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.


Tuesday, February 20, 2018

"PACK YOUR OWN PACK"

Besides "hike your own hike" I like the idea, "pack your own pack." It could even be a mantra. You should not let others decide what works for you. Decide for yourself what gear gives you comfort, safety, and confidence. There is a process if you are new to backpacking. It takes time and miles to discover what is best for you. Eventually you will balance the weight of an item to convenience, warmth, comfort, style, budget, and safety. 
The original purpose of going ultra-light included the desire to do monster daily mileage. Getting into the single digits of pack pounds means trading a bit of misery for mileage. If that equates to more zero or nero days, it defeats the purpose completely. 
At 68, I find light-weight, comfortable gear a great way to stretch the years I will be able to continue this addiction of spending days, weeks and months hiking in some of the planet's most spectacular wilderness. Much has to do with new hi-tech materials and innovation, but it still comes down to choice. 
I spend a lot of time on the trail hiking with and questioning people about their gear. I am fascinated how they end up reconciling what they carry. Many are in self-denial, not counting the  five pounds of gear in their cargo pants pockets. There are dozens of ways to calculate base weight. While scanning media, looking for nuggets of wisdom, the due diligence is up to you. 
 Hiking Umbrella
When it comes to weight, I personally find myself in a math roller coaster. When I get down under fifteen pounds I add another layer of comfort. How much is that 8 oz. umbrella worth? I think it is priceless in the Mojave. 
From what I observe, electronics should be added to the "Big Three." It is not uncommon to meet a backpacker carrying under ten pounds of hiking gear with an extra three pounds of electronics--phones, cameras, chargers, cables, and yes, drones. I find it pretty incredible that, besides doing a successful thru-hike, vlogging backpackers like "Homemade Wanderlust" and "Chocolate Balls" can produce professional video on a daily basis, while a majority of others fail to complete a trail or struggle miserably. Most viewers, sitting at home on the couch, vicariously hiking a long trail through this amazing technology, do not fully appreciate how much extra work, effort and weight it takes to carry this off. 
I count every piece of gear, and consider the average weight of consumables. I always look for gear that can serve more than one purpose. I am interested in weight, space, diversity, quality and protective purpose. There are as many options and opinions as there are miles of trail. I hope this helps in you finding yours.

 ULA Circuit
Pack:
ULA Circuit--I have put thousands of miles on this pack, many of them desert miles, that tend to destroy gear. I have had to sew up a few cactus snags, but have never had any issues with straps, mesh, belts, or closures. It is a top loader with adjustable storage space. It will easily hold a bear canister when necessary, and has enough pockets and mesh to keep gear organized. When I switched to this pack it saved an incredible 5 lbs. of weight without giving up any convenience or utility.


Bag:
 Zpacks Classic Sleeping Bag
Zpacks Classic, standard, 5 degree bag--Many people make the mistake of going by a bag's temperature rating. You have to take ratings with a grain of salt. For the average person, a 30 degree bag will keep you comfortable at around 40 degrees. You can layer up, but if you are carrying layers just to stay warm at night, you might just as well put your money and weight into more down. A good night's sleep will be a huge part of your success and enjoyment when hiking. It is so much easier to let heat out than keep it in. This bag weighs less than 25 oz. compared to my older 0 degree bag that weighs in just under 4 lbs. As a cold sleeper, my 30 degree bag is only useful on warm summer nights. This bag saves weight by sacrificing a hood and zipper draft collar. With a 3/4 length zipper it can also function as a quilt. 
 Hilleberg Enan

Tent:
Hilleberg Enan--This has just replaced my Hilleberg Akto. Same design with much lighter material. Like my Akto, this tent is a bomb shelter. I have already spent a night caught on a ridge in a 60 mph sleet storm that turned to corn snow. It blew so hard and steady all night the center ridge pole laid across my legs most of the night. The reason is because I eliminated the side guylines to save a few ounces. I have now replaced one--lesson learned.  In the morning, everything in my vestibule was covered in mountain mortar (frozen snow and dirt). It was like sleeping inside a flag during a hurricane, but never a doubt that this tent would do what it was designed to do--keep me dry and protected from the madness just a mere ripstop away. 
It has plenty of room for me to pack everything up inside the shelter of the tent. When I step out into the elements I only have to pack up the tent and strap it into one of my water bottle pockets. I never separate the tent from the fly. I have put it up many times in a downpour and find very little moisture to deal with before I climb in.  The Akto served me well for 17 years and thousands of miles. I expect the same quality from my Enan. I study other tent options, but it will take some real innovation to move me out of this double wall, light-weight, small footprint shelter. 
To protect my investment I carry a TYVEK footprint. I have opted for the light weight 1443R material. It is 5 oz. lighter in my configuration than the normal house wrap. It also protects my tent as it is carried on the outside of my pack. I wrap the tent in the footprint before stuffing into the carry sack.

Clothing system:
Running shorts seem to be the norm on the trail, but I'm not normal. I never where shorts. I'm Irish and old, so keeping the sun at bay is always a top priority for me. I wear quick dry pants with lots of cargo pocket storage, and zips for securing valuables. I have one Columbia Silver Ridge long-sleeve shirt that is stink-proof (NOT!). Ex-officio boxers, Darn Tough socks, a Buff, and a Tilley hat. 
I carry another set of clothing I call town clothes, sleeping clothes or insurance clothes. I used to joke, in the old days when there were restaurant smoking sections, that I could go into any eatery near the trail and sit wherever I wanted and people would just move. It is most likely still true today, but I prefer to clean up a bit before going in to represent the hiking class. I now carry Patagonia Houdini pants (actually, they're ballet warmup pants) and pullovers that work as town clothes, laundry clothes and sleeping clothes. They can also be used in light rain and wind, and assure me dry clothing after a day of hiking in continuous rain. I carry a second set of Ex-officio and Darn Tough as well. 
 Patagonia Nano Puff Bivy Hoody
For warm layers I carry two Patagonia Nano Puff pullovers. One is a hoody with a kangaroo zippered pocket, which is great for storage convenience. You start out at dark thirty in the morning when it is freezing, all layered up. This hoody pocket allows you to manage glove, hat and mitt storage on the fly. It is also a secure place to store phone, batteries and water filter on freezing nights when I often sleep with it on. The second pullover I use in frigid weather as insulated pants. (Sorry, no video here). Call me goofy but I'm warm. I just put my legs in the arms and it works like a charm.
 Patagonia Houdini Pullover Wind Shirt
I also carry down socks and a second merino Buff. I'm a cold sleeper and often deal with temps in the teens. This is what I would call valuable weight to comfort ratio. We are talking under 4 oz. for excellent heat storage. Add to that Zpacks possum hair gloves. Weighing in at 2 oz. these replaced my half-pound down mitts. I made glove liners using Tyvek envelopes and fabric glue. I find this combination as warm as my mitts. They can also be worn to bed on a cold night.
I carry the town clothes in a Zpacks cuben fiber bag that my sleeping bag came stored in. It is light and waterproof. 

 Sea to Summit Poncho
Sea To Summit Ultra-Sil Nano Tarp Poncho--This is a great piece of gear. I have never carried rain pants or jacket. I have always found them restrictive, clammy, and limited. A poncho breathes, covers the pack, makes a great ground cloth or rain shelter. This poncho is light, fits in my belt pocket for easy access, and can be parked on my pack during those days when the weather can't make up it's mind to rain or not. I also carry a small web strap to hold the poncho tight to my waist in a wind event. It has a hood and bill cap to direct water away from the face, snaps on the sides for adjustment, and tie-outs for shelter use. 

 Sea to Summit Pillow
Sea to Summit Pillow--This would be almost sacrilegious for a gram weeny to carry, but I will plead the case that a good night's sleep is worth its weight in gold. Over the years I have used my pack, my clothes, my platys, or a combination of the whole bunch, but for a couple ounces this is consistent comfort. It takes seconds to inflate to an adjustable level.

 Compression Dry Sack
Sea to Summit waterproof compression sack-- I like this as much for the compression as the fact that it is waterproof. I use it for my Zpacks sleeping bag, pillow, and down socks. Pack space is at a premium the lighter you get. I like to compartmentalize my gear and everything has a parking space. Being consistent will save a lot of frustration in adverse conditions when you need to be productive and not scattered. Think like a fireman. Finding and deploying gear should be muscle memory. Keeping gear compact and giving it access seniority will leave you some breathing room for shuffling around in your pack. Building good hiking habits make setting and breaking camp, as well as cooking, faster and more efficient. 

 Sleeping Pad
Thermarest NeoAir Xlite--I run into a lot of backpackers that don't remember when phones were hooked to a wall, or when sleeping on pine boughs was the only way to have a soft bed in the backcountry. After years of sleeping on a Thermarest 3/4 self-inflater, sleeping on the Xlite is like dying and going to heaven. It's better than a waterbed. They will have to take my NeoAir from my cold dead hand. Full length and insulated, it only takes a couple minutes to inflate, 13 oz. (Enough said). Don't forget to carry a patch kit, especially in the desert. 

 Jetfoil stove
Jetboil cookstove-- I have an older model. That means this gear passes the test of time. Nothing is infallible. I have had the FluxRing disintegrate a couple times, and both times the company replaced my cup at no charge. I don't even expect that kind of customer service, but that is a breath of fresh air and speaks volumes about the company's commitment to product. They now make a burner that is less of a blow torch and will simmer much better, but I am not a cook. I am a water boiling, freezer bag chef who appreciates the fast action of a good blow torch. I modify everything. With the Jetboil I replaced the thin plastic cup, that protects the FluxRing, with a tin can. When I run out of fuel on a long stretch, I can use the can to build a small hobo fire and still boil water. I don't even want to be stove-less when I'm fuel-less. 
I carry a canister refill adapter that allows me to refill my canisters with butane available at most hardware stores. Instead of paying five bucks for a small fuel container I can refill for under a dollar when I find butane on sale. 
I have built, designed, refined and tested alcohol stoves. They just are not for me. Cooking with alcohol is like watching glaciers race downhill. They are also being restricted in more and more areas for good reason. Tipping one over is an instant, out-of-control, fire. I used a ZipZtove, which requires carrying no fuel, for many years. I learned to use it quickly and efficiently in all kinds of weather. As fire events have become so common they were frowned upon by more and more agencies and I just got tired of the hassle. Used properly they are safe, reliable and light.

Kitchen Gear-- I use three Ziploc, screw-top quart containers, that nest together, for eating and drinking. I carry two lids. When in the pack they hold part of my food and my Jetboil collapsible spoon. I add my food to the container before pouring in boiling water and screwing a lid on. I have no need for a cozy, I just set the container in one of my pullovers and wait a few minutes. They are great for mixing instant pudding and instant breakfast powders. I add all ingredients, screw the lid on and shake it like a paint mixer. For clean up I add a drop of Dr. Bonner's soap, pour in some hot water and shake again, with the lid loose, so it doesn't blow up. It's that simple, rinse and store. 

My Trail Chrome Umbrella--I mentioned the math roller coaster before. This is one of those items that kept calling my name once I hit the 14 lb. base weight mark. It is much like carrying hiking poles in the 90's. If I had a quarter for everyone that said, "Hey, where are your skis?" I would be as wealthy as a dot com billionaire. Now people give me the weirdo look as they approach me on the trail with my umbrella deployed. The difference is, they are sweating under various hats and I am hatless and cool as a cucumber. It also keeps me from pulling out my poncho in the rain until it really starts to pour. To be hands-free took a bit of experimentation. I read all kinds of ideas that didn't work for me. Most tied you into the shaft like Harry Houdini in chains. Every time you needed to deploy or demobilize, it meant taking the pack off and wrestling with the umbrella. The easy fix turned out to be water bladder tubing strap clips. I attached three clips on my shoulder strap and weave the shaft into them. This method takes a few seconds as you continue to hike. Removing it works the same. This is very secure, hands-free. The umbrella is designed to drop down if the wind catches it, instead of turning inside-out like a conventional umbrella. It fits next to my tent in the water bottle pocket and I can reach and attach it without missing a stride.

 Pee Bottle
Nalgene collapsible canteen-- I already explained how much I love my tent. I am not getting out of my warm bag and tent in the middle of the night when nature calls, and at my age nature calls are a constant echo. Without going into a lot of detail, this works perfectly for me. 

First Aid Kit--On my first thru-hike I told my doctor friend, and backpacking buddy, that he was in charge of my first aid kit. I told him I wanted to be able to do everything but open heart surgery, but it had to weigh less than 12 oz. He gave me drugs. Sitting on a rock along the CDT in the middle of New Mexico one hot afternoon, I decided to look at the list he included with content descriptions and instructions. It was useful information. Example: "If having a heart attack take two of these every hour until you die."
Today I carry very little. A few basic bandages and gauze, vitamin I (Ibuprofen), Pepto Bismol tabs for the bad belly, triple antibiotic cream, tweezers, needle and floss, Benadryl, and Tylenol. I carry a lot of Gorilla tape on my hiking poles to wrap gauze and fix sleeping pad holes.

 Hiking PolesHiking Poles--I have carbon fiber poles. The majority of the time I am using them, but I do want them as light as possible. On cold mornings I strap them to the pack so that I can be hands-free and keep my frozen fingers toasty warm in my pockets if necessary. When the sun flies I pull them out and use them the rest of the day. They have many pros and few cons. I would not hike without them for balance, upper body movement, noise maker (especially in grizzly country), camera mount, rattlesnake pusher, and possible ice axe. I would caution against relying on poles for self-arrest. I slid a thousand feet down Fuller Ridge on the PCT trying to use my pole as an ice axe. The snow was so hard the tip of my pole did not make a dent or slow me at all. I was gripping the pole right at the bottom of the shaft and giving it all I had. Lucky for me there were a lot of unfriendly trees and rocks to slow me down. A true ice axe will help guarantee you do not become a human pinball.

 Water FilterSawyer Squeeze--Most people would not think of this as a luxury item, but I do. I have been hiking for 50 years and have never filtered water. My wife thinks I will die from giardia or grizzly bear. The Griz might be a lot less painful. This year in Arizona it has been so dry and water is tough to find. I have ingested some real nasty stuff and the Superstition Wilderness has had an outbreak of rabies. More than once, I have found dead animals at scarce water holes. Since filters have come a long way, I decided to try one. Like cooking with alcohol, I have no patience to wait for results. I modified the Squeeze to hang off the back of my pack and filter as I walk. I still only filter the nastiest pools, but in Arizona a mud puddle is often a hallelujah moment. The opening on the Squeeze allows you to insert a common faucet, screened grommet, to filter the big chunks before they reach the filter itself. I am not suggesting everyone should stop filtering. If you drink the water in Mexico, you might get the screamers, but the people of Mexico do not. I think it is building up your immunities. 

 2L Water Bag
Water containers: Two 1-liter Platys, two SmartWater bottles, one CNOC 2-liter dirty water bladder. This gives me a six liter capacity if I ever need it. In most cases I am only carrying a liter or less. Much has to do with distance. The more distance you cover in a day the more water options you will have, even in the driest environs. 

 Headlamp
Petzl Zipka light: This is another long term piece of equipment. It is compact, with a retractable head band. It has two settings, and is great for reading at night, early morning hiking in the dark, or setting up camp in the dark. It takes 3 AAA batteries and is very efficient. I carry one set of extra batteries. 

Knife--Okay, I could lose an ounce here, but there is something to be said for nostalgia. I have had this 3.5 ounce knife for many years. About the only time I used it was to cut some moleskin on Isle Royale. I dropped the knife and it stuck, in the upright position, in my thigh, as if I were winning at a game of mumbly peg. I still have the scar. The point is, I may need it one day. It's in a scabbard, it floats, it has a flint hidden in the handle, it is razor sharp and it is strapped to my shoulder harness encase I am attacked by a grizzly and need to quickly kill myself.  

Food Bag and hanging rope: I carry my food in a Zpacks Cuben Fiber bag that is easily accessible, waterproof, has a Velcro closure, a plastic clip closure and a few loops for hanging. Attached I have 100 ft. of light nylon rope that is more than enough for many variations of hanging techniques.

Misc.--I carry extra eyeglasses because I am actually blind in one eye, but I like to see out of the good one. Most other items I carry are by choice, light and self-explanatory. They include: Bug head net, credit card, cash, microfiber cloth, mini BIC lighter, toothbrush/paste, Dr. Bonner soap in 1/4 oz. bottle, lip balm, sunscreen, safety pins, rubber bands, GI can opener, micro carabiner, a small washing machine (if you were sleeping that might have piqued your interest). I use a 2 gal. Ziploc bag to do laundry in a pinch. 

Luxuries I might add when I get back down to the 14 lb. base weight threshold again-- I really like the Vargo titanium dig dig tool. I now use a hiking pole for cat holes, but the Vargo design can be used as a tent stake. I sometimes need an additional stake if I guy out the side of my tent in a strong wind. 

 Solar PanelHow will I get down to 14 lb. again? I only have to lose one ugly pound, and I don't mean cutting off my head. What we need is better battery technology. I just read about the research development of a nano battery the size of a red corpuscle, yet as powerful as a car battery. Now we're talking. Backpacking electronics would have to be considered today's Achilles heel for a respectable backpacking ultra-lighter. I personally only use my iPhone 5s as a GPS and occasionally a call or text. I don't listen to music, play games, watch TV and movies, VLOG, Tweet, or Facebook, and take very few pics. I simply turn it on occasionally and see where Guthook thinks I am. In the old days I was like Davy Crockett - never lost, but confused for a couple weeks. It takes over a pound of gear to guarantee power for 10 to 12 days. I rarely make town stops, zero's, or nero's. I have my phone off or in airplane mode and still go through battery power fairly quickly. My current solution for a thru-hike is a very large fusion reactor collector. That would be my solar panel. It is one of the first items many thru-hikers jettison, but I find it efficient if used properly.  Besides the IPhone and cables, I have an Anker 15W PowerPort solar panel stripped down to 9 oz.  When not exposed to constant sun these panels are finicky. When I get desperate I have to stop and dedicate time to recharging by insuring the two panels full continuous sun. There are many reliable backup battery packs available if you do not mind carrying a brick. I personally like the fact that I can plug into the sun and will continue to play hide and seek with it's magical rays until I can get my hands on one of those red corpuscle batteries. 

Without giving individual scale readings, this whole collection weighs in at 14 lbs. 8 oz. That is excluding the clothes I wear everyday, my poles, and the phone in my pocket. To this I add 1 lb. of calorie dense food per day, one small fuel canister nested in my jetboil, and water as needed. I seldom do less than one week trips and usually 10 to 12 day stretches during thru-hikes. If I can leave the trailhead with less than 30 pounds on my back I find it a constantly diminishing, comfortable load that provides me everything I need for comfort, safety and confidence in any conditions. 
—Keep Smilin’