I returned yesterday from seven nights of backpacking in Baxter State Park with my friend, Tom. The trip had been more than six months in the planning, with campsite reservations made carefully in April and travel arrangements scheduled as tightly as possible. When the day arrived, last Monday, I was jittery with excitement. I’d been to the park three times before, but never hiked anywhere but on the Appalachian Trail. This week-long trip would be all new terrain for me.

Tom arrived at my place at 6 AM, and we set out from there. Breakfast at Dysart’s was our only stop, but even so, we didn’t arrive at the northern gate of the park until around 11:30. After leaving Tom’s car at the northern end of the park, we drove my car 45 miles along the park’s dirt road to Roaring Brook, finally arriving at 1:30 PM. I was prone to outbursts during the drive, like “TOM! WE’RE F***ING DOING IT!” I was pretty excited about this trip.

It had rained in the morning, but all that remained of that were clouds covering Baxter Peak in the afternoon. It felt so good to be on a classic New England trail again, with its granite boulders and inconveniently placed roots. Between the excitement and the feeling of being on my home terrain for the first time all summer, I sped up the Chimney Pond Trail ahead of Tom, and didn’t even bother stopping to check in.

Instead, I made a quick left turn on the Dudley Trail to climb Pamola Peak. The Dudley climbs 2000 feet in just under a mile, straight up the giant boulders to the eastern peak of Katahdin. I may have overestimated the shape of my muscles as I began the climb at 3:30 PM, marching right up to the top by 4:30. By the time I arrived, the clouds were just finishing the process of enveloping the summit, and then letting loose a weak drizzle. I had thought of maybe crossing the Knife Edge at this point, but instead I listened to my better judgment and descended as I’d come up. The down-climb was even more difficult than the climb up, more like rock climbing and bouldering than walking. There were plenty of places where I used only my hands, and no feet to get down.

At the bottom, my legs were shaking and weary, but my mood was still ecstatic. The forecast was better than it had been all summer. I joined Tom in the bunkhouse and settled in for the night.

Here is Tom’s account of the day, with slightly more sensible hiking plans.

A view into the Great Basin on my way up the Chimney Pond Trail.

A view into the Great Basin on my way up the Chimney Pond Trail.

Starting up the boulder field of the Dudley Trail, looking down into the Great Basin and Chimney Pond.

Starting up the boulder field of the Dudley Trail, looking down into the Great Basin and Chimney Pond.

Pamola Peak and the Knife Edge just before being swallowed by a cloud.

Pamola Peak and the Knife Edge just before being swallowed by a cloud.

That's where we're going...

That’s where we’re going…

I just finished my first summer of being a backpacking instructor for the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), working two two-week courses in the Palisades Range and the Wyoming Range, both on the Idaho/Wyoming border. Both courses were Adventure courses (for students aged 14-15 years), and they both opened my eyes quite a bit about the school.

NOLS has a reputation for teaching ultra-heavy backpacking, and perpetuating the idea that heavy packs are the only way to hike. While there is some truth to the reputation, there’s a lot more to how NOLS teaches backpacking, and the school does pay attention to weight. But there are many more factors than weight and hiking distance that influence what goes into a NOLS student’s pack.

How heavy are the packs?
For both of my courses, I used my ULA Circuit pack, and one of my co-instructors used a 2nd generation Gossamer Gear Mariposa. The students generally use large packs, which weigh between 4 and 6 pounds empty, but the total weights of their packs were between 30 and 37 pounds at the start of the course. That includes about 11 pounds of food and a few pounds of fuel in each pack, so base weights were probably around 20 pounds. Hardly back-breaking.

River crossings with a NOLS course.

River crossings with a NOLS course.

What is NOLS’s attitude toward lightweight backpacking?
As far as I can tell, NOLS doesn’t have an institutional opinion on pack weights, other than that they shouldn’t exceed 40% of the student’s body weight. Individual instructors have opinions on lightweight backpacking, for sure, but there seem to be more and more who are interested in carrying less. The main reasons for carrying more weight are that there is a lot of camp time rather than moving time on a course, and that certain course locations and seasons require more equipment for safety reasons (my instructor course in 2012 was very snowy, so we packed more fuel, insulation, and cold-weather gear). Summer courses in the Rockies, or spring and fall in the southwest, see little rain or frigid temperatures, so they are able to carry less equipment.

Why doesn’t NOLS use lightweight packs and tents?
NOLS sends hundreds of students into the wilderness each year on backpacking courses (not to mention mountaineering, paddling, climbing, and other course types), many of whom have no prior experience in the outdoors. Courses are either two or four weeks long, with no trips into town to replace broken gear. Resupply happens on trail, but only food and fuel are sent in. Backpacks and tents need to be sturdy enough to survive the stresses of novice hikers (14 year-olds in this case— not an age group known for taking good care of their possessions) for that time period. We sewed several tears in equipment and replaced several zippers in the field, both common fixes for NOLS backpacking equipment. Between courses, we patched many more holes in tents and fixed more rips in backpacks. Since most students rent packs from NOLS, those packs need to stand up to years of heavy use before retirement. As durable as my lightweight packs have been over the years, they wouldn’t hold up to the level of use NOLS packs see for very long.

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Why doesn’t NOLS use lighter stoves?
One of the most universal classes at NOLS is cooking. Not freezer-bag cooking, or one-pot-meal cooking, but serious camp cooking. Pizza, cinnamon rolls, cobblers, fudge, and lasagna are just a few of the complex meals that get cooked on a whisperlite stove on NOLS courses. Alcohol stoves wouldn’t cut it, and canister stoves would generate tons of trash to haul out of the field. Whisperlites are easy to fix in the field, and they’re versatile. I doubt NOLS will go with anything else for backpacking anytime soon.

Will the school ever truly go lightweight?
I talked about this often with my co-instructor. For now, NOLS summer packs are “light enough” in that they don’t totally crush the students (at least when the instructors are into lightweight packing enough to teach the students not to bring ten pairs of socks, three fleeces, and so on). Gear will get lighter because of the industry trend, but the big equipment that students get from NOLS (packs, sleeping bags, tents, cookware, etc.) won’t get lighter until the school can be certain of getting many years of hard use out of each item before retiring it. Any school needs to make money to survive, and buying packs that would only last a season or two would basically be throwing money away.

What about NOLS lightweight courses?
NOLS actually offers lightweight backpacking courses, but there are few compared with the number of standard hiking courses, and they are restricted to students 23 years and older. I’m hoping to work on one of these courses next year, so hopefully I’ll have some more to report on them next year.

Last year, my buddy Tom and I went to a talk by noted Maine outdoor journalist Carey Kish about his end-to-end hike of Baxter Park. We both got pretty excited about the idea, so for my last big hike of the summer, Tom and I are heading to Baxter for our own long backpacking trip (starting tomorrow morning). Planning such backpacking trips in the park is no small task— Baxter Park’s regulations are pretty strict in order to maintain the wild character of the forest and mountains, so we’ve been planning this trip since March.

Chimney Pond and north from Baxter Peak. Time for exploring!

Chimney Pond and north from Baxter Peak. Time for exploring!

The first challenge of planning a backpacking trip in Baxter park is that you need to reserve specific campsites about four months in advance. There’s no leeway for missing your campsite, so we had to plan on campsites that are relatively close together, and either don’t have major obstacles between them, or have alternate routes. For instance, I plan on hiking over Katahdin on day three to get from Chimney Pond to Russel Pond, but if the weather looks particularly bad I’ll have to hike down from Chimney Pond to the road, then take a riverside trail to Russel. Sticking around for another night at Chimney Pond isn’t an option.

The second major challenge is that Baxter is pretty remote, so we won’t be coming out of the park for resupply at any point. There are no options for resupply in the park, so we need to have all of our food in the park from the start. To allow ourselves not to carry a full seven days of food at first, we’re using one of Carey’s strategies— we’ll leave a cooler of food in one car at the north entrance of the park, so we can resupply from that about halfway through the trip.

The third challenge was figuring out a cost-effective hiking strategy. Each campsite at Baxter Park has a reservation fee (and if your car is from out of state, you also have to pay an entrance fee to the park). Campsites are between $14 and $30 per site depending on popularity and proximity to roads, but you can fit up to four people at a site. The only major exception is the Chimney Pond bunkhouse, which is $10 per person. We’ll stay at the bunkhouse on night one, then at campsites each other night. We found one person to join us at the last minute, but we were prepared to split the cost between the two of us. For seven nights split two ways, this came out to about $90. In my younger days I would have balked at the price, but now I see it as a way to find the most solitude possible on popular hiking trails, and to support the trail maintenance at one of my favorite places on the planet.

The last challenge will be choosing how to hike once we’re in the park. Since we planned our campsites to be close to each other, the strategy is to have short minimum hikes (campsite to campsite) but long optional hikes (side trails and alternate routes between sites). I want to hike as many trails as possible to see as much terrain as I can. I’ve never been north of Katahdin in the park before, so I want to see The Travelers, Grand Lake Matagamon, Russel Pond, Black Cat Mountain, Davis Pond, and so much more. So even though our campsites are only an average of 5 miles apart, I’ll probably be hiking 15 to 20 miles each day if conditions allow it. I can’t wait.

You can check out our itinerary at Tom’s blog. I’ll be putting up detailed trip reports after the trip is done. If you want to plan a similar hike, drop us a line, or you can always call the park office— the rangers have always been super friendly and helpful for me when I’ve tried to reserve campsites at the park.

Last summer I bought my first piece of Cuben Fiber, a ZPacks Blast Food Bag. Having never owned any Cuben Fiber gear, I just wanted to see what the stuff was like in person, rather than reading about it online. My end goal was to see if I wanted to try a shelter or tarp made of Cuben Fiber, which I’d been hoping to try for quite some time. My only real reservations were durability, since I’ve never met anyone with the lightest fabric for tents, and cost, since Cuben tents and tarps can be extremely pricey. The food bag from ZPacks is less than $30, so that seemed like a good investment. Judging by how many ZPacks Blast Food Bags I saw on the Appalachian Trail last month, it seems like almost every other hiker out there went this route as well.

This summer, a friend ordered some discounted Cuben Fiber from eBay and built a tarp for me to test out on the trail (named The Lupus, after his dog). That gave me even more time to observe the material in action, and I must say I’m nicely impressed with it.

The Lupus Tarp at work in the field.

The Lupus Tarp at work in the field.

First, the reasons I wanted to switch from a silnylon shelter (which I’ve been using for the past 8 years) to a Cuben Fiber shelter. Weight is actually not a part of the equation for me. Let me say that again, though, just to get that straight: even though a tarp with the same construction as my silnylon one would weigh about half as much in Cuben, that’s not at all why I wanted to upgrade.

Here are the reasons:
No Seam Sealing: Cuben Fiber sheets are glued together with an ultra-strong tape/glue rather than sewn. Sewn seams on silnylon leak over time, and silicone seam sealers break down over time. This was a problem for me on the Pacific Crest Trail, and has started to be a problem with my silnylon tarp. I’d rather never deal with seam sealing.
No Stretch: Silnylon is a stretchy material, which is actually kind of nice when trying to pitch the tarp very tightly. But the problem is that when the material gets cold, it stretches on its own, which means the nice, tight tent you pitched in the evening turns into a sagging, flapping mess when the temperature drops at night and the rain starts. Cuben Fiber has no stretch whatsoever, so the tight pitch stays tight.
Newer Construction: Okay, this isn’t actually a feature of Cuben Fiber, but I’ve been looking to get a new shelter to replace my trusty old tarp because I wanted newer features like Linelocks for better adjustments of guylines, a shaped tarp for more efficient set up, and catenary ridge line for a tighter pitch. I figured if I was going to get a new shelter, I might as well go with all the features I wanted.

ZPacks food bag, the most common piece of Cuben Fiber on the AT.

ZPacks food bag, the most common piece of Cuben Fiber on the AT.

The issue of durability, which is the major concern for most people, should be entirely laid to rest. The Blast Food Bag uses a very thick grade of Cuben (1.4 ounce/square yard) for maximum durability, and since the small bag doesn’t need to be incredibly light. The Lupus uses the lightest grade (0.5 oz/yd), the same that ZPacks uses for their shelters. The Lupus stood up to heavy winds without any issues with damage. I’m sure if a tree fell on it, there might be some issues, but then again I can think of more problems than the tent getting damaged in that case. After 8 years of using my silnylon tarp, there is no damage to that tarp, either, and the 0.5 ounce Cuben feels just as durable as the silnylon. If that doesn’t convince you, I’m a big fan of this video by Joe of ZPacks, demonstrating the puncture and tear resistance of silnylon and Cuben.

Note the lack of thread and stitching. Everything is glued, so there are no seams.

Note the lack of thread and stitching. Everything is glued, so there are no seams.

The Lupus, since it was Steve’s first attempt at making anything out of Cuben, isn’t a perfect shelter (I ended up reinforcing the tie-out loops by sewing them, which negates some of the benefit of the glued seams, but the major seams are still only glued), but it has been a wonderful experiment. It saved me almost $200 (the price of a similarly sized tarp from ZPacks) and has given me plenty of food for thought. In the future, I may pony up the high price of a professionally made Cuben shelter, either a larger tarp from Gossamer Gear, a tarp-tent like the Hexamid from ZPacks, or a Duomid from Mountain Laurel Designs. For now, though, I’m pretty happy with my Lupus tarp, which is likely to replace my old Silnylon Scout for general 3-season use.

Inside the Lupus.

Inside the Lupus.

Last month on the Appalachian Trail, I started using Gossamer Gear’s Airbeam Sleeper sleeping pad to give myself a little more cushion in camp. I’ve used thin foam pads for many years, and have always been happy with them, but I just wanted to see if this new sleeping pad could convert me back to the world of inflatables. For the most part, I’m very happy with the Airbeam.

A well-loved shortie sleeping pad.

A well-loved shortie sleeping pad.

The Airbeam Sleeper is an uninsulated inflatable pad with vertical tubes and a tapered design. It comes in three standard sizes (36″, 48″, and 56″), and one large/wide size. Each of the pads uses a tapered design to give you more cushioning at your shoulders. I found this design to be very comfortable– I used the 36″ long pad, which was a full 21″ wide and 2.5″ thick at the shoulder, and 14″ wide and 1.5″ thick at my hip. I noticed the tapered width right away, but the tapered thickness was harder to notice, since the pad feels nicely cushioned all the way around.

Since the pad is uninsulated, it packs very small. And since it’s not terribly large, it inflates very quickly. These were both important factors for me. I own a Thermarest NeoAir for very cold backpacking trips, but the medium size NeoAir takes about twenty lungfuls to inflate, which is exhausting at the end of a long day of hiking. On the other hand, the small Airbeam takes between three and four breaths to inflate. It’s not the most important factor in owning the sleeping pad, but it’s a nice touch.

Side by side comparison of the 56" NeoAir and the 36" Airbeam.

Side by side comparison of the 56″ NeoAir and the 36″ Airbeam.

Compared with the NeoAir XLite, the Airbeam has several pluses and a few minuses. The first I want to address is the width of the sleeping pads– Thermarest’s specs show the NeoAir to be 20″ wide, which is a bit misleading. That width is measured when the pad is deflated. At full inflation, the top of the sleeping pad is only about 18″ wide. I sleep on my side, so the width is fine for me, but others have complained that when sleeping on their backs their arms hang off the sides of the NeoAir. On the other hand, the Airbeam’s width is measured when inflated, so the 21″ width is fully usable. The pad feels very wide. I found it to be pretty plush. The 1.5″ height of the Airbeam also allows you to use a normal sized pillow on the ground rather than on the sleeping pad, giving you more usable space on the sleeping pad for your body. NeoAirs, with their 2.5″ thickness, generally require that you keep your pillow on the pad, which takes away a fair amount of the pad’s length from your body.

Kacey seems to prefer the NeoAir, probably because she has a very dainty butt and wants all the cushioning and insulation she can find.

Kacey seems to prefer the NeoAir, probably because she has a very dainty butt and wants all the cushioning and insulation she can find.

In other areas, the NeoAir XLite and Airbeam are more comparable. I’ll use the Medium Airbeam and Small XLite for comparison, since they’re both about 48″ long. The XLite is slightly lighter (8 oz vs 9 oz), and much better insulated for cold sleepers (R-value 3.2 vs none). The Airbeam is much less expensive ($88 vs $130) and feels more durable. The Airbeam’s side tubes are slightly larger than the middle ones to act as a sort of railing to keep you on the pad, while the NeoAir drops off at the edges. For those of you who complain about the NeoAir being too crinkly and loud, the Airbeam has none of that.

I own a NeoAir XTherm, the winter version of the Thermarest with a very high R-value and more durable bottom, so for me the choice is easy– NeoAir in very cold conditions, and Airbeam in warmer conditions. If you had to choose just one, though, it’s a toss-up. I’d recommend the medium Airbeam over the small, since the small is much shorter than most people will be used to. I also like the benefits of the Airbeam over the XLite in terms of cost, durability, comfort, and lack of insulation (yes, I like the lack of insulation– in summer I don’t want any insulation between me and the ground). Either way, I think my days of thin foam sleeping pads may be numbered.

Disclosure: Gossamer Gear provided an Airbeam Sleeper for me to review. My observations on the pricing of the Airbeam vs the XLite, as such, are probably skewed. As for other comparisons, the price of the Airbeam hasn’t affected my opinions.