualities of its heavier predecessor with incredible weight savings. Hilleberg was able to accomplish this by using a much lighter Kerlon material. They also re-configured the footprint, eliminating two pegs, and using less material without sacrificing the design's utility. This new configuration also added more ventilation.
The Enan is lighter, packs smaller, has improved ventilation, two less stakes to deal with, and a slightly smaller footprint. When dealing with wind-driven rain, snow, sleet and cold temps, I found the Enan to be just as reliable and weather-resistant as the Akto. 
Bottomline-- in my experience the only thing you lose from switching from a Hilleberg Akto to a Hilleberg Enan is weight.  --Keep Smilin', Dick E. Bird

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

OLD MAN WALKING


I have tried to become what some would consider a light-weight backpacker.  Coming from the age of canvas and can goods, everything today is lighter, more weatherproof, and convenient. My wife has even learned the term, "gram weenie." 
In my opinion this light-weight consciousness began with Ray Jardine, known as the guru of ultra-lightweight backpacking. I read his book and thought, "this guys a nutcase." But, in the end, his ideas prevailed. Not completely. I am never going to eat cold corn pasta for every meal for months on end, but his thoughts on minimal gear and lighter gear have finally seeped into my backpacking style, methods, and equipment. New technologies and fabrics have played an important part and the marketplace has embraced them. 
I tend to buy and carry gear that has other elements important to me besides weight. I find weather resistance, quality and craftsmanship just as important. I want materials that will last for miles and years of trail abuse. I cannot bring myself to spend more money to save 9 ounces on gear that won't last one thru-hike. To me gear is an investment and has some insurance value. I don't want to compromise security by trading my bomb shelter tent for a lighter model that won't last the night in a severe wind storm, or develop damaged areas after little use.

The actual point of this article is not to bash flimsy new light-weight gear, it is actually to dispel the fact that light-weight alone will make you do bigger miles. What I discovered on the PCT this year is that light-weight does not always equate to speed and distance differences. It will certainly allow you to move more fluidly, but that is not the point. Hiking habits and methods are an equal part of doing big mile days on a thru-hike. If that is your goal you should first concentrate on conditioning, mentally and physically, then gear weight, and most importantly hiking habits. 
What many inexperienced backpackers do not realize is that ultra light-weight goals have a discomfort factor. When you get to the sub-12 lb. range you start giving up creature comforts and the misery factor increases. As an example, you often have to trim ounces in the sleeping pad department or shelter. This can lead to poor sleep, which will eventually lead to poor hiking performance.

What I observed while hiking the PCT made clear performance is not just about gear. After looking around, and talking to a lot of other hikers, I realized I was in the middle of the pack as far as weight. With micro spikes and a bear canister I was at around 16 pounds base weight, but I was also carrying 250 miles of high calorie food from resupply to resupply. No one else was doing that, but I skipped many of the resupply stops where others would take a zero day.

I moved much slower, especially after a resupply, carrying another 16 pounds of food. I just listen to my body and move at whatever pace it demands. What I don't do is stop a lot, and when I do it is less than five minutes. I am still light enough so that the weight on my back is not screaming for me to stop and rest all the time. Meal stops are short and efficient and last no longer than 15 minutes. Mentally I can hike from dawn to dusk, day after day, without becoming bored or dwelling on introspection. It's amazing how many hikers talk themselves off the trail because they haven't discovered a satisfactory reason to continue a daily routine of eat, sleep, walk. 

I soon noticed that everyone passing me and quickly moving out of sight did so several times a day. I would get to know them "in passing" you might say. I discovered the reason was hiking style. They took long rest periods, I didn't. 
They slept later in the morning, I was up at dark-thirty. I find early morning the most pleasurable time of the day to hike, especially on days that reach triple digit temps.
They filter water, I never have. I'm not suggesting you don't. It is a personal choice. I am just pointing out a time consuming chore I find unnecessary. 
They take their shoes off at water crossings, I slog right thru, preferring to leave my boots on.
They stop earlier in the evening, I usually hike until the sun begins to disappear and then find a small, flat, hidey-hole to spend the night. 
Carrying what most considered a crazy amount of food allowed me to stay on trail when most had to make a pit stop for supplies. 

I realized that I was the turtle and they were the hares. After a week or so I would find myself moved into a new pack of people I was leap frogging with. The last group of faster and lighter hikers were behind me several miles and I would often never see them again. This transition happened several times.

In base weight I am only a few pounds heavier than what would be considered ultra-light. But personally I find my pack weight very comfortable, and as I slowly move into lighter gear, I find myself adding another layer of comfort. As an example, I added a small Sea to Summit inflatable pillow during my PCT hike. I have never slept better while hiking and I have to think it was because of this 2 oz. addition that packs up the size of a golf ball. 

So from my perspective and base weight, light weight does not equate to discomfort and misery. My pack is the 4200 cu in/68 L volume ULA Circuit. It weighs 41 ounces. The company recommends a maximum load of 35 lbs. and a base weight of 15 pounds or less. I have often exceeded both these recommendations on long trips. I often carry two weeks worth of food and this pack features a roll top extension that allows me to add and subtract load capacity.  
I have a Thermarest NeoAir Xlite (12 oz.) sleeping pad that is full length (72 in.) and is more comfortable than my mattress at home. 
My tent is a Hilleberg Enan (2 lbs. 5 oz.) It is a one man, double-wall tent that can withstand a 60 m.p.h. wind.
I carry a Jetboil stove, although I am experimenting with cold meals. On the PCT this year I ate cold breakfasts everyday and actually looked forward to it. I boiled water for dinner, but during hot spells a cold wrap would have had more appeal. When I study forums for no-cook ideas most do not sound appetizing. I am thinking outside the box and designing meals that not only appeal to me cold, but will be easy to pack, hydrate and assemble.
I have switched to a warmer sleeping bag, but was actually able to drop weight buying a Zpacks 5 degree bag that hits the scale at only 24 oz. It is much easier to let heat out in warm weather than to create and keep it during cold weather.

I find it very interesting how people come to their gear decisions. I asked many hikers that were cowboy camping this year how it was working out for them. The weather was extremely dry so moisture was not a problem. Most admitted they were miserable in the Sierra as the mosquitoes were relentless. I was always happy to zip myself into my tent and not give the little suckers another thought.

Closed cell foam pads seemed popular, but I have no idea why. They are only a few ounces lighter than a NeoAir. I don't think it is price. They are a third the cost, but these are hikers carrying $400 packs and $600 tents. They are going to have to take "my" NeoAir from my cold, dead hand.

So I can still out-distance hikers 40 years younger, that are carrying less weight, it just takes the determination to stick to a routine of hiking habits that turn into consistent mileage.
—Keep Smilin’, Dick E. Bird



Thursday, May 3, 2018

90 PROOF



Self supporting umbrella using water bladder clips attached to shoulder strap



I’m not talking about carrying White Lightning into the backcountry, I’m talking about staying dry. From experience, I know that 90 percent of the time I carry rain gear and never use it. I also know that when I do, it only keeps me about 90 percent dry. 
For years I carried only a large poncho. Even on long trails where I could expect every kind of weather event, the poncho seemed to be sufficient to keep me dry and comfortable. I also used this same poncho as my tent ground cloth, adding weight value. This poncho was sturdy material, which made it a bit heavy. It was large enough to cover me and my pack, keeping the contents of my pack dry also. 
A poncho has some drawbacks, but I would deal with them because the need to deploy it seemed seldom and usually short lived. 
On the plus side a poncho offers a lot of ventilation, was useful as a ground cloth footprint to protect my tent, and a piece of gear I could also use as a temporary shelter if I wanted to stop for a meal in a downpour. 
Eventually, I began using a light weight 1443R Tyvek for my tent ground cloth and went to a poncho made from ultralight material. This combination was a significant weight savings from my heavy duty poncho, but I soon learned it had some issues. 
The birth of new and exciting light weight materials has changed backpacking gear in amazing ways, but they do have a dark side. Some are fragile and must be handled carefully if you plan on them lasting any length of time. They are also harder to deal with in very windy conditions. 
I have to use rocks to hold my light weight Tyvek in place until I get my tent erected over the top of it. Putting on the ultra light poncho is like wrestling with a snake in any kind of wind. Because the light material is so susceptible to blowing conditions, it is necessary to use a webbing strap at the waist to help hold it down. 
Another problem that occurs when relying on a poncho in extended rain conditions is accessibility. If you want to take a short break, or retrieve something from your pack, you have to wrestle with the snake. The poncho has to come off and back on while it still may be raining and your gear is getting damp. It also does not protect the lower legs from wind and rain.
My personal rain gear evolution has taken many baby steps to perfect. Where I am today makes more sense to me than ever before, but experience is a constant motivator of change. 
I don’t worry anymore about keeping my pack dry. Everything inside is protected with dry bags, ziplock bags, or cuben fiber. I also carry a light weight umbrella that works for both sun and rain. It is my first line of defense. Often I run into a constant light sprinkle that can slowly soak my clothing, but not enough to warrant pulling out a rain suit which can be hot when hiking. The umbrella is just what the doctor ordered and is simple to deploy and stow quickly. 
If I’m experiencing a prolonged rain/wind event, the rain jacket, pants, or both come out and allow me to keep moving and still have full access to my pack and its contents. 
My options now include the protection of the umbrella, rain jacket hood, and the full leg protection of the rain pants. 
I have opted for very cheap Frogg Toggs Pro Lite. They have a light option now that only weighs 12 oz. for both jacket and pants. The material is very susceptible to wear and tearing, so I purchased these knowing they will not last a thousand miles of use, but they cost a third the price of more durable options. The fact that I use them so seldom, my goal is light weight and cheap.
Becoming proficient at staying comfortable in damp weather is as much method as gear. There is also a phycological element. Rain, wind and the condensation, that can creep right into your soul, can ruin a trip if you are not prepared in all three disciplines. 
It is wise to spend a lot of time thinking about and testing the ways you plan to stay dry. Moisture is a very efficient nemesis. It will suck the heat from your body in the best of conditions and make you uncomfortable. In severe conditions it can kill you. 
Many make the mistake of putting emphasis on low base weight disregarding safety or even common sense. 

My suggestion is working toward carrying whatever 90 proof works for you.  --KEEP SMILIN'

FOOT LOOSE


Hiking boots or trail runners are as important to a backpacker as tires to a NASCAR driver. Like every other aspect of hiking you have to decide what works for you. I like to stay open-minded and try all sorts of innovative ideas and products. Sometimes it takes me thousands of miles to decide I don’t like something, but my feet always let me know. I don’t really enjoy a conversational relationship with my feet. If they are talking to me, that signals we have a problem. 
This blog has already established that I am as old as some of the rock layers in the Grand Canyon, so I have been through a complete evolutionary cycle of hiking footwear. During the 1960s it was so easy, you just strapped two pounds of leather boot to each foot. It gave you the feeling of a D9 Caterpillar dozer more than a NASCAR, but you didn’t have to worry about foot protection. Encased in layers of leather, a bear would have to chew on your foot for hours before actually finding bone. 
That was all upended by Ray Jardine when he brought up the fact that lifting those cement blocks a million times per day costs an exorbitant amount of calories. Ray suggested running shoes.  Most people missed an important fact in his epic book that changed backpacking forever. His ideas became known as the “Ray Way.” The important fact was losing 75% of your pack weight before switching to light-weight trail shoes. 
I was one of those people. The fact didn’t escape me completely, but going from 40+ lbs. of pack weight to 20+ lbs. seemed like plenty to me. I read his book several times, thinking all the way through each read, “This guys a quack.” He and his wife would eat cold corn pasta everyday for months at a time. That should be enough to get anyone committed. 
Quack or not, he made all of us think. He made all of us question every piece of gear. He turned us all into gram weenies. 
So, my first seismic move into the world of light-weight backpacking started below the ankle. I started the Continental Divide Trail in April of 1999 with, what I considered a light pack (20 lbs. of gear, and 10 lbs. of food.). I had special ordered a pair of size 11 Asics running shoes with a Vibran-like sole. Halfway through New Mexico I limped into the town of Grants. Two toenails on each foot had turned black and eventually fell off. I went to the nearby Walmart and bought the biggest, D9 Caterpillar, leather boots I could find. They were not the best quality, but four pair later I crossed into Canada and my feet loved me for it. 
This, of course, made me a little leery of buying into the “Ray Way,” or exposing my feet to the elements coddled only in ankle-high cloth.
This went on for ten years. I discovered that the best of boots only lasted me about 500 miles, so I continued buying cheap Walmart $20 boots that seemed to treat my feet just fine. Because Walmart buys whatever they can get a truckload price on, my choices were always sketchy. I finally switched to the luxuriously large toe box of the brand Keen. I still like ankle support and although Keen offers a low cut boot, I stuck with the mid-top, leather style. I hiked the 800 mile Arizona Trail in them and was convinced these were the new Holy Grail of boots. These worked for me for another half a decade and thousands of trail miles. 
The next move took me to where I am today in this evolutionary process, Altra Mid Lone Peak 3.5 hiking boots. This new discovery began as I started the Pacific Crest Trail in 2017. Many hikers were wearing Altra trail runners that looked like clown shoes. They were red, with an exaggerated toe box. The toe box was the first thing that caught my attention. Everyone was praising their experience in this footwear, but I was still suspicious. Remember my black toenails? They grew back, turned black, and fell off a couple times before I was normal again. Although I am close to being a light-weight backpacker at about 14 lbs. base weight, I am not going back to low-cut trail runners. Not only do you have to wear gaiters to keep rocks and dirt out, they offer no ankle support. No, I’m not falling for that scam again. But, I couldn’t get those clown shoes out of my mind. They seemed light, had almost all good reviews, the toe box was even larger than my Keens, and they were cheaper. I still didn’t pull the trigger. 

Then one day I noticed the shoe had grown up. It was now offered in a mid-size. Just what the doctor ordered. I was all in. I bought a pair and did a few hundred miles on the Arizona Trail to try them out. The toe guard on both boots began to separate. That bothered me, but the Arizona Trail is a rough neighborhood, I was abusing them. I glued the toe guards back in place and hiked the Pacific Crest Trail for a few hundred miles in what turned out to be very wet, cold, snowy conditions. The toe guard repair held, and the boots looked better than my past footwear choices, well past the 600 mile mark. They are as light as a slipper, dry quickly, and seem to baby my feet. 

At this point, I am completely satisfied with this new chapter in the life of my happy feet. I’ll be going back to the PCT to continue through the Sierra. I am confident that these boots would last me another 600 miles, but I am buying a new pair anyway. I feel they are a great investment, and a proven design. Like any smart NASCAR driver, you always want your pit crew to have a spare on hand.   —Keep Smilin’        

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

LOOKING BACK PACKING



Backpacking gear technology has come a long way in a few short decades. I started my backpacking career with a canvas pup tent. Bought withH S&H Green Stamps, it must have weighed as much as everything I carry today. Yes, that makes me older than dirt. In dog years, let’s see, I would be………dead!
As ridiculous as a canvas pup tent sounds, those were exciting times. When I hike with young people I remind myself how I felt at their age. They have no idea about my perspective, but I have a clear insight into theirs. Just out of high school in 1968, I loaded my 1964 Suburban and headed West. I had a whole summer of backpacking ahead of me, untethered from any responsibility, and a smorgasbord of wilderness areas to pick and choose from. With little experience to draw from, everything was fresh and new and exciting. Did I make mistakes? Oh, yea. That’s how you start accumulating experience. Whatever doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger. 
I have hanging in my garage a wooden handled ice axe. Where I get my backcountry permits in Glacier National Park the Backcountry Office has an identical one hanging on the wall. Like me, it’s an antique. I bought it in Estes Park, Colorado that summer of 68’, not because I knew how to use it, oh no, I bought it because it looked cool. I was the first person over Paint Brush Divide in the Tetons that summer. I know this because once I reached the flat boulder strewn top there sat a ranger on a rock eating lunch. He was shocked when I came up and over, excitedly saying, “We just did a rescue here, how did you get up this snowfield?” I naively said, “Oh, I have an ice axe.”
That summer was my first exposure to freeze dried food and down sleeping bags. There is a small stone cabin on Gunsight Pass in Glacier National Park. “In the old days,” (yes, I say that a lot now.) In the old days, before the permit system, you could camp at the pass. The cabin even had a small wood burner in it, although the closest wood was a few miles down to timberline. I camped there one night with a husband and wife who were both Harvard Professors. As I pulled out my canned soup, they pulled out freeze dried steak dinners. As I pulled out my sleeping bag, which was basically a glorified blanket, they pulled out their light-weight down bags. That was my first epiphany—I’m not living right.
When I run into young people with older heavier gear, I get it, I’ve been there. You carry what you can afford, and you carry what you understand. If backpacking is something they come to enjoy and embrace, it won’t be long until they have a better understanding of what they need and an incentive to invest more money into better, lighter gear. 
They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but I try to be open-minded when it comes to change. With backpacking there is a constant evolution to lighter gear and lighter hiking methodology.  I am slow to move in some of the directions this evolution takes. I hike enough that I see it in action and it is not always as advertised. Too light often means exposure to conditions you can’t control. I am glad to give up weight with tougher, lighter materials, but not by discarding or paring down gear that insures safety. An example would be a tarp vs. a tent. A good bomb shelter tent is questionable enough in a 60 m.p.h. wind above timberline, in a sleet storm. We could change the old British currency phrase to, “Ounce wise and pound foolish,” in this instance. A tarp is great until things get dicey. I prefer to pack as if I may have to deal with weather armageddon, because often I do. 
I’ve tried and tested all types of stoves. For years I used, and loved, my ZipZtove. It was a light, titanium wood burner with a tiny fan run by a AA battery. It was like a blacksmith’s forge. I could boil water in three or four minutes and never carry fuel. Severe fire seasons have put this type of stove out of favor with the Forest and Park Service. I built and tested several alcohol stoves. I find them much too slow and, in my opinion, not fuel efficient. At this point in time I am using a Jetboil gas stove which is fairly light and very efficient. Stoveless backpacking seems to be all the rage right now. Sorry, I just can’t live like that. They say you can drink cold coffee in the morning and still get your caffeine fix—-just shoot me!
I’m not trying to be a naysayer, but here is my experience with super ultralight backpackers. I used to joke that the way to tell a super ultralight backpacker is they are the ones always trying to borrow stuff from you on the trail, or they are the ones that TSA is doing a cavity search on, trying to find their gear. But seriously, they are the ones using the passing lane on long trails. There is no question they easily do more daily trail miles than hikers with heavier loads. But from what I have observed that doesn’t always translate to a faster finish. 
On the PCT I was carrying a base weight of 14 lbs. I was hiking with two young guys carrying a base weight of 7 lbs. How was I hiking with them? Well, they would catch up with me every couple days. Doesn’t make sense right? Let me explain how it works. 
My first question to them was, “Aren’t you miserable when the weather turns sour?” Answer: “YES.” They did a lot more miles per day than I did, but they also made more pit stops. They would be forced into towns for resupply and have a hard time leaving. It’s the old “turtle and hare” race. While they were in town drinking beer and sleeping in a warm bed, I was still out there pounding away on the trail. They would come back out and pass me, just to head back in for another pit stop. 
Strategy is not only light weight gear, it is what you are carrying other than base weight. I seldom carry less than a week’s worth of food. I never carry more than one small canister of gas (7 oz.). I can usually stretch both to ten days of hiking. It takes some time and testing to come up with calorie dense items that pack a punch and appeal to me. My grocery list is in constant flux. I have a varied enough food repertoire that I don’t get bored with my choices and decide not to eat them. Carrying food for days and never eating it is a common mistake.
This is not an article to sway new hikers one way or another on how to hike or what to carry. My point is experience in backpacking is an evolution. If you stick with it long enough you will go through the metamorphic stages that will eventually give you wings. Backpacking, like life itself is all about the journey, not the destination. It doesn’t matter if you are young or old, it only takes a desire to get out on the trail and hike your own hike.
I met a guy on Isle Royale last fall who had spent several months backpacking all the great places in North America with his home-schooled kids. They were 5, 7, and 10. I never heard one of them say, “Are we there yet?” They could hike all day with their own packs and still have enough energy to run around in the evening looking for wildlife. This summer they are all on the AT. 
They may run into the guy I just read about who is 87 years old. He’s on the AT this year also. He’s done many long trails in the past, including the AT and he just wants to see if he can still do it. I hope that’s me some day. It gives me hope. I’m sure by the time I’m his age they will have developed ripstop nylon embedded with helium molecules that will lighten my steps, and you can bet I will be carrying it. 

—Keep Smilin’

Saturday, March 31, 2018

SLAYING THE BEAST

After three buses and an Amtrak train ride, I'm back in Arizona with Gaila. I have learned once again that one thing I know about the weather is that you never know about the weather. I didn't come out this year to take another shot at the PCT. I just started considering it around Christmas because it seemed to be shaping up as another drought year in California. I continued to watch the weather and several ski resorts in Southern California with no significant precipitation. Officially, the wet season ends the end of February. California was hoping for a March Miracle, but what were the chances of that?



My plan was to hike north to south this year. That way I would give myself another couple weeks for what little snow there was to hopefully melt away with warm spring weather before I reached the higher elevations around Mt. Baden Powell, east of LA.
Everything was shaping up exactly as I had planned until my plane landed in Bakersfield, CA on March 1st. I caught a bus up to the small town of Lake Isabella and asked the local Baptist Church if I could sleep in their backyard. It poured all night long. I figured this was just a fluke, even though my weather app beeped a winter advisory warning. I caught a 5:20 a.m. bus further up to Walker Pass where the PCT crosses. People on the bus thought I was nuts, but I was still convinced this was just a freak storm and would pass quickly. I stepped off my first 20 miles through cold wind, sleet and snow flurries. I awoke the first morning to five inches of fresh snow. My only concern was finding the trail. As it turned out, five inches doesn't completely obliterate trail sign. Most areas have some depression, wildlife use the trail, old trail maintenance helps identify the route, and if all else fails I had my Guthook App that tells me if I am two feet off trail.



The results of that storm created snow covered trail all the way to Mojave/Tehachapi Pass. I didn't lose the snow until I started to drop down to Hwy. 58 into the windmill littered pass.
I only had two town stops planned, but that was all about to change. Everything I have is quick drying with just a small slice of sunshine. When things get damp I can usually stop for a couple hours, set up my tent and a clothesline and have everything dried out in an hour. Those first five days I had no sunshine slices, just cold wind and blowing snow. My first non-scheduled stop turned out to be Mojave, CA., a sad little dot on the map where you would only go if you needed to dry out for a day. Across the street from my Motel 6 I spied a hamburger joint. It was very unique. I placed my order and immediately the girl yelled it back to the cook, "I need a fuckin' deluxe, fries and a fuckin' strawberry milkshake." (It was actually worse than this, but I don't want to make this too R rated). That was just the beginning. For an hour I heard her and the cook loudly complain about the owner, dropping the F bomb about three times in every sentence. But, I have to admit it was a really fuckin' good hamburger.
The next leg of the trip is the one most PCT hikers dread. During the popular hiking season of April and May this section is often triple digit hot. In my case I still had all four layers on, two buffs, and my gloves. There is a reason they put hundreds of wind generators here. Fortunately, the first 10 miles was abnormally still, but then a cold wind blew for the next 50 miles.
Cold weather doesn't change the water situation. I found little water over the next couple days. My app gives me clues where to look and I did find water the first afternoon up a canyon called Tylerhouse, about a quarter mile. I hate carrying too much so I only took a couple liters--that was a mistake. I was gambling on a faucet near the LA aqueduct. My app said it would be dripping---WRONG! After dinner that night I had no water left and 16 miles to my next known water at a place called HikerTown. I got up about 4 a.m. To beat the heat, if by chance there was any, and started hiking the aqueduct at forced march speed. As it turned out it was a cold, windy morning again. Many hikers do this stretch at night when it's cool. I did it during the day with all four layers on. This is where I lost my Tilley hat. I had it on over my hoodie and never felt it blow off. The Tilley hat guarantee, I thought I had, is another story.
This stretch of trail made me rethink what I was doing. I thought I had convinced myself last year that I should concentrate the miles my knees have left on the more pristine trails of the world. Why, I considered, do somewhat boring, non-backpacking areas, that just connect the dots on a long trail. I guess I am back out here because I wanted to slay the beast that tried to beat me last year. I wanted to at least finish this Southern California section, and see what it was all about. I don't want to give the impression that there are not some beautiful areas along this first 650 miles of trail, but it is not the most wonderful place to eat up trail miles.
This path stretches through an area just an hour or so from the reach of 25 million people. Like lemmings they stream out of their burrows and devour their surroundings. Land agencies like the Forest Service and BLM let them destroy areas with impunity. Not only is the PCT rutted out by dirt bikes, but much of the surrounding hillsides that pose more of a climbing challenge. Between Tehachapi and Lake Hughes, CA I saw constant soil vandalism in action. Had I been a land manager I could have written a dozen tickets. 
I can only assume that the Forest Service now considers soil vandalism another on the list of, "The Land of Many Uses." Sign Graphs of dirt bikes and mountain bikes, with a lined thru circle, will not stop the lemmings from violating this land, it would take enforcement and setting an example that would communicate to those interests that there are rules and consequences. Mountain bikers use the PCT as their personal turf, and slap their, "Mountain Biking is not a Crime" stickers all over trail signage.
You then have the artistic lemmings that spray paint rocks, bridges, signage, and trees. Some parts of the trail resemble a freight train that has spent too much down time in a metropolitan rail yard. Who knows how many pyromaniac lemmings there are, but much of the apocalyptic landscape from fire damage grows in acreage every fire season.
I go back to my broken record adage, "multiply numbers, divide resources."
So a couple days of dry weather from Tehachapi ended suddenly as I crossed the mountains to Lake Hughes, CA. Met my first northbound section hiker Paul (trail name: usedtacoulda). I could see him ahead of me on the trail. He had his back to me, stopped, looking down at his trail information. It was pouring. I pulled up with my umbrella at full mast and said hello. Paul was contemplating turning around and walking all the way back to Lake Hughes, about 13 miles. Everything he had was soaking wet, and he was currently wearing the layers he slept in. He liked my umbrella setup and I told him it had been getting plenty of use.
When I reached the road crossing to Lake Hughes the sun finally peeked out and I was able to go down into a creek bottom, find a flat spot to camp and dry my gear before nightfall.



After hiking into town the next morning and picking up my resupply at the Post Office, I ran into Paul at the historic Rock Inn. I was sitting by the fireplace having my usual rocket fuel breakfast when Paul came down from his room. He was in much better spirits after a dry night at the inn.
At this point I am still in denial about the March weather, but I am starting to see an evil pattern. My app is calling for a three wave system of the Pineapple Express over the next 72 hours.
When I started this trek I had no intentions of stopping at HikerTown, Hiker Heaven or any of the other social gathering pitstops along the trail. As it turned out I needed HikerTown for water. It is a quirky little property of false facade buildings where many hikers spend a night. I went in to ask to use their water spigot and saw a sign that said, "Do Not Disturb." Perfect, snagged a couple liters of water and on my way.
I reached the town of Agua Dulce in a cold, all day downpour. This one has me reconsidering my rain system. (Look for an update on my blog, "Pack your own pack.") If nothing else, this trip tested a lot of gear and systems I use, and there will be tweaking. My light-weight poncho was like wrestling with a snake in the wind.
 By the time I reached town it was dark and I was drenched to the bone. Hiker Heaven was sounding better with every step. It is a couple that take in and help hundreds of PCT hikers every season. They are Trail Angels on steroids. I had read a lot about this place but finding it actually turned out to be a challenge. I stopped in at a liquor store and asked the cashier if he knew where it was. He said it was up the next street. I said, "How far?" He said, "All the way."  I said, "How far is that?" He said, "All the way to the end." I was too wet and tired to ask one last time in hopes of a sensible answer. I thought maybe I should just buy a bottle of honey whiskey and find a bridge to sleep under. But instead I headed up the road all the way to the end. There I found all the houses looked alike. Nothing to indicate one was heaven for hikers. In desperation I finally knocked at a door for information. The guy pointed to the house next door. I found my way through an iron gate and was greeted by five barking dogs. At this point I don't care if they attack me and tear my face off, "I'm coming in gang." I was a soaked rat. I wouldn't even let me in if I were these people. But they welcomed me in with open arms. I immediately went into a bathroom and dumped all my wet gear in the tub. They showed me around my home for the night which was a mobile home. Gave me a room, let me dry out, did my laundry, let me take a hot shower, and tried to convince me to take a zero day and relax a bit.
Phase two of the Pineapple Express was not supposed to arrive until late the next day. I decline the zero day offer and left early the next morning. My plan was to hike through the Vasquez Rocks area about 10 miles to a KOA campground near the town of Acton, CA. I was hoping to beat the rain and find some type of shelter at this KOA for the night and keep my gear dry until this storm passed. I was relieved to see this big empty pavilion when I arrived. Perfect place to sleep for the night. I was shocked that they wouldn't let me set my tent up underneath it. I was about to leave when trail magic hit me once more. I started talking to a guy with a guitar. He turned out to be a movie producer shooting scenes at the KOA. He had two Avion travel trailers as props and offered me one for the night with heat, water, toilet and bed. Of course, I was all in.



From there the trail went straight up for about 15 miles. The rain stopped by early morning and I was back on the trail by dark thirty. Once I topped out late in the day I immediately hit snow. That snow and the snow from phase three of the storm stayed with me for the next 65 miles. By this time I had surrendered to the March Madness. It was not going to stop. This was going to be a winter camping month, and I might just as well get used to it.
Probably the scariest part of the trail was a section I should not have been on. It wasn't by design, it was weather caused and possibly mis-signed. It would have been so much easier had I been paying better attention, but at this point I am head down marching through a snowstorm. There is a beautiful, deep canyon that has been closed off to PCT hikers because of an endangered frog. I knew about it, but didn't realize I had reached it. If there was a sign indicating it, and directing me to road walk Hwy. 2 around it, I never saw it. It turned out to be some of the deepest snow I would encounter. All the way through this steep canyon I was saying to myself, "They need to do some serious trail maintenance here." The tread was eroded away to almost nothing but a line in the soil. On top of that, much of it was covered in deep snow. A summit trail crossed it at one point that was in much better shape and I mistook if for the PCT. Two miles later something didn't seem right. It is so hard to backtrack and kick yourself at the same time. It wasn't until after dark that the trail crossed Hwy. 2 again at a place called Eagles Roost Picnic Area. There I saw a huge yellow sign that made it very clear that I just spent the last few hours on a section of trail that hasn't been used for years. I was frozen, it was foggy, and I was frustrated with myself for obviously making a stupid mistake. I set my tent up in the snow covered picnic area, ate a hot dinner, and went to bed. In the morning my boots were so frozen I could not get them on. It took a half-hour of kneading them like bread dough to finally slip them on my frozen feet. At this point there is only one option. Start hiking hard. The faster you move the more the furnace gets stoked. Within a couple miles your body goes from stinging misery to stripping layers. Then the glorious sun rises and the big, beautiful hydrogen reactor warms your skin and melts away any remaining hypothermic symptoms.



Like Mt. Jacinto I hiked around Mt. Baden Powell. Hwy 2 was closed because of the snowstorm so I had a nice two lane trail to follow.
Once again, I was making an unplanned pitstop. My resupply box was only 20+ miles from Wrightwood, CA at a Best Western motel at Cajon Pass on Interstate 15. Wrightwood was a few miles off trail and I had no plans of going down there. After 65 miles of snow, cold and wet conditions, Wrightwood sounded like a nice little oasis I could not refuse. This was a great decision. I loved Wrightwood. A very friendly trail town. I found the Evergreen Cafe decked out in St. Patty's decor. This was obviously my place. Although friendly, they were crowded. It was a Sunday afternoon. Half of Los Angeles was in the mountains because of this odd weather phenomenon called snow they hadn't seen in so long. I told people, Jerry Brown should hire me as the state hydrologist. I obviously brought this weather to California.



The cafe said I would have to leave my pack outside. I will never do that. Last year a couple brothers lost their packs doing that very thing. I started to leave when a family said, "He can put it under our table, in fact, he can sit with us." Had a great time with them, and when they left, without telling me, they bought my meal." Hitchhiking, eating out, talking to people on the street, registering at the local hardware as a PCT hiker, everything about this town was fantastic.
When I left town the next morning it was a 3 mile,  2,000 ft climb back to the PCT at 8,200 ft. At the top I met Thomas. He now lived in Wrightwood, but has hiked all over the world. He was a very interesting and spiritual guy. We talked hiking gear (he gave me a new pair of gloves), religion, world hiking trails, and personal histories. After a couple hours he decided he would hike with me a ways down out of the snow. He knew the area well and pointed out my route into the valley below. I had a great morning. I was in no hurry. It was 20+ miles, all downhill, good weather for a change, and quickly running out of snow patches the lower I descended.



The next day I hiked into Cajon Pass, reaching the Best Western motel by noon, and took the rest of the day off.
I found a few northbound hikers at the motel settled in for a few days because yet another storm system was scheduled through. Trying to read the weather for the next day, I figured I would have a mostly dry day of hiking before the big storm hit. Everything started out fine, but by noon the following day I was caught in a cold, wet, continuous rain. The other part of my plan was to spend the whole next day, in my tent, under a pavilion next to Silverwood Lake as the big storm passed over. The pavilions turned out to be small and filled with large, cement picnic tables--no place for a tent. I finally settled into a flat spot for the night as darkness fell. It rained all night. I dreaded staying in my tent all day. When I got out to look around, the muddy hillside didn't look all that stable in this downpour. Maybe I have watched too much Nightly News, but I don't want to be found in 5,000 years and have people calling me, "Bog Man" or "Mud Mummy." I packed up. It was going to be another head down, umbrella up day. This was maybe the worst day of the trek. Very cold, strong wind, blowing rain in sideways all day. This is the day I decided a rain jacket and pants would replace my poncho for sure. Luckily two things happened by 5 p.m to save the day. First, I reached Deep Creek hot springs. Second, the sun came out for about an hour before it set. I had not planned to spend anytime at the hot springs. Every thing I knew about the place made it sound like a hangout for a bunch of stoners. I guess stoners don't like foul weather because I had the place all too myself. That was good because, again, I was a bit hypothermic. I set up my tent, hung a clothes line, slipped into the hot springs and spent an hour or so getting my core temperature back to normal.
Although it stayed cold enough to freeze my water bottles every night, the remaining days stayed sunny. I was running into more and more northbound hikers every day. They had it no better than I, as cold, wet weather had been pounding them since the border wall. I had met several who were already dropping out. Many just were packed too light for these types of conditions. I just can't imagine. With a bomb-proof tent, 5 degree bag and inflatable ground pad, I was semi-miserable on several nights. Many I encounter are carrying a pack the size of a purse that wouldn't even hold my sleeping bag. I wanted to ask lots of questions as we passed on the trail but usually it was raining so hard conversations were short lived.
I did have a chance to spend an hour with two who were quitting near Big Bear Lake. I was trying to hitch into town. I had spent almost two hours with my thumb out in a cold morning wind. Suddenly I was joined by a guy from San Francisco and a girl from Florida. She was sick and he was just sick of the weather. They were pulling the pin and going home. I wasn't thrilled when they showed up because now whoever pulled over needed room for three. They hung with me for an hour, even waving a twenty dollar bill at cars, then decided there were 5 cars going down mountain for every one coming up. They switched sides and hooked a ride immediately. Within 10 minutes a car with four Russian kids picked me up. Only one spoke limited English, but within 16 miles to Big Bear I was able to launder some money, get the results for the upcoming mid-term elections and find out that Putin will win his next three elections.
My bus driver off the mountain the next day was, Mick King. We had a great conversation all the way to San Bernadino. Mick is a retired Sargent Major in the British Army. Then he spent several years as a Yeoman in the Queens Guard. I love meeting interesting people. I was able to Google image Mick and find a pic of him standing directly behind the Queen. He was stationed all over the world, met his Californian wife while having his picture taken with her during a tour of the Palace in his Yeoman's uniform.



Waiting for the snow to melt out of the Sierra before continuing. When I flew out to Bakersfield, March 1st, snow level was 17% of average. It now stands at close to 50%. Will watch and see.