Thursday, February 25, 2021

This blog is not necessarily directed at older backpackers like myself. It can apply to anyone, at any age. At 71 I am less bulletproof than I was fifty years ago, but I still find I can get up at dark-thirty and walk until sunset without too much discomfort. This comes from a constant effort to stay healthy, stay in hiking shape, pinpoint problem areas and work on them, and embrace common sense, lightweight backpacking methods, and gear. My biggest problem over the years has been a nagging pain on my left side, upper trapezoid muscle. Occasionally, it feels like a hot poker branded into my shoulder blade. I can relieve it in a matter of seconds by stopping, dropping my pack, and massaging the trigger-point. This lasts about an hour until I have to go through the whole process again. I’m not real big on doctors. I know I could spend a lot of money getting several medical opinions and sorting out the quacks from the real deal, but I decided to work on it myself using Dr. Google. I fix my car by watching YouTube, why not my body? I am not trying to impugn all doctors, but as I said, I’m 72, so I have had some experience with them. The old joke is “What do you call a doctor that finished last in his class in medical school? Answer: DOCTOR! Before I tell you what I discovered to solve my condition, let me give you an example of how going to a doctor may not be your solution. I took a bad fall when I was 43 doing something really stupid. I was hiking at Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore. At a steep dune leading down to Lake Michigan, there was a sign that said, “480-foot drop, do not run down.” I ran down. Late that day I ended up in the emergency room, meeting doctor No. 1. Besides extreme pain, I explained to him that my collar bone was sticking out about an inch on my right side. Now, I admit I have never been to med school, but that seemed to me to be a good clue that something was off-kilter. Dr. No. 1 had them X-ray me, prescribed pain pills, and sent me home to suffer. The pain subsided in a week or two, but I had the weirdest symptoms. I had no strength in my right arm, I couldn’t lift anything over my head. Also, my shoulder blade would not stay in place, it would wing out instead of lying flat. It didn’t hurt so I let it go for a year or so. Enter Dr. No. 2. I eventually sought a second opinion because of the lack of strength in my right arm. I went to a specialist. He explained that I had a “winged scapula.” He also diagnosed me with “Long Thoracic Nerve Palsy.” He said, “It’s like a drunk that falls asleep with his arm over a chair all night. It kills the nerve. It may regenerate itself, or it may not.” He then took an X-ray and sent me on my way. Seven years after my fall, I was preparing to hike the Continental Divide Trail. I met a Chiropractor at a dinner party and he offered to sponsor my hike by giving my whole family 3 months of Chiropractic care. I showed up at his office the next day. I didn’t even get out of his lobby before he completely cured me. He asked if I had any particular issues. I said, “Ya, I have no strength in my right arm.” He cocked my arm up across my stomach, had me make a fist, stepped behind me, reached around, grabbed my fist, and adjusted me right there. I heard a pop and immediately had all the strength back in my right arm. He said my shoulder was out of joint. Which means my shoulder had been out of joint for seven years. So did Dr. No. 1&2 sleep through Shoulder Anatomy 101, or does M.D. stand for MisDiagnostics? The moral of the story is “save some money and go to Dr. Google. So how did I fix my burning upper trapezoid sensation? It took a few hours of sorting through YouTube quacks to pick out people who seemed to make sense in pinpointing my problem. As it turns out it wasn’t “Old Man Neck Arthritis.” It wasn’t misspent youth running down dunes. It turned out to be a very common problem that even young people suffer from, “Bad Posture.” I spent 25 years as a writer hunched over a keyboard. It was a silent invasion of discomfort that slowly changed the muscle memory in my neck and back. The good news is, it didn’t take 25 years to retrain those same muscles. I found dozens of simple exercises to stretch and strengthen those muscles. Once conscious of the problem the solution was easy. At an average base weight of 15 pounds, my pack with good food and water management seldom weighs over 25 pounds. Once I cured the upper trap burning sensation I could truly hike all day without stopping if I cared to. I am not suggesting you hike all day without a break, I am simply implying that getting to that point physically will make your backpacking so much more enjoyable. If you have gnawing little muscle or joint grievances, don’t ignore them, tackle them immediately. There is always an underlying reason for every pain. Often there will be a simple solution. —Keep Smilin’

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Pulling the Trigger on a New Tent


 Lightening a backpack should include methodology as much as material. At 71, I am as old as some of the rock layers you find at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. In the realm of backpacking, I come from the age of “canvas and canned goods.” They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but that is not true in my case. To extend my long-distance hiking years I have eased into the ideas of “Ultralight” to some degree. I’m a gear-head, gram-weenie, long-trail addict, that reads every new gear review and follows well-produced YouTube Channels. 


But, I’m a hard sell. I’ve spent too many nights in extreme conditions to fall for some false prophet on the internet who is tent reviewing in the backyard, or stove testing in the kitchen. 

As much as I appreciate many of the cottage industry products and designs that have enabled decent shelters to tip the scale under a pound, I haven’t been able to bring myself to pull the trigger and buy one.

I have been a long time Hilleberg fan. I have been using their products for the past twenty years. Most of that time using the Akto which tipped the scale at just under 4 lbs. Five years ago I switched to the Enan. Mine is one of the originals using 600 Kerlon. It comes in at 37 ounces the way I use it. That includes the outer tent, inner tent, 6 pegs, and center pole. There have been a couple of nights I wished I had the two-pole guy outs and pegs, but the tent survived the blow and kept me warm and dry without them.

Never say never. Being a hopeless gear-head, I can’t help myself from watching YouTube reviews of Dyneema tents. I like the Zpacks Altaplex. Tipping the scale at under 20 oz. it seems well designed. Experience is my problem. I have witnessed many trekking pole tents blown down along the PCT, while I slept through the whole wind event. To save a pound of tent carry I would give up double-wall warmth, zippered vestibule, low profile, and narrow footprint. I often stealth camp and would also give up my dark, forest green silnylon. A lot of new hikers do not realize how often and difficult it is to find a large enough tent site to park your gear for the night. 

In my case, I often hike until dark and deal with a limited choice of tent sites. A small tent footprint gives more options to late hikers. The zipper-less vestibule allows wind to penetrate the tent and cause it to fail. You can watch all the YouTubes you want, but you will not realize the power of wind until you spend all night a ripstop away from chaos. Any tent I carry will have zippered openings. 

Some would argue that there is little difference between a single and double-walled tent. I beg to differ. As crazy as it sounds, I can feel a huge temperature drop when I reach out into my vestibule in the middle of the night. I also notice a huge difference in being able to keep condensation at bay using a double-walled tent.  

At this point, water management will be a better way to save weight than buying a new $600 tent. That’s right, we are talking about a half-liter of water. That is the difference between my proven bomb shelter tent and one of the new Dyneema models floating around the backpacking world.

Recently, Tarptent has introduced a tent that seems to check all the boxes for me. There may just be a new tent in my future. It is called the Notch LI. It is almost a knockoff of my Enan using Dyneema and trekking poles instead of Kerlon and 9mm center pole.

It comes in at about 22 ounces, is double-walled, low profile, dual vestibule with waterproof zipper openings, small footprint, double-end ventilation, and easy setup. 

If you are looking for a more spacious tent there are better options. Personally, I eat, sleep, hike. I do not need a Taj Mahal when I stop for the day. 

So, the bottom line for me is the reliability of Dyneema. It seems like a very interesting material that I should experiment with before I pass any judgment through inexperience. I would guess that a Dyneema tent will not take the beating that my Hilleberg Kerlon has. 

The only problem I have had with tents in the past 60 years of backpacking have involved critters. Mostly guy lines chewed by rodents during the night. But, there have been other situations. I have had rodents chew the actual tent and pack material, I have had a bear stick his head through my closed zippered vestibule, and I have had raccoons claw and puncture my fly material. These are situations you cannot predict, but you can prepare for. 

No matter what shelter option you choose, be as careful as possible with site selection and carry a few repair items. My first night on the PCT I slept near an underpass about 24 miles up the trail. It was close to the road, but a little forested area with a soft duff ground cover. I thought it was the perfect tent site. In the middle of the night, I woke up and my NeoAir XLite pad was completely deflated. Beneath the soft forest duff was an ancient barbed wire fence hidden by time and debris. During the night it worked its way through my tent bathtub floor and into my pad, leaving an L-shaped gash in both. Carrying a bit of repair tape and patch material will solve these unforeseen circumstances and keep you making forward motion.