Thursday, August 22, 2013

Gear lists

Making gear lists has been enormously helpful for prioritizing my gear purchases and DIY projects, and has helped me keep track of what I use and don't need anymore.  I used to make them for every trip, but lately, I haven't bothered much with them, except for when I have a specific problem I'm working through.  For example, I'm currently researching new top quilt designs, so just updated my gearlists to help decide what specs to make the new quilt.
My gear at the time I took JJ's lightweight backpacking class in 2011.
I've never posted a gearlist on my blog.  But I love reading other people's and find them quite telling.  I see them as ways to learn about someone, and to get a feel of the perspective that they offer.  They are also helpful for getting new ideas.  So it is in this spirit that I share my summer, fall/spring, and winter gear lists for weekend backpacking in the southeast.  I've also started a new page to provide an easy reference to my blog posts on gear.

Want to make your own gear list?

     Backpacking Light has a variety of templates.

     Stick recently posted a form you can download.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Why I love hammocks

I've mentioned a few times that my hammock is one of my most prized gear items, so I wanted to take explain why I love my hammock so much.  I've been a hammock hanger since 2010, and I find two primary advantages:

-A good night sleep = ability to hike further and overall increased happiness.   It was a huge breakthrough for me to finally figure out a way to get quality sleep while backpacking.  When I was a ground-dweller, I tossed and turned all night and never managed a deep sleep, and my hips ached the next morning.  In my hammock, I fall asleep quickly and sleep deeply through the night, waking up refreshed.  My legs and feet recuperate and I don't feel sore the next day so I can hike more comfortably.  I credit this all to the comfort and the unique body position provided by the hammock.
My Warbonnet Blackbird hammock with Yeti 3-season underquilt
-Greater flexibility in where I can camp.  In the southeast where trees are plentiful, I find I have more options since I'm not restricted to flat ground free of vegetation. 

When I was taking my first solo backpacking trips, I cannot stress enough how pivotal it was to feel like I could camp anywhere.  I moved to Georgia a few months after Meredith Emerson was murdered on Blood Mountain, and most everyone told me not to hike alone.  I spent a lot of time my first solo trips lying sleepless and scared in my tent jumping at the faintest russel in the night.  It was a huge deal for me when could stealth camp in my hammock because it allowed me to finally feel safe in the woods. 

Now I'm a much more confident backpacker, and I've come to prioritize hiking longer miles.  I still appreciate the ability to camp anywhere because it means I can hike until later in the day because I can more easily find a site when I'm ready to stop for the night.   There have only been a few times that I've had trouble finding a site while hiking in very steep terrain.
Even my worst hang between too closely spaced trees covered in poison ivy wasn't all that bad.
Other things I appreciate about hammocks:

-A deeper sense of connection to my surroundings.  With an elevated perspective and lack of attached rainfly, I have the ability to see out and it feels more open.  I have flexibility in how I pitch the tarp (i.e. I can convert into porch mode), or whether I pitch it at all.  Sure this is also possible with some tents or tarps, but it's very easy with a hammock.

-Modularity of the system.  Hammocks and tarps can be mixed and matched, allowing greater flexibility and adjust to different seasons or situation.  Suspension systems can also be changed to be  more lightweight or to have more flexibility in size or spacing of trees.  They can also be set up low in the cold or wind, or higher in the heat to cool off.

-Stay drier and cleaner.  I also have plenty of living space in the rain- can fit several people under the tarp which makes for more enjoyable group trips.  Plus I'm no longer living in the dirt and mud.

-Easier to practice LNT.  Hammocks also have less impact on the environment since they don't compact the soil or plants.   And I don't have to move stick or rocks.

-Ease of setup and takedown.  It's super fast, so I can get out on the trail even faster in the morning.  More time to watch the sunrise.

-Hammock people.  I've really enjoyed meeting and learning from fellow hammock hangers.  Especially my friends who got me into hammock camping, and the folks I've met on Hammock Forums hangs.  Meeting all the other DIYers inspired me to make more of my own gear, including my DIY Karo top quilt.  There are also quite a few excellent cottage industries that sell hammock gear and DIY supplies.  All in all it's a great community!

Disadvantages of the hammock:

-Some people don't find them comfortable.  (Thankfully, I am not one of those people.)

-There was a bit of a learning curve for me and initially I was overwhelmed with all the jargon.  At first I thought all that stuff about angles, fancy ropes and knots mattered more than it really did.  I suspect it's just that folks get really into their gear, especially when it comes to hammocks.  I still need to practice when I get new gear or want to try different rigging though this isn't really a disadvantage.
Testing out my new Dream Hammock Darien UL in the backyard.
Overall, switching to a hammock had a profound impact on me as a backpacker, and really facilitated my comfort in the backcountry and gave me the confidence to explore more places.  I've definitely benefited from my "elevated perspective" and I encourage others to give hammocks a try.

Hammock resources:

Hammock Forums
Just Jeff's Hammock Camping Page
The Ultimate Hang
Shug's Hammock How-to videos

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Mountain Bridge Wilderness

I've always heard how quickly water levels rise during flash floods, but it's something else to experience it directly.  To slosh through ankle high water on trails that were only just dry.  To hear the surreal roar of a ranging river crashing rock against rock.  This makes you understand how water can carve something like the Grand Canyon.

But this was in the rain-soaked southeast, in the Mountain Bridges Wilderness Area in South Carolina.  The Middle Saluda Scenic River cuts a gorge as it flows away from Caesar's Head State Park and through Jones Gap State Park.  I'd heard about the spectacular waterfalls and miles and miles of inner-connected trails, so even though it was a long drive, I finally decided to get a (required) reservation for a backcountry campsite.  A few days before, flooding and mudslides closed most of the trails.  However, the park rangers said my campsite was still accessible, so, with more thunderstorms in the forecast, I headed out for an overnight with my friend Still Waters.
Blue skies before the storm.  From the top of Caesar's Head, a granitic gneiss outcrop
As afternoon thunderstorms dumped rain on already saturated ground, I decided to backtrack to check out a falls I'd past earlier, Dargon's Cascade, rather than risk continuing on when we got to a ford that looked too dangerous.  Even so, the stream water crossings I'd rock-hopped were now up to my calves.  At the falls, the change in water level was astonishing to see.  The difference in the sound level was even more humbling. 
Dargon's Cascade before
Dargon's Cascade after
I was glad our campsite was perched on a low ridge well above the river.  Just minutes after pitching tarps and getting set up, another wave of evening thunderstorms came on suddenly and strong, and lasted well into the night.  Happiness was watching the storm from the shelter of the tarp while airing out waterlogged feet.  Backpacker entertainment- just sitting and watching the rain falling and lightening flashing, and rolling thunder, feeling appreciative for our little patches of shelter.
Campsite #14 on the Jones Gap Trail
More waterfalls.
The next day, water levels were down again.
200-foot Raven's Cliff Falls.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Summer Backpacking Food Favorites

My backpacking menu changes with the seasons.  In summer, salty soups, crunchy snacks, and lean protein seem more satisfying.  Fruits like cantaloupe, pineapple, and strawberries also taste refreshing.
Pineapple ready for the dehydrator.
Stoveless meals continue to serve me well in summer.  I dehydrate and assemble just-add-cold-water dishes into pint freezer ziplocks.  At rest breaks, I start them soaking so that 2-3 hours later, my food is ready to eat when I'm hungry.  No waiting around to cook.  For dessert (or sometimes breakfast) instant pudding made with nido milk powder is delicious when cooled in a stream- just be sure it doesn't float away.

Dehydrating meats
I've been working on getting more variety of proteins, since tuna foil packets have been getting old.  Shrimp, lean deli meat like ham and turkey, and imitation crab have all dehydrated well (following these online instructions), and can be stored in the freezer until I'm ready to pack them for a trip.
Shrimp cut in half dry and rehydrate faster.
Shrimp are done when they are totally dry and hard.
Crab was surprisingly tasty.
Dehydrating lean deli meat.
Pumpkin and sweet potato bark, also from Backpacking Chef, are versatile ingredients for a variety of meals.  I eat them for snacks like leather, or turn them to powder in a food processor, and add them to dehydrated wild rice for a savory lunch.  Or add protein powder, slivered almonds, and cinnamon for breakfast.
Sweet potato bark.
Soups are especially good for summer because they help you stay hydrated.  I use bulk powdered soup mixes for flavor and to add richness to couscous or dehydrated rice and veggies. They sell them at Amish Markets like David and Katie's in Homer, GA, but you can also get them online in a variety of places.  The creamy pumpkin or mushroom soup and broccoli soup are delicious.  A little Nido milk powder makes the soup creamier.  Sometimes, I toss in dehydrated shrimp or crab for a chowder.
Cold Pizza
My favorite new recipe is adapted from Backpacking Chef's pizza grits supreme.   I used couscous instead of grits, and cheddar cheese powder instead of goldfish crackers.
Cooking down mushrooms and tomatoes.
Adding quinoa and pineapple juice for more flavor.
After fully cooking the quinoa, I dehydrated it overnight, then packaged it with cheddar cheese powder, pizza seasoning, and dehydrated pineapple.  Plus dehydrated deli ham.
Combining pineapple, cheese, and dehydrated quinoa/mushroom.
On the trail, it rehydrated with cold water in 2-3 hours.  A pretty fancy meal but well worth the effort.  Cause nothing beats cold pizza in the summer.
Instant cold pizza in a bag.
Do you have any favorite summer trail recipes?

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Beech Creek Loop in the Southern Nantahala

A high-elevation escape for an overnighter during the heat of summer.  The Southern Nantahala Wilderness straddles the Georgia-North Carolina border and features heath balds and rugged mountain streams and waterfalls. 
Lush wildflowers bursting with the oranges and reds of summer.
The first day, Still Waters joined me for the Beech Creek Loop and even gave me a shuttle so I could do a long day on Sunday.  The joy of hiking with someone who appreciates narrow trail through towering berry brambles and doesn't seem to mind relentless climbs and a few scrambles.
Still Waters looking out into wilderness from the top of Big Scaly Mountain.
Beech Creek Loop circles 5,060 foot Big Scaly Mountain, a peak that rises up out of the Tallulah Basin in the shadow of Standing Indian Mountain (not to be confused with Scaly Mountain in North Carolina on the Bartram Trail).  Homan describes a 8.2 mile loop, though elsewhere it's listed as 12-miles.  Regardless, with about 2,500 foot total ascent and numerous side trails, we took all day to explore this diverse area.
A side trail led to spectacular High Falls.
Crossing Beech Creek.
When I'd hiked part of the Beech Creek Loop solo back in May,  I skipped the side trail to Chimney Rock, so as not to be tempted to try the rock-scramble to the top of this tall rock monolith alone.  My fear was for the descent, and it turned out I was right to be cautious.  When I felt stuck and scared halfway down, Still Waters provided guidance about where find toe holds.
The scary/fun climb up Chimney Rock.
When my feet intercepted ground, I wonder if attempting such a climb with a friend around was a bad choice because it put her more at risk if something had happend.  Or if it was good because I gained confidence and skills for future scrambles.  Still Waters said she wouldn't attempt it with me there, but would if she were solo.  Funny how we each do the math differently.
I made it!
After Still Waters headed home, I set off to explore the Wateroak Falls trail.  I've been making my way through all the trails described in Tim Homan's Hiking Trails of the Southern Nantahala Wilderness and Chattooga National Wild and Scenic River, and this was the last trail I had to complete to finish all the trails in the book.  This trail is unmaintained by the forest service and not even on the old FS map, so I was glad for excellent trail description.  Blue blazes along this faint trail were sparse and the tangle of rhododendron and downed logs were thick, so routefinding was a challenge in the fading evening light. 
Finding impressive Wateroak Falls was a satisfying reward for 20 minutes bushwacking.
The next morning, I climbed the 2 miles and 1500 feet up the Deep Gap Trail to Deep Gap, where I turned south onto the Appalachian Trail.  With easy footing and wide trail, I kicked into autopilot for the 15 miles back to my car at Dicks Creek Gap.  When the trail dropped below 3000 feet and into oppressive heat and humidity,  I understood why the AT was so desserted.  And I was even more thankful for the cool breezes I'd found up in the Nantahala.
Camping behind the rhododendrons near the junction of the Deep Gap Trail and Wateroak Falls Trail.

For more information:

Tim Homan's Hiking Trails of the Southern Nantahala Wilderness and Chattooga National Wild and Scenic River- an excellent guidebook.

Trails Illustrated #778- FS roads to get to the trailheads.

US Forest Service Map: "Southern Nantahala Wilderness and Standing Indian Basin"- this shows old roads and unmaintained trails, with better detail than the Trails Illustrated map.

Sherpa Guide's Trail Description.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Flying high

***Just gonna warn you- non-backpacking related content this week.***

Only had time for a dayhike (with no photos of flowers- sorry) because this weekend was the show at my aerial dance studio.  The show included performances representing the whole Canopy Studio community- from beginners who'd been taking class for only a few months to members of the repertory company.  I hope that watching this full spectrum allowed the audience to be inspired to try a class or workshop.  It's so fun to play up in the air, and you build enormous strength and flexibility.
Photo by S. Montgomery
Our insect-themed slings piece makes me so proud because of its creativity, though last year's piece had more impressive tricks, and our spring piece had fun doubles work.  What I loved about this piece was that our crazy antics cracked me up every time we practiced.

Our choreography was a collaborative effort- each of us invented tricks, and then we melded them together.  As they morphed they took on a richness greater than the individual parts.  When my classmates made up moves I couldn't do at first, I had the fiercest determination to master them.  If our instructors had given us that level of material, I think I'd have protested.
Can you identify which insects inspired our costumes?
I loved performing with my three wonderful classmates/ friends.  It is immensely satisfying to move together as a group.  But it wasn't always easy to coordinate our movements.  Due to trick difficulty and fickleness of fabrics/humidity/sweat, we never knew if we'll get a foot caught or slip out of a wrap.  Glances out of the corner of our vision assessed if all were together.  We spoke volumes in just a quick look-- "let's go NOW! or "slow down so we can catch up!"   We knew one another's tough spots, and mentally cheered each other on-- yes you can do it!  Go-go-go!   We were only as awesome as our collective success (which is one similarity this has to a group backpacking trip).

Here is video of the last part of our piece:

It was all over so quickly.  Months of work, extra practices, countless emails, hours of early mornings painting costumes, so many weekends of trips cut short so I could run back for more practices.  All for two- five minute moments.  But oh so worthwhile to be bad-ass and fearless, and to have created something unique.

Next week, back on the trail...