ultralight backpacking

All posts tagged ultralight backpacking

Only a day after arriving in Colorado, coming from sea level, I was up above 9000 feet and wouldn’t come back down to a reasonable elevation for the next five days. Hiker Box, whom I’d hiked with in New Hampshire in our snowy 2014-2015 winter, had moved to Boulder after hiking the Continental Divide Trail last year, and I had let him come up with all the hiking plans for the week that we would spend backpacking. We would enter the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness of the Rio Grande National Forest and spend five days bouncing between peaks. I had no idea what to expect, having spent very little time off-trail climbing 14,000 foot peaks.

Starting from Venable Peak, looking over our plan for the next few days.

Starting from Venable Peak, looking over our plan for the next few days.

After a breakfast at the tiny town of Crestone, we started up Crestone Creek, outrunning clouds of mosquitoes despite our heavier-than-usual packs. Five days worth of food in Gossamer Gear Kumo may be a little much. Hiker Box probably had the better idea with a slightly larger Gorilla. Sometimes a little extra volume to the pack and a solid frame isn’t such a bad thing. Anyway, we peaked out in the afternoon at 13,000 feet on Venable Peak, then dropped down to 11,500 in the Venable Peaks basin. Remember, this was now less than 48 hours after I’d woken up in my bed about 40 feet above sea level. Luckily, charging up and down the White Mountains of New Hampshire for the past several months helped keep my lungs spry.

Hiker Box picks his way along the ridge of the Sangre de Cristo Range

Hiker Box picks his way along the ridge of the Sangre de Cristo Range

Day two was our crusher day, charging up four more 13k peaks (Commanche, Horn, Fluted, and Adams). All of this was off trail, climbing steeply and clambering over boulders like any self-respecting New England hiker. As we reached the saddle between Fluted and Adams, a menacing-looking cloud front moved over, and we huddled in the saddle for an hour as it passed uneventfully. That was a little different from my usual experience. Then it was on to Mt Adams, the highest peak of the day at just under 14,000 feet, and requiring several short 4th class climbs. At least one of those caused us to name the hiking route, “The Dirty Pants Route” for a very scary bit of climbing.

Evening camp below Adams, with alpenglow on Kit Carson Peak.

Evening camp below Adams, with alpenglow on Kit Carson Peak.

This was where a smarter person might have taken a rest day for the third day, but instead we turned the dial up, climbing Kit Carson, Challenger, Columbia, and Obstruction peaks (two above 14,000 feet). The last part of the day was a long traverse toward another 14er, but the two of us were so exhausted by the constant rock-scrambling for the past two days that we decided to bail on Humboldt and just head down toward South Colony Lakes, a pair of beautiful mountain lakes at the bottom of the basin below Humboldt Peak. This area was more crowded than other places we’d been so far, probably because of an easy hike to a 14er and another less easy 14er’s primary route coming up from the valley. A freezing dip in the water, and then an early bedtime for a long day.

Scrambling to the top.

Scrambling to the top.

The next morning we cruised up Humboldt Peak with empty packs, then back down to where we began the day, and then back up the other side of the valley toward Broken Hand Peak. The path we followed to a pass between Crestone Needle and Broken Hand Peak was pretty popular, but every single person going that was was heading for the taller Crestone Needle. We opted for the pretty peak of Broken Hand, and got to hang out with some goats to boot. What a difference a few hundred feet makes when you’re that high already– the peak is just as gorgeous, but not a soul had been there in who knows how long.

Angry and tired, and not quite done with the day.

Angry and tired, and not quite done with the day.

We finished the day down at Cottonwood Lake, a pristine and seemingly unvisited lake below Crestone Needle, where we waited out our first thunderstorm of the trip with a legion of marmots. There I discovered just how much marmots actually like human urine– you know how they say not to pee on vegetation because critters will tear up the plants to get at the salt? Turns out that’s true! They really like it.

Marmots surveying their kingdom at South Colony Lakes.

Marmots surveying their kingdom at South Colony Lakes.

Day 5 was supposed to be a quick walk out, although the abandoned and overgrown trail made the first few miles a slow bushwhack through dense willows. Once on trail, we had to rush to outrun the mosquitoes again. I’m pretty resilient when it comes to biting insects, but as we got closer to the trailhead, they seemed to understand that they would soon lose a large source of blood, and attacked with gusto. Hiker Box estimated he killed well over a thousand of them in the few hours of walking down the hill.

Aww, nice marmot. They may be cute, but they're relentless when chasing your food bags.

Aww, nice marmot.
They may be cute, but they’re relentless when chasing your food bags.

By the time we ended the day back in Boulder, I had had an eye opening experience with this trip. There are a heck of a lot of mountains to play around in in Colorado, and if you stay away from the popular list of 14,000 foot peaks, you can go days without seeing a single person. Hiker Box and I already decided we’ll need to do more like this.

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.

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.

After a restful night at White House Landing, and a hearty AYCE pancake breakfast, it was time to hit the trail again. Bill shuttled the three guests across the lake to an old logging road landing near the AT, and I sped off southward. The rains yesterday had soaked the lowlands thoroughly, and the low clouds had yet to burn off, so the early part of the day was a damp hike through soggy trails.

A view from Potaywadjo Ridge, a side trail that I doubt most AT hikers ever notice.

A view from Potaywadjo Ridge, a side trail that I doubt most AT hikers ever notice.

The first order of the day, a few miles in, was to explore a side trail to a rocky ledge on Potaywadjo Ridge. The trail rose steeply from the shores of Jo-Mary Lake, into a blueberry- and lichen-covered granite outcrop with amazing views over the lake, Jo-Mary Mountain, and the lowlands between. It was a totally unique view, since this section of the 100 Mile Wilderness is mostly lowlands with few elevated views. The mass of Jo-Mary Mountain seemed so huge from this sub-1000 foot ledge, and the lakes and forest surrounding had a surreal quality to their silence, the fog clinging around the edges of everything.

Crawford Pond, one of many in the 100 Mile Wilderness.

Crawford Pond, one of many in the 100 Mile Wilderness.

I had a long way to go, so I couldn’t sit and relax too much. Lower Jo-Mary Lake is now on my list of places to visit by canoe or kayak later on, though, since the Potaywadjo Ridge and The Antlers Campsite (one of the most beautiful campsites on the AT) are both located close to the shore. It looks like you could paddle across Pemadumcook Lake from near Millinocket, and portage to the Jo-Mary Lakes pretty easily. The 100 Mile Wilderness by boat would be an entirely different experience.

Clouds receding over Whitecap Mountain in the morning.

Clouds receding over Whitecap Mountain in the morning.

The clouds burned off throughout the afternoon, and a dry, cool breeze erased the effects of yesterday’s rain. I passed over a dozen northbound through-hikers, all nearing the end of their journeys. It must be that time of year when the front of the northbound crowd hits the end of the trail. Hiking against the flow always makes the crowds seem bigger, since you run into everyone rather than gradually passing them. Most people didn’t stop to talk very much, and that’s okay. I remember being a northbound through-hiker and feeling overwhelmed by the flood of southbounders as I neared Katahdin.

Hey moose!

Hey moose!

I ended day 3 at Logan Brook Lean-to, with four other hikers. This wouldn’t have seemed like too big a crowd, normally, but there were also two summer camp groups tented nearby, so it felt cramped. Happily, the company was really wonderful. Midnight, the Maine Appalachian Trail Club’s ridgerunner for the Whitecap and Chairback Range was camped in the shelter, so we had some great conversation about the AT (he through-hiked a year or two before me, and has been close to the hiking community ever since). It was great to pick his brain about the Maine AT, as well, since he had an insider’s perspective. His job is a hard and thankless one, but I will say that he handled it amazingly. The four shelters in his range were the cleanest in the 100 Mile Wilderness.

Screw Augur Falls at the beginning of the Gulf Hagas Rim Trail.

Screw Augur Falls at the beginning of the Gulf Hagas Rim Trail.

Day 4 started with a short hike to the top of Whitecap Mountain, the highest in the 100 Mile Wilderness, and one of the best views anywhere. I hiked slowly in order to let the clouds burn off, which they partially did. After arriving, I had the summit to myself for 45 minutes (and it would have been much longer, but I had to move on). I sat and watched the dense clouds to the north dissipate as they hit the Whitecap Ridge, and I listened to the sound of utter silence. This isn’t a sound that many people can find, even in wild places, so I drank it up, knowing how rare it was. That long break made the trip for me– as unwild as the 100 Mile Wilderness can be, that one experience was enough to convince me it’s still the wildest on the AT.

Looking at the Whitecap Range from Chairback Mountain.

Looking at the Whitecap Range from Chairback Mountain.

The walk down from Whitecap is a long one, so I zoned out for the next ten miles. The number of people picked up again when I neared Gulf Hagas, but dropped again once I crossed the Katahdin Ironworks Road to climb Chairback Mountain. This is the territory of the Appalachian Mountain Club’s newest camp and hiking trails, so I thought I might see more people on Chairback, but it was just as quiet as Whitecap had been. Strange. I thought hikers were drawn to mountains up here just like anywhere else. But it turns out Gulf Hagas has a stronger pull.

From Third Chairback Mountain, looking north over Long Pond to Baker Peak.

From Third Chairback Mountain, looking north over Long Pond to Baker Peak.

I camped at Chairback Gap with three southbound hikers, and had a great evening full of laughs and stories. Again, I realized that seeing lots of people in the 100 Mile Wilderness wasn’t always a bad thing. After the good company at Logan Brook, and now the good company at Chairback Gap, I remembered that I’d camped alone plenty of nights on the AT this summer, and with good company all the rest of the nights. You don’t always get an empty campsite, but you can usually count on good neighbors. If I had really wanted to camp alone, it wouldn’t have been hard to find a place away from established campsites.

Waterfalls on Vaughn Stream.

Waterfalls on Vaughn Stream.

In the morning, the forecast of clear skies through the weekend failed. I started hiking in a light rain, and continued that way for the rest of the day. I wasn’t too upset, since I’d had such a good day yesterday, but I decided I would have to come back to see Barren Mountain and a few of the lower ledges near Wilson Streams later. For the day’s hike, I hadn’t decided if I should push 27 miles to my car, or stop 10 miles short, finishing the trip the next day.

The top of a 60+ foot waterfall on Little Wilson Stream.

The top of a 60+ foot waterfall on Little Wilson Stream.

I passed several northbound hikers (some whom I had met in the White Mountains only a few weeks ago!), and the rain eventually came harder. The trail in the last miles of the 100 Mile Wilderness travels through several big streams, up and over some jagged slate ridges, and along many beaver bogs. The slate ledges and gorges are, like the forest further north, the kind of landscape that is just too beautiful for my camera to capture properly. So I decided I would have to come back again sometime soon.

In the meantime, I had a strong urge to finish converting my GPS data into the next section of the AT for my iPhone apps, which helped make up my mind to do a big day of hiking. Rather than stopping a few miles short of the road, I pounded my feet and eventually worked my way to the car, finishing the 100 Mile Wilderness. As I approached the road, I heard the sound of cars whizzing by and realized, as I had on Whitecap, that I had indeed been in a wild area. This was the first car sound I had heard since entering Baxter Park, 8 days earlier. Also, it was the first I had turned on my phone since then. So what if there were lots of hikers in the Wilderness. I had successfully escaped the two largest influences of modern society for over a week. That’s as much as a modern American can really ask for.