Thursday, May 3, 2018


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'


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


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’