Choosing a Sleeping Bag/Quilt

Some type of sleeping insulation is a primary piece of any campers gear list. Nearly everyone owns a sleeping bag of some kind and for starting out (assuming it is warm enough) that will do just fine. For that matter a warm blanket from your home could be sufficient. For me there are three things to consider when selecting your sleeping insulation. First of all warmth. You will want to consider what the worst case scenario will be for your trip and be sure you are prepared for it. The second factor is, you guessed it, weight. This is a great way to save weight in your pack based on the materials it is constructed from and other factors that can save you pounds in your pack. Third, and far more subjectively, comfort. The materials used to construct the bag with can range for something soft and plush (like fleece) to something that has more of a plastic feel and noisy (like cuben fiber). Obviously the fleece would give a great deal of comfort but with that comes a weight penalty.

Sleeping insulation is commonly found in the form of a sleeping bag. Some of these are mummy bags (meaning they have a hood you can hide down in) or just a regular bag that stops near your chin. I do own a few cheap sleeping bags but a new (not probably new to the market but new to many people) is the idea of a sleeping quilt. The theory is this; the warmth of a sleeping bag all comes from the loft that is created. If you compare two sleeping bags of a similar style but with different temperature ratings side by side you will see the same materials but one will appear ‘thicker’ having more ‘loft’ and that will be the warmer bag. With this being true when you climb in a bag and lay down with your body weight on it you completely eliminate any loft and therefor warmth from the underside. What this means is that all the backside material on your bag is nothing but wasted weight (and frankly not easy to get in and out of). This is particularly important for hammock campers who don’t have the ground to shield them from the cold air and wind below them. It is also very quite difficult to get in and out of a standard bag in a hammock.

A sleeping quilt is basically a big blanket but with a foot box (think of the backside of your normal sleeping bag but it usually goes up to about the back of the knees or lower). This helps to keep you in the quilt but also eliminates drafts at the bottom end. They often have a draw sting up at the head so that it can be tightened around the neck (eliminating drafts from the top end). They also often have straps every 2 feet or so to help secure the quilt around the sleeper (usually around the pad that the user is laying on even).

I got connected with a great company called Enlightened Equipment and their owner Tim Marshall and worked closely with him to design a custom piece to be used for 1 season (warm weather) camping. This is basically just a sheet that Tim made for me out of a material called 15d nylon. This has a very soft comfortable feel and is extremely light. This is not just your basic bed sheet though. Tim added snaps at the bottom for the foot box and the draw string at the top to secure it around the neck. He also added the removable straps wrap around my body on the underside to keep this less then 4 ounce insulation from blowing away in the wind. When it’s all ‘buttoned down’ it fits snugly around me to provide relief from any drafts and I am in hopes this will take me down to about 60 degrees and if I added on all my packed clothes even into the 50s! Obviously if I am sleeping in summer temps possibly in the 80s i can still use this (with out all trappings) as a basic sheet to keep the middle of the night chill off that could sneak in and frankly I am just more comfortable having something on me. I could always kick out a leg or fold it off my top half to vent if it gets to warm.

When temps are expected to be consistently below 60 for a low I turn to my cold weather insulation. This is also a quilt from Tim at Enlightened Equipment but no need for a custom order on this one. I went with his regular length (6′) wide version of 30 degree rated quilt (insulated with down and I had them throw in an extra 2 ounces of over-stuff). The quilt is made of 30d nylon and weighs 22.25 ounces which I am VERY pleased with. I haven’t tested how low I can take this setup but if I add the warm weather quilt inside as well as all my packed clothing I expect to be comfortable well into the 20s and possibly even teens. Frankly If the temps are in the single digits you are more then likely to find me in my bed at home then out in the woods.

I am a big proponent of quilts for anyone in the market for sleeping insulation. These provide the best warmth for the least amount of weight (since there is less material) and are far easier to get in and out of; this is especially true for hammock campers but obviously true for ground dwellers as well.

The final thing worth mentioning is that obviously the move to the quilt over the bag is due to the loss of loft when body weight is on the underside of the bag. As mentioned above ground campers can simply use the ground itself and when temps drop use sleeping pads or some other type of insulation from the ground. For hammock campers that cold air and wind below is immediately noticed. This means that in cooler temps (anything below 70 for most people) a layer of insulation for the underside is needed. This is something that I will probably explore in greater detail later but the two options are to lay on a pad; closed cell foam or blow up OR to use an underquilt. This quilt is attached to the bottom of the hammock (not between the bottom of the hammock and the camper) and therefor the loft is not compressed. For me I plan to go with a CCF pad I picked up assuming the comfort is sufficient not only because of the weight and cost savings but also because I can always take that and my tarp to the ground in the event that the hammock can not be used.

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Choosing a Shelter

There are 3 categories of hikers. People who want to hike, people who want to camp, and people who want an even mix. I consider myself to be in the first group. I want to be on my feet. I want to be moving. I want to be seeing everything there is to see (and maybe swimming or chatting or whatever). At the end of the day however I need some place to sleep and it needs to be safe and comfortable. For others they want to stay in a palace and have all the comforts of home and in between camp might walk around a little. You must determine what your goals and philosophy are to appropriately chose the right shelter. I will obviously be writing from my perspective but if you differ from me then there are many other options.

As I said safety (from the elements) is the primary goal of your shelter. Really at the end of the day what that means is it will keep you dry in a worst case scenario. Warmth comes from other means and no thin layer of nylon is going to offer a great deal of warmth. A shelter can be anything from a small tarp to a large tent. A friend recently told me a story of his brother sleeping in falling snow in the mountains of Colorado by simply fashioning a lean-to and making a bed of pine needles. That being said the term ‘shelter’ is clearly very personal and very subjective.

Many ultralight backpackers will go with this simple tarp and the most utilitarian of the group will make use of of their poncho as a tarp. This is because the goal of the trip is to walk and sleeping is just a necessary activity and a tarp (the current rage is cuben fiber) can weigh as little as a just a few ounces. This obviously has limitations in a driving rain and choosing a camp site requires a great deal of planning to avoid water running under you. Also in the Midwest (and most places in the US really) bugs can be quite a nuisance so the tarp only concept (particularly for my wife) was not an option. You can of course add a bug net and increase the size of your tarp but at the end of the day you end up (in my opinion) not saving enough weight to lose the convenience of a tent.

The next step from here is a closed shelter, ie tent. There are about 1 million tent options so first and foremost I determined that weight would help me eliminate a huge percentage of them. I wanted something that could fit two people comfortably (which really means you need one rated for 3 people). I wanted a two piece tent (where the rain fly can be removed) since we often have hot, rain free evenings in the summer and the ability to allow for airflow was worth a slight weight penalty. I also really wanted two entries (so no one would have to climb over the other person to get out). Finally, I wanted large vestibules. A vestibule is the part of the tent that is outside of the sleeping space of the tent but under the ‘overhang’ this is useful for keeping things out of the tent that you want dry but not necessary in the tent with you (boots, backpacks, even dogs). Large is a subjective term but something I wanted to look at when choosing.

Without going into details of every tent I looked at (there were several good options) I will just fill you in on the one I chose. I found another cottage shop (as I did with my backpack I previously wrote about) called TarpTents. I prefer the work done by these sort of companies as they are niche in nature so usually looking to provide for a specific user/function rather then a one size fits all approach but also because of the craftsmanship and attention to detail. I am certainly no zealot about it but also chose to shop purchase American made products.

I decided to go with the Stratospire2. This tent had absolutely everything I was looking for in a tent (plus more). As for the weight it came in at just 40 ounces. I would have preferred it under 32 (just to say it was less then 2 pounds) but I am very comfortable with a 2.5 pound tent that can accommodate for 2-4 people!

It is dual entry with 2 very generous vestibules. It is a two piece design and the rain fly is of the highest quality. With the fly only (since it is a separate piece in itself) you could accommodate up to 4 people! The tent body is completely mesh so on nice evenings (with no threat of rain) the fly can be removed allowing for 100% air flow and 360 degree views, this is a feature I absolutely love.

This tent is designed to be a very roomy 2 person tent but with a quick modification the tub floor (which is a thick wall that comes up around 3 inches protecting from water coming in) can be lowered allowing for 3 people to sleep completely enclosed under the fly and in the tent. This was another great feature to me as I could see my entire family (2 small children) sleeping in this if we decided to deviate from the 16 pound large Kelty tent we normally car camp out of. The floor length is 86 inches which is fantastic in this weight class and being that I am 73 inches tall is ample for me and even my bag at/under my feet.

TarpTents states that it can be set up in under 2 minutes which is a high estimation as I could probably set it up in less than 60 seconds and while I have yet to need to set it up quickly that is a great option when hiking in inclement weather and needing to seek shelter quickly in a downpour. The design is frame-less so there are no poles for a frame. It is designed to be set up with trekking poles but I went ahead and purchased the poles that go with it since I am not sure I will always want to be out with trekking poles.

The negative side of this tent is it’s price (very competitive for the market but by far more then I ever expected to pay for a tent). In a turn of events that should surprise no one that knows me I have actually started to look into hammock camping (more to come on that) and am going to be leaving the tent at home this Spring. That said this tent is amazing and I highly recommend it. I have considered selling it if my hammock experiment goes well but it’s nice to have a good tent in my gear closet and while I am confident I will enjoy the hammock I am not so sure my kids will.

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Rain Fly Completely Closed

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Joe M.

Choosing a Backpack

For many people the terms hiking and backpacking are synonymous and for this reason the first piece of gear that many consider (or perhaps take for granted) is the backpack. When choosing a pack there are so many styles, sizes, price points, and brands to choose from this can be a very overwhelming topic. One piece of advice I read early on when starting to analyze gear and the choices associated with lightening my load was to have your pack be one of the last items you buy. Many of us have a tendency to fill whatever space we have available, often with unneeded items. Also, a full pack will carry more comfortably so the ideal pack is one that fits everything you need with minimal extra space. After analyzing my gear and needs I decided something around the 50L mark would do.

I had no intention of purchasing multiple packs for different types of trips. I wanted something I could take with me on anything from multi-day (or even week) thru-hikes to an afternoon hike in town. I am as frugal as anyone but with an understanding that price isn’t the bottom line and you often get what you pay for I wasn’t looking for the least expensive pack on the market. With all of my larger purchases I have an expectation of an item to last me many years (or even possibly a lifetime depending on use).

For me when there are so many competitive options the first order of business is to refine the field be determining what constraints are important to my individual needs. I knew I wanted to go ultralight so this narrowed down the field of packs based on the load they would carry (not needing as much gear or as much weight carried as some offer) and the weight of the pack itself (the pack itself contributes a great deal to the total ‘base pack weight’). With loads this size a frameless pack is more then sufficient and can save a great deal of weight. I wanted something sub 2 pounds for the pack itself and something that could carry loads up to 20-25 pounds for multi-day hikes where a greater deal of weight in food is carried.

Price wise I set in mind a goal of being around $100. This is on the low end price point with packs such as the GoLite Jam and others fitting the bill but after looking over reviews and recommendations I came across a company called ULA (Ultra Light Adventure) and a pack they make called the CDT. This pack retails for just above my goal of $135 but a feature laden pack, with glowing reviews, and made in America was worth a few extra dollars to me.

I will attempt to not bore you to death with the details of this pack but here are a few of the noteworthy specs on this pack (this isn’t intended to be a review of the pack). The pack weighs 22 ounces (well under my threshold of 32 ounces), carries around 55 L (with all pockets utilized), and is recommended for loads under 25 lbs (and base weights under 12 lbs). This is everything I looked for in the major categories.

This pack has many handy features such as an Internal Pad Holster, Contoured Padded Hipbelt (very comfortable), Hipbelt Pockets, Contoured Shoulder Straps (again extremely comfortable), Front Mesh Pocket (possibly my favorite part of this pack as you can fit quite a bit in it for easy access or store wet gear to dry out while hiking), 210 Ripstop Adjustable Side Pockets, Adjustable/Bellowed Side Pockets, Ice Axe/Pole Retention Loops, Side/Top Compression Straps, and a Drawstring Extension Collar.

With removable accessories such as Hydration Sleeve (~1.4 oz), Internal Mesh Pocket (~1.1 oz), Water Bottle Holsters (~0.8 oz), Handloops (~0.8 oz), and Foam Pad (~1.2 oz) the pack is very versatile and (for you math lovers out there) under 17 ounces if all removed. I supposed if you were ambitious enough you could trim straps and make other alterations and get this pack under a pound!

CDT

Joe M.

What is Ultralight Backpacking?

On a recent hike with my wife we discussed what 3 words might describe who we are as individuals. I believe I came up with minimalist, realist, and analytical. Without trying to explain that in detail (or even get into it at all really) I feel like those ‘values’ are ones that drew me to the idea of hiking and in so much doing so into the world of ultralight hiking.

The thrill of being surrounded by the simplicity, beauty, and grandeur of nature is something that is only awoken by experiencing it. The concept of a self sufficient existence is indescribably empowering. Carrying all one needs to survive on your back for miles and miles gives a sense of invincibility.

All of the above can be achieved through any type of hiking and is in no way specific to ultralight hiking. That said for me this is something I wanted to do with my wife and friends and children and something I wanted to enjoy rather then endure. I frankly have no interest in putting 60 pounds on my back and going any distance up and down hills and mountains, through water crossings, and over all types of terrain. On top of that IF I was duped into such a trip I can’t imagine getting very far and certainly not doing it very quickly. I value efficiency. I value speed and agility. I value a minimal approach for maximum results. Ultralight backpacking is precisely that!

To define ultralight backpacking you might find yourself in a debate (even amongst purists). I will stick to very generic language and definitions and let you determine what is right for you. When hiking everything with you breaks down into 3 categories: items carried and worn, consumables, and base items. I don’t believe items carried and worn needs much explanation but that is obviously your clothes you are wearing, trekking poles, footwear, and items in your pockets, on your wrist, around your neck, etc. Consumables is anything consumed on the trip. Food, water, and fuel being the main 3 but also items like sun screen and bug spray could apply (the containers these items are packed in however are not consumables). This leaves base weight items. This is pretty much everything else. This is your pack, your shelter, your packed clothing, your sleeping gear, etc. In later posts we will go into much greater detail on this I am certain.

The definition I have heard and subscribe to for ultralight backpacking is a BPW (base pack weight) under 10 pounds. As a side note there is also a definition for a BPW under 5 pounds of SUL (super ultralight). Keep in mind this is everything with you that is not worn, carried on your person, or consumed. Theoretically you could stroll out into the woods with an pocket knife and book and have a great time and do just fine but the two greatest things to take into consideration when seeing how light you can push your BPW are comfort and safety. Safety should go with out saying but items like first aid, proper shelter, sleeping gear, clothing, and rain gear should not be left out simply to save weight. Comfort is a factor that varies from person to person and things like rain gear can blur the line between comfort and safety. If you like walking in a thunderstorm with no protection that is completely fine but if you are doing that on a 35 degree day your health and safety are most certainly going to be compromised. As an example some people feel like they cannot achieve a good nights sleep with out a pillow and this of course is strictly a comfort item.

There are 3 ‘weights’ to be considered in all of this. The first is the Base Pack Weight (which was discussed above), the second is the Total Pack Weight which is the BPW plus all consumables. The third is the Skin Out Weight which is exactly what it sounds like…everything minus you in your birthday suit. You might ask ‘who cares?’ The answer is of course NO ONE except maybe your back and legs and feet and well anyone who cares to experience more in their hike.

For me I want to see more and do more and go places, not just in hiking but in life. This is how I try to live every day and this approach to hiking is just a natural extension of that. At the end of the day I desire the simplicity of walking in the woods and enjoying the natural beauty that the Lord has provided and I desire to do so in comfort and safety but for me I also desire to do this as efficiently and skillfully as possible.

Joe M.

Urban Hike: River Market to Waldo 11/09

For a few months Joe and I have been talking about doing an urban hike, setting a route in the city and just walking. This seemed like a great way to remind ourselves of how great Kansas City is but also a great way to spend the morning.

The plan was to start at the River Market and walk south to Waldo and meet our families for breakfast by 9:30. We timed it perfectly and even had time to take some more scenic detours.

The Google map gave us a straight shot right through Downtown, Westport and into South KC as you can see with the purple line. In red you can see our detour up Summit Street and down through the Westside. We also chose to walk through the neighborhoods and past Loose Park rather than take Broadway Blvd or Main St. all the way to Waldo. You can’t tell from the map but Kansas City is fairly hilly on the north end of the city. As you approach the south the hills are much more steady and long. All in all we walked 11.2 miles.

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Here are some of the pictures from our hike.

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The Art of Rambling

Over the years the art of rambling has been lost, but is a craft we have embraced to a level of expertise. We have named our journal ‘Trail Ramblers’ as both excepted definitions of the word ramble seem to be an apt fit:

RAMBLE:
1. walk for pleasure.
2. talk or write at length in a confused or inconsequential way.

Over the next several postings I’m sure we will introduce who we are and what we do and all of those formalities but for this inaugural post I thought it fitting to ‘ramble’ about the philosophy we share on why we are creating this journal.

We have both always enjoyed athletic endeavors and the outdoors and this last spring (2013) we saw fit to try to combine those qualities in the form of hiking. If you know either of us you also are aware of our penchant to pontificate to no end on nearly any subject so solitude in the great outdoors affords us the opportunity to exercise this gift/curse. I don’t suppose there are many subjects we don’t at least have an opinion on and while we share many world views and governing principals we certainly don’t always agree on every nuance. This, for us, has been a blessing in our friendship in that we are able to challenge each other on what we believe and why we believe it as well as improve our ability to articulate these opinions.

We share similar personalities but come from different backgrounds and experiences and this will probably show through in this blog. I would venture to say that a great deal of my contributions will be of an analytical nature in the form of gear lists and reviews, trip planning and preparation, and critique and observation of our experiences while Brandon (being an artist and educator) will certainly contribute a great deal of beauty and eloquence in the forms of drawing, poetry, and general reflection. Our goal in doing this is to express our selves in multiple mediums so expect to see written word (of course) as well as video, photo, painting/drawing, and even the occasional spread sheet. I feel like this should make for a balanced approach for anyone who takes (or wastes) their time following along.

We invite you to learn from our mistakes and be entertained by our experiences. We claim to have no expertise in hiking and in fact plan to use this journal as a window of transparency into the fact that reality is quite the opposite. As with most things we plan to grow as we learn and reserve the right to completely change gears on even our most dogmatic views.

Joe M.