Monday, December 30, 2013

Hammock on the PCT?

Many people have ask me if I'm planning to take my hammock next year on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT).  The answer is YES!
My hammock and tarp.
When I decided I would hike the PCT next year, I had a ton of questions about hammock use on the PCT I wanted to bring my hammock (it's my most beloved piece of gear), but I was worried it would be too difficult for me to hang in Southern California.  Then, I found a
post on Hammock Forums (HF) asking if anyone was planning a thru hike on the PCT in 2014 in a hammock.  Ah ha, yes!  It turns out that hanging on the PCT has been done before by several hammock hangers (see "resources" below), and they offer some good advice.  Three other hammock hangers are planning to go in 2014!  Woohoo! (I take this as evidence it's not too crazy!I've learned much, especially from Jim (PITA) who started that post on HF and who has been patiently answering my questions, follow up questions, and requests for further clarification (THANK YOU, JIM (PITA)!).  

Here, I thought I'd fill you all in on what I learned so far, describe why I think hanging is a good choice for me, tell you about the shelter and sleep system I plan to take on the PCT, and list hammocking resources in case this will be helpful for others.  I also want this to serve as a record so I can see how my ideas about hammocks on the PCT change during my hike. 

Questions and answers about hammock use on the PCT  

What about the “desert” section in Southern California?  Are there hang sites (anchor points) for a hammock?
Southern California is not a vast treeless expanse- there are forests at higher elevations and trees in valleys especially around natural water sources- it is quite a diverse area.  You can see this by looking at photos of tent sites and water sources in Guthook’s Guides, eTrails, and various trail journals.  In the absence of trees, it is possible to hang from small bushes with deep roots across ravines.  It also may be necessary to "get creative" to find anchor points (ohh I love a challenge!). 

What about the Sierra?  What about above treeline?
It is possible to camp in the valleys between passes that are below treeline, and in fact this is what people with tents do as well.  Above treeline, I can choose either to hike further, or set up on the ground.  Tenters have to deal with similar issues in finding flat spots.

What about burn areas?
I can always go to ground.  Though it may be possible that some trees in burn areas survived when they are in protected areas in valleys.  It may be possible to hang from dead/burnt trees (this will be dirty and highly risky), and if I go this route, I certainly know to do a “shake test” of the tree first (don’t worry, Kellye, I will never forget THAT lesson when you showed me that tree that fell down!).

Aren’t hammocks heavy?
My sleep system and shelter are 4.3 lbs (see my PCT hammock gear below).  "Heavy" is a relative term and it's not obvious to me what to compare this to.  From what I can infer, this is on the heavy side compared to a tarp w/bivy or bugnet, but not too far outside the normal range for a tent setup (What's normal anyway?  That's not usually my department, so I could be totally off about this...).  

The biggest weight penalty seems to be the bottom insulation.  If I could be comfortable on the ground with a closed foam pad instead of my underquilt and torso/foot pad (which together are 17 oz), sure that would be lighter.  However, compared to a full sized inflatable pad + a pillow + closed foam sit pad for my pack, the weight is comparable.  Regardless, I am OK with 4.3 lbs for my sleep system and shelter and would rather reduce my pack weight in other areas than be cranky from not getting enough sleep on the ground.  
Happy in my hammock.
Why I think a hammock is a good choice for me 
I don't want to imply that hammock hanging on the PCT is for everyone.  It's not.  But these are the reasons I believe it is suits me. 

Quality of Sleep
The main reason I am taking my hammock is because I sleep much better in a hammock than I ever did on the ground.  Getting good quality sleep and having less sore muscles are priorities.

I already have everything I need to setup on the ground using my torso pad and groundcloth.  Even though I call it a "hammock" setup, I actually have a separate tarp and hammock, making it a versatile system that allow a variety of configurations given the conditions and weather.  The tarp sets up on the ground with hiking poles.   Rain is not common especially before Washington, but still, I will be prepared.  I could also "cowboy camp" which is sleep out under the stars- this seems to be very common and many PCT hikers report only setting up shelters a handful of times during their entire hike.  If there are bugs, I have a headnet if I don't want to set up the hammock on the ground to risk abrasion (which I don't).  Though I think it less likely that I will be in a spot where there are mosquitoes and no trees, since mosquitoes, water and trees tend to co-occur.

I'm not carrying much extra to go to ground- the torso pad serves multiple functions- it fits in the sleeve of my backpack as a “frame”, I can sit on it during rest breaks, and then in the hammock it acts as the insulation under my legs (my short under quilt only covers my torso).  I usually carry a smaller sit pad but have gone with a longer one for the PCT.  The groundsheet is useful under my hammock for keeping my gear cleaner and for standing on when I get into and out of my hammock.  I sometimes bring one anyway, but this is a larger size.

It's what I know
I’ve been hanging since 2010, so it’s where my skills are most developed and what I am comfortable with.  I have a search image so I “see” hang sites with suitably spaced anchor points-- if you are a hammock hanger you’ll know what I mean.  Also, I already have hammock gear that I have used in a variety of weather conditions and know how to troubleshoot problems.

I'm OK not being able to camp in open areas
Other people like camping in open spaces with views or sunsets, but that’s not previously been my style.  Hiking is my priority, not spending time in camp.  I typically walk until dark and then go directly to bed, so I don’t value scenery much at night.  I want somewhere warm, sheltered, and where I will sleep well.  As a “morning person” I love packing up early and watching the sunrise while I am hiking, and I enjoy seeing views during the day when I am awake.  If it turns out I change my mind and find I want to camp out in the open for some reason, I can, as I've said before, go to ground.

Tree-hugger at heart  
My friends and family joke that I am a tree-hugger and it's true- I am a plant geek.  Since I started hanging, I have learned the forest types most likely to have suitable hang sites, and I anticipate and predict these from topo mapsObviously there will be a learning curve since I'm most experienced here in the southeast.  But I really enjoy trying to understand plant distributions so I think I will learn quickly.  Plus I don't really think it's going to be rocket science or anything- in So. Cal trees are going to be near natural water sources, and those are on maps and databooks and I'll be walking to them anyway for water.
Being a tree-hugger is a bit more challenging in some places.  But I still manage. (Note: I know this is not actually a tree.)
My PCT Hammock Gear (Shelter and Sleep System ~4.3 lbs) 
This gear can get me down to the 20's (and is great for the 30's) here in the southeast where it is more humid than it will be out on the PCT- so I should be OK.  At night, I wear down booties, long underwear bottoms, fleece hoodie, and my down jacket zipped around my head and neck.  Obviously this gear will be subject to change in the next 3 months and also when I get on the trail. 
Tarp-  Hammock Gear Standard Cuben Fiber with Doors (11') in Real Tree Camo, with guy lines and ridge line, 9.2 oz.

Tarp skins- DIY, made with .7 oz/sqyd ultralight insect netting, 0.8 oz.

Stakes- 4 titanium shephard hooks, 2 MSR groundhogs, 2 MSR easton aluminum 6” stakes in bag, 2.2 oz.  

Hammock w/ integrated bugnet-  Dream Hammock Darien UL (10’), 10 oz.

Hammock suspension- 10 ft tree straps, 8 ft whoopie slings w/ whoopee hooks (note: edited), 6.0 oz.

Groundcloth- Tyvek 36” x 80” (will cut this smaller when I test it), 4.5 oz.

DIY top quilt- Karo baffle-style, 3-4 inches loft, DWR Argon fabric w/ DWR 850 fp down, 19 oz.
Underquilt- 3-season (20-degree) Warbonnet Yeti, 11 oz.

Torso pad/ leg insulation/ backpack frameZlite sol, 6 sections (20x30), 6 oz.

Resources for hammock use on the PCT
There are a few trail journals by hammock hangers on the PCT-- all very positive about hanging on the PCT, and mention how they were able to sleep very well.  Three hammock hangers have completed the PCT in hammocks (Roni, Luke Sierrawalker, and Stryder).   Two thru hikers (Chop, guySmiley) hung partway but say “next time” they’d hang the whole way.  Other hammock hangers have hiked parts of the PCT with a hammock (the Ewoks, ClayJar).  There may be others, but these are the ones that kept trail journals that I know about.  Below are links to their trail journals, but the most helpful information are provided in the forum links or summary posts listed below each name.

Hammock hangers on the PCT- click on trail names to link to their trail journals

1. Roni (from Israel) nobo 2003.
      3/2004 PCT-L post.
     4/2007 post with summary of his experience with hammocks on the PCT. 

2. Ender (one of the "Ewoks") 2003.
     -switched to a hammock at mile 344, and made it to Donner Pass.
      2/2012 White Blaze- "Hammock use on the PCT".

3. Swope (AKA guySmiley on Hammock Forums) nobo 2010.
     -switched to a hammock in WA (but said would take it whole way).
     5/25/2009  Hammock Forum- "Hanging on the PCT"  

4. Luke Sierrawalker, sobo 2012.
     11/2012 excellent review of hammocking on the PCT and a list of hang sites in So. Cal.

5. Stryder, nobo 2012.

6. Beardoh! (AKA Chop on Hammock Forums), nobo 2012 - started on the ground, but went back to his hammock at mile ~1289.
      7/19/2012 Hammock Forums, “On the PCT see #10 after he finished.

7. Ed Jarrett- section hiking the PCT from Sierra City north with a hammock.
More information on discussion boards

      2006 White Blaze,  "Hammock on the PCT?"
      2010 Backpacking Light, "PCT sleep system help"

      2014 Hammock Forums, “Pct?- there are 4 of us planning to hang on the PCT in 2014! 

Last thoughts:

I never expected it to be this difficult for me to decide to take my hammock on the PCT.  There was way too much overthinking on my part!  It made me realize how I can fall into the trap of feeling insecure when I go against what (I think) "everyone else does" (i.e. the vast majority of people take tents on the PCT).  Sheesh!  I'm in the minority about so many things, someday maybe I'll remember to remember that's OK. 

However, I'm trying to play to my strengths that I've developed in my years of hiking and backpacking.  I am also trying to remember that I will adapt while I am out on the PCT.  And, no matter what, this will be a fun adventure!

Monday, December 16, 2013

PCT training: More rain

I’ve been working on my cold, wet-weather backpacking skills.  On this weekend’s solo backpacking trip, I set up camp purposefully in one of the coldest, wettest, windiest spots.  My goal was to test my tarp and sleeping system- I’ve been testing combinations of quilts, footpads/torsopads, and sleeping clothes in anticipation of my Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) hike next year.  The weather forecast showed it would be raining and drop into the 40’s, with high winds towards morning.  On top of a mountain, I was hoping it would get even colder.
Setting out into the rain.
First there was fog
I was looking for a challenge and that’s certainly what I got!  It had been raining and cold all day, and by the time I set up, a thick fog rolled in and left a layer of droplets UNDER my tarp.  I considered packing up and moving to another location down the hillside to avoid the weather, but I’m stubborn and wanted to stay keep practicing until I am confident I can handle adverse conditions.  I readjusted my tarp, formulated a "plan B" in case things got worse, and crawled into my hammock for the long dark night ahead.

After waiting and waiting to see if I would get warm (it always takes a while for the quilts to warm up), I wondered why I was taking such risks.   “What the &*^%$ I’m doing out here?!?”  I texted my friend, and she replied “You are living life to the fullest!”  Ah ha!  It was true- I was uncomfortable, but at least I was out there pushing myself, doing what I felt I needed to do to prepare for my PCT adventure.  Yes, this was living!

Finally, I warmed up enough to realize I would not turn into an icicle during the night.  I drifted off to the pleasant patter of rain on the tarp.  Happy that I had managed just fine! 

Next came the wind
About 5 AM, the next challenge came in the form of high wind gusts.  Normally, I do NOT camp in the wind- I’m skilled at choosing campsites that are sheltered.  I’d been curious though about my guyline/ stake system- and reading online accounts on hammock forums only gets me so far.  I’m the type of person that never fully understands something without trying it out for myself.  While I anticipate avoid camping in wind while on the PCT, I also want to have experience under a variety of conditions.  

The wind gusts ripped a few of my tarp stakes out of the ground.   I saw which stakes held and which pulled out (I was testing several types of stakes).  I was also pleased that I had oriented the tarp properly, confirming I anticipated the wind direction by looking at the topography.

While packing up in the morning, I found my bear canister had ice on the lid, requiring some extra fiddling to get it open.  Perhaps next time I could put a plastic bag over the bear canister if there may be ice.  Guess it really did get as cold as I thought up on that mountain.  Which is of course why I've always been smart enough to avoid such places.
Making a silly bear impersonation as I open my icy bear canister.
Some thoughts:

On this trip, I made things much more difficult on myself.  One of my friends is always telling me that I create extra stress for myself and am overly self-critical.  She’s right of course. But at least I have drive and focus when I set my mind to something- hopefully that will serve me well on the PCT.

At home when I’m in front of my computer reading things about the PCT, I study articles that talk about the completion rate- only 40% of people who set out on a thru hike actually make it to Canada.  I examine why they left the trail, and try to figure out how I can be one of those 40%.  I wonder if I am using my preparation time wisely, and if I am prioritizing the right things.  Should I spend more time on my gear list?  Should I read more trail journals?  When it comes down to it, what I end up doing to prepare is what I always fall back on- I head out up to the mountains.  I go out backpacking.
(Edit: this training hike took place on the Bartram Trail in Georgia, out and back from Warwoman Dell.)

Sunday, December 8, 2013

PCT training: Brasstown Bald

I’ve stood on the summit of Brasstown Bald (highest point in Georgia) many times before, but had never seen it like this- a cloud inversion made the surrounding mountain peaks look like islands in a white ocean.  So often, climbing a mountain on a rainy day brings you into a thick fog where you can’t see anything.  This was different- the mountaintops were clear, the valleys obscured.
Valley filled with clouds and rolling fog.  Stunning!
Missing links
I ended up on Brasstown Bald this weekend for a few reasons. The first is that I enjoy imagining the connections between mountaintops and rivers, and I find it satisfying to know I’ve walked the trails traversing the landscapes of the north Georgia mountains.  I’d previously done most of the Jacks Knob Trail, which connects the Appalachian Trail at Chattahoochee Gap with Brasstown Bald.  But there was a 1 mile part I’d missed.  Enough incentive for me.

On top of Brasstown Bald, I could see the routes of the other two trails that descent from Brasstown Bald (the Wagon Train Trail and the Arkaquah Trail) and out in the distance was also the top of Blood Mountain (on the AT) poking up out of the clouds.  By completing this little section of trail, I got another piece in my mental map of the north Georgia mountains filled in.
View from summit of Brasstown Bald.
More PCT training
I was also out getting practicing carrying extra water and food weight over significant elevation change for my PCT training.  Up to 30 lbs now- my legs are game for anything, but my poor feet need extra time to build strength.  I walk daily with my pack around my neighborhood, but that's nothing like climbing up and down several thousand feet (which I did by doing an out and back on the Jacks Knob Trail and most of the Arkaquah Trail).
Lots of rain, fog, and tree foam at lower elevation.
Looking for salamanders
During the hike, I took a detour to one of my favorite places to find salamanders.  I’ve had salamanders on my mind lately.  Natural history is often what gives my hikes meaning, and finding salamanders (or plants or tree foam, etc.) is what I do, part of my identity.  As a weekend backpacker, I reference guidebooks that contain natural history, many of my trips are motivated by seeking out particular plants, and finding plants or salamanders never fails to cheer me up when I’m having a rough day on the trail.
A salamander friend.
It’s hard for me to imagine how this will fit in with the thru-hiker mentality that I think I will need for the PCT.  Where the priority is light, fast, efficient.  Where I will have limited battery power and internet access.  Where my priorities may be different.

A few nights ago, I was flipping through my copy of the Wilderness Press Guide Pacific Crest Trail: Oregon and Washington, pondering maps and guidebooks.  I got this book years ago- it's heavy and outdated, but I love reading the information on the geology and natural history of the PCT.  Naturally, this salamander reference caught me eye and I started daydreaming about more salamander detours:
From the Wilderness Press Guide.
Most maps and databooks of the PCT (i.e. the ones I plan to bring) do not contain this type of information.  Do I try to bring guidebooks (or their pdf's) that do have natural history info?  Could this at least be justified when it helps me infer suitable habitat for hammock campsites?  Will I be happy being immersed in the natural splendor of the PCT and not having access to information, or even something as basic as a way to ID plants?

I know my priorities when I do my weekend trips- but it is hard to imagine how these will change on a long-distance hike.  I read a lot about how people's gear and food preferences change over the course of a long-distance hike, but what about more fundamental values?  Will I find other sources of meaning or inspiration?  My enthusiasm for nature runs deep.  A childhood spent climbing trees, turning over rocks in streams, swinging from rope swings.  Will I ever grown tired of these things?

As with much of this PCT planning, I guess I'll just have to keep an open mind and find out next year.  This is all part of the adventure of attempting something new.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Backpacking solo

When Still Waters first asked me to help her with her first solo backpacking experience, I was eager to share what I’ve learned the last 3 years going solo.  But there are also risks to backpacking by yourself.  So we came up with a plan to do a two night trip- we’d backpack together the first night, and then the second night we’d each go solo on the same trail, and meet back up again afterwards.  She’d have a chance to double check her gear on the first night (as the temps got down into the 20’s- burr!) before her first night out on her own.
Still Water, Solo Backpacker.
First night: comfortable into the 20's 
We set off on the Chattooga Cliffs Trail in North Carolina from the Bull Pen Bridge Trailhead (10.2 miles total out and back).  This trail was really beautiful back in July, though I’d recalled it was also technically challenging- several rock scrambles and butt-scoots.  As part of my preparations for the PCT, I was carrying a bear canister for the first time with enough food for several days.   And if that wasn’t enough, the trail was icy so those were ice-encrusted rock scrambles, with the extra 10 lbs in my pack.  This was NOT something I’d do solo, but it was a good challenge with Still Waters.  One of the important things about choosing to go solo is deciding when to take risks and when to play it safe.  When I go solo, I know where my limits are and where I can push things.
Icy and challenging Chattooga Cliffs Trail.
It was great practice carrying the bear canister, seeing how well it fit in my pack, and opening it in the cold with this method.
Selecting a solo campsite
We talked a lot the first night about differences between backpacking with a friend and going solo.  For me the biggest difference is in choosing a campsite.  When we camp with a group, campsite selection is often dictated by space or aesthetics, and is restricted (usually) to established sites.  Going solo, I camp far from trailheads, and I make make myself either highly visible or highly invisible.  If I use an established campsite, if anyone is camped nearby, I’ll be assertive and talk to the other campers and see if I get a good feeling, all before I set up.  Otherwise, I stealth camp.  On our first night, we camped at a stealth site that is typical for me when I go solo- we “went high", halfway up the hillside where it is warmer, and hidden from view of the trail.
The Chattooga is gorgeous, but we didn't camp near it cause it would have been even more cold down along it's banks.
Why go solo?
Everyone has their own motivation for going solo. Still Waters was interested in having a quiet, peaceful experience.  I went solo backpacking at first because I wanted the confidence boost and because I though it would prepare me for a thru hike, but then because I found it made me a more competent backpacker. It allowed me to do more miles than I would with friends or groups.  As I experimented with pace, nutrition, and techniques, my backpacking skills improved by leaps and bounds as I learned to listen to my body and develop my own style that was in tune with what worked for me.  Things I hadn’t learned when surrounded by other people when decisions are made for the benefit of the group.  Guess the important thing is to keep in mind why you want to go solo.

Second night: going solo
The next morning, Still Waters dropped me off at the Bad Creek Trail, which led to the start of my Chattooga River Trail thru hike, while she set off on her solo from the Nicholson Ford Trailhead.  I’ve section hiked the entire Chattooga River Trail multiple times, but this was my first time going in one continuous trip- 40.5 miles in 2 days.  With the bear canister.  With another 20-degree night.  I’m not gonna lie- this trip reminded me about the best and worst of hiking solo.  I hit a low point on the last day when I could tell I was pushing too fast.  My feet were not used to carrying that much weight.  I knew I needed take a break and not get so *freaking obsessed* with my miles per hour, and also not to worry so much about how many extra minutes it took me to get packed up in the morning fumbling around with my gloves on.  When I’m solo, I see more clearly how I can be my own worst enemy.  
At low points, it always helps to take dorky self-portraits, get email messages from friends, and write to-do lists.
But then, soloing has it’s high points too.  One neat thing was seeing a bear as I hiked the last mile to my car in the dusk/dark.  This was cool because not only wasn’t I scared of the bear like I used to be, but it was actually enjoyable seeing this wild creature- yay!  I’ve seen enough bears now that I know what to expect from the bears around here.  The other thing I like about going solo is that it makes me feel like I can take on anything I set my mind to.  For example, I DIDN'T GET COLD HANDS despite the temps dipping into the 20’s. I also felt like I was in good shape, doing these back to back 20 mile days carrying extra weight with really short hours of daylight.  So, happy overall.

After the trip, I met up with Still Waters to hear about her successful solo night on the trail.  She’d found an awesome stealth site and stayed warm.  Way to go Still Waters!  Hope you have many safe and enjoyable nights out on the trail!

Here are some other tIps for going solo that we discussed:

-When first going solo, start small.  I’d go to places where I was very comfortable- state parks where I could sign in at the park office, or the Appalachian Trail where there is a trail culture that I trust.  Start with solo day hikes. 

-Take care of yourself- this is your number one priority- don’t mess around.  Listen to your body, adjust your pace, and be mindful.

-Be aware.  Pay attention to everyone you see on the trail.  Listen to your gut.   Know your strengths and be prepared.  I also took wilderness first aid and self-defense courses

-Enjoy yourself.  Do exactly what you want, when you want.  Linger at waterfalls.  Go swimming.  Take a nap.  Eat dinner at 3 PM.  Savor every moment.  Remember the distinction between being alone and being lonely.
Giving my feet a break and having an early dinner (dehydrated roasted veggies & sweet potato soup).
-Create a safety net.  I tell two people where I'm going, where I'm parking, and when I’ll be back.  I stick to the plan.  I carry a cell phone and a SPOT.  I check back in after I return, so my friends always expect my follow up text.   My friends also have gotten in the habit of sending me foul weather alerts (thunderstorms, ice storms), and this has proved VERY helpful several times.

-Know where you can get cell signal.  I don’t normally advocate relying on cell phones in the backcountry, but I have found it very helpful to know the locations of cell service on various ridges or gaps on some of my favorite trails.  Where reception is faint, text messages are more reliable than calling or email.

-Don’t get lost.  Until I was very comfortable going solo, I’d stick to routes I knew.  I always pay constant attention to my location and where I am going.  I take extra time at all trail junctions, I backtrack if I have any doubt, I take photos of signs and trail junctions (with time stamps so I keep track of my pace so I can calculate expected travel times to various places).  I bring multiple maps and trail guides.  I research my trips throughougly, calling the local ranger station a few days before, reading blogs, forums, and websites.  I have backup plans and I know alternate routes.

-Bring music or podcasts to listen to before you go to sleep.  Or bring earplugs.  Helps keep away the sounds of night-time monsters.  This doesn't creep me out anymore (much) but it used to.

-Take advantage of the extra time and freedom to cultivate your backpacking skills.  For example, spending extra time exploring when looking for campsites has provided me with a better understanding of  how the wind moves over gaps and ridges and which plant communities are found on warmer vs. wetter slopes.  I also spend more time taking photos and looking at plants when I’m by myself- all things I enjoy.
Gentians still blooming on Thanksgiving weekend.
Read more on solo backpacking:

From Roam the Woods- more great tips for solo backpacking

The Girl Who Goes Alone, by Elizabeth Austen- this piece is awesome and inspiring and tells it like it is!!!   (another link to the full poem here)

Article about solo paddling that touches on many issues about safety.