Sunday, October 27, 2013

Shakedown #1: Gear Angst

My friend Renee/ Pathfinder (that you might remember from previous trips here and here and here) just completed her successful thru hike of the Appalachian Trail this year (congrats, Renee!!!!), and came down to visit because she is planning to hike the Pacific Crest Trail in 2014 as well.  We went on a two night backpacking trip up at the Standing Indian Loop in NC.  This was our first shakedown trip for the PCT, and new gear items filled our new packs.  Oh the new gear angst...
Gear angst =  a trunk filled with 4 shelters and 3 packs for 2 people ("just in case” the new ones don’t work)
We've both been researching and getting advice about gear changes we'll need to make for the PCT.   For me the hardest thing is knowing how many years of trial and error it's taken me to feel so well-adapted to the conditions here in the southeast, and knowing how different the conditions out on the PCT are.  I worry that the ways I've found to lighten my pack (like not bringing things like a stove or campshoes) won't work as well for me when I'm on the PCT.  Fortunately, we calmed down a bit once we got on the trail- always relaxing to get out into the woods where we're both in our element. 
Pathfinder enjoying the Kimsey Creek Trail.
We camped our first night a short ways from Standing Indian shelter.   Our new Gossamer Gear Mariposa packs had felt great (we both had matching packs!).  Temperatures dipped into the 30's and the new tent and new DIY top quilt functioned flawlessly.  Gear angst significantly decreased, and goofiness, grinning, and giddiness prevailed.
Nice tight pitch on that Tarptent Notch!
New DIY top quilt can also be used as stylish evening stole.
New Gossamer Gear Mariposa Pack
Obviously, the problem with a shakedown hike on the AT is that it doesn't test our gear under the conditions we will face on the PCT.  To get a closer approximation, on the second night we purposefully camped at the windiest, coldest place around, the summit of Albert Mountain.  Somewhere we NEVER would have chosen under normal circumstances.  Though the winds howled all night and the shelters got soaked from being in a cloud, there was a sense of supreme triumph that we stayed warm once again! 
Albert Mountain.
I know I say after every trip I do with Pathfinder, but the best part about the weekend was how much fun it is to hike with her.  It's incredible to hike with someone who has such similar priorities while backpacking, is as exuberant as I am about being on the trail, and who can have lengthy conversations about hiking philosophy, the mental aspects of hiking, endurance, and technique-- some of my favorite topics and which I think are critical for the PCT (more on these in future posts). 

Overall, this trip was a great way to kick off the PCT planning!
Ice cream at Spring Ridge Creamery.
Trail Info:

The Standing Indian Loop starts at the Backcountry Information Sign, climbs up the Kimsey Creek Trail, goes north on the Appalachian Trail, and then follows the Long Branch Trail back to the trailhead.  Here is a link to when I did this loop in the summer. 


I am a Trail Ambassador for Gossamer Gear, a manufacturer of ultralight backpacking gear.  Gossamer Gear may provided me with this Mariposa backpack to use.  However, I don't receive any financial compensation from Gossamer Gear, am under no obligation to make favorable reviews, and all reviews are based on my own opinions. 

Friday, October 25, 2013

Planning for the PCT in 2014

I’ve been talking about doing a long-distance trail for years.  With my job over at the end of the year, I’m finally going for it!  I will set out to hike the 2,663 mile Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) from Mexico to Canada through the Sierra Nevada and Cascades starting in April of 2014.
PCT planning (and AT practice hikes too.. pay no attention to the CDT info- not sure how that got there <grin>).
Though the Appalachian Mountains have been my stomping grounds for the past dozen years, nothing stirs my soul like the sight of the Cascade Mountains of the Pacific Northwest.  These are the mountains of my childhood, and whenever I see them, I feel a strong sense of home and of belonging.  Whenever I visit places like Crater Lake, Stehekin, or Lassen, I always wish I could stay longer.   

Never actually having done a long-distance backpacking trip, I’m excited, scared, overwhelmed, overjoyed, and most of all thrilled to be *finally* doing it. <yippee>

Stay tuned for updates on planning and training...
On a trip a few years ago with my folks to Stehekin, Washington, near the PCT.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

2nd DIY Karo Top Quilt

Making my own gear continues to be a process that I find very fulfilling.  With the arrival of cooler weather, it was time to sew a new top quilt.  It can be a challenge designing gear without a pattern, which is why making prototypes helps the process.  My DIY summer quilt (detailed here) served as a prototype for this new winter quilt project, though it's also a completely functional piece of gear.  It was an interesting process to improve upon the earlier design and though I've only taken it out on the trail for one night, so far I love the 3-4 inches of cozy down softness.

***Update 7/16- This quilt has kept me warm in my hammock for over 2000 miles and counting. A favorite! ***
The new DIY winter top quilt
Reflections on the first design:
First I'll digress a bit about the prototype/ summer quilt.  This was my first time using a top quilt rather than a sleeping bag, and I was delighted with how much faster it was get settled into my hammock since I didn't have to mess with a zipper or all that bulk.  I'm definitely a fan of quilts!

I also initially had my doubts about the karo quilt design.  But as it turned out, the karo baffle design did a great job holding the down in place while also allowing me to shift down during use (usually to the feet, sometimes to the sides when it got too hot).  Because I started with a summer weight quilt, it required less down, so the first design only cost me $51.  Fortunately, I ended up liking the design, but I'm glad I started with more inexpensive materials.  Since it was for summer, I erred on the side of making it too small since I figured the risks were low.  I found the size of this quilt fit like a glove, saving me weight and bulk.  

While using my first karo top quilt, I brainstormed ways to improve the design for a second quilt for winter.  I knew I wanted a sewn footbox, a slightly roomier cut, and, after our season of record rainfall, moisture-resistant materials.
Strips of masking tape stabilize the baffles while sewing them.
I was reluctant to spend a ton of money on materials, but then my folks sent me a check for my birthday.  So I immediately put in the order for my first choice of all the materials. (Thanks Mom and Dad!)

    Fabric: 5 yards of 0.67 oz/yard2 Argon fabric from Dutchware, $50 + $2 S&H
    Down:  15 oz of ARD+ DWR 850 fp from Underground Quilts, $150 +$10 S&H
    Baffles: white tulle, leftovers from previous projects.

    Total cost of materials: $200 + $12 shipping.

First the fabric.  To be honest, I got really frustrated since I couldn't just go out to a local fabric store to compare all the lightweight fabric choices that I read about (here and here).  I ended up using a new fabric called Argon that got favorable reviews on Hammock Forums (here and here).  They said it is more breathable compared to M50, but it still has a DWR coating, and is incredibly light.  Argon turned out to be nice and soft, and easy to sew.  It was more slippery than the 1.1 ripstop I used for my first quilt, but it was way more manageable than silk or satin.  Using a new (sharp) smaller needle was important, as was sewing at a slow speed and using a wide stitch.  I wouldn't hesitate to use Argon fabric again.   

I'm also trying out the new DWR treated, 850 fp down from Underground Quilts.  I made more of a mess stuffing the down since it came sewn into ripstop fabric, compared to the super-easy static free bags I got from Wilderness Logics.  Not a big deal if I'd been using the vacuum method of stuffing down instead of doing it by hand, but at least the bathtub contained everything.  Still, I was very happy to get hold of the DWR down and I'm looking forward to seeing how it performs.

My first quilt is a narrow 40 inches wide- sufficient in summer but for winter I wanted something that will cover me even if I'm sprawled out so I went with 45 inches at the top.  I know some people use draft stoppers, but I omitted them since didn't have trouble tucking the quilt around me because of the way my hammock hugs my body.

Another decision was the baffle height.  I aimed for a quilt that would be slightly lighter than my current 35-degree sleeping bag (23oz total with 8 oz of down).  So I started with a target weight of 20 oz, and from there I calculated the loft and baffle height given my dimensions.  The big advantage of a quilt in a hammock is it uses less shell material, saves the weight of the zipper, and concentrates the down up above, rather than compressing it on the sides and below.  So for a similar weight, I should get more warmth compared to the sleeping bag.  At least in theory.  Assuming I'm wearing a hat.

Finished specs:
                                 Summer quilt (shown for comparison)                New winter quilt    
    Weight:                 11.4 oz (5 oz 850 fill down)                                       19 oz (14 oz 850 fill down)                    
    Quilt size:             75" x 36" x 40" (draw cord footbox)                           70" x 36" x 45" (sewn footbox)              
    Baffle height:        1" (but ended up being about 1.5")                           2.5 to 3" (for 3-4 inches of loft)               

Summer quilt (left) and new winter quilt (right)
To make the sewn footbox, I used the same overall karo design as my summer quilt, expect I sewed the sides together at the bottom and added a circle of fabric at the bottom.  I cut the outer fabric longer than the inner shell to give a differential.  Then I added a circle of baffle to hold the down in place inside the footbox. I pretty much made it up as I went along and had to add a few pleates in the fabric to get everything to fit together, but overall it turned out great.

Final thoughts:
Making prototypes and revising designs is an integral part of the DIY process.  Thinking through the features to incorporate requires reflection on techniques and provides a deeper understanding of one's own hiking priorities.  It's especially rewarding seeing progress through all the different design versions.  If you're thinking of making your own gear- I really encourage you to give it a try- it's easy when you start with a prototype. 

For more information and inspiration for your own DIY projects:

     Check out the DIY section of Hammock Forums and the MYGO forum at Backpacking Light.

    Go on a Hammock Forums Hang- this is the place to meet a bunch of DIY'ers and creative folks.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Wilderness First Aid

This weekend I took a Wilderness First Aid (WFA) course offered through UGA's Outdoor Recreation Program. This was my third time taking WFA since certification expires ever two years.  But each time I get something new out of the experience.

I first took WFA because it was required for trip leaders for my hiking club, but its worthwhile for everyone that spends extended time in the backcountry.  

WFA teaches lay people (non-medical) to respond to injuries or illnesses that occur where help is one to several hours away.  Of course a 16 hour class can only cover basic medical techniques.  But really the most important things we learn are the decision making process and leadership skills, and how to identify life threatening injuries, stabilize the patient, and get help or get the person to safety.  The training involves a mix of lecture, discussion, and (my favorite) role-playing scenarios to practice our skills.  You'd have been surprised how serious we took the scenarios-- there was fake vomit, wounds made with magic marker, and some excellent acting (not mine!).

Another thing we learn is what questions to ask the patient, how to take vitals, and how to document the information that can be critical for the medical professionals- really helpful to know. 

There is also an emphasis on prevention- similar to what is covered under plan ahead and prepare of Leave No Trace Trainer courses.  We talked about things like ways to assess the skill levels of the group and knowing pre-existing conditions and allergies.

One piece of advice: take this class your hiking partner or coleader.  Both so you can have someone to review with, and to talk over some of the serious stuff.  It can be emotionally charged to role play what it would be like if someone were to be seriously injured on a hike.  I also found myself reviewing all the incidences and mishaps I've encountered over the years on the trail.  Nevertheless, it feels empowering to learn and review safety skills, even though I really hope I never have to use them.

For more information:

Find a WFA program in your area on the American Red Cross webpage.

What to find out what's covered in the course?  Download the pdf of the Reference Guide here.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Holcomb Creek Trail and Rabun Bald Trail

Roadwalks.  I used to avoid them at all costs.  But lately, I've been stringing together shorter trails with road walks to give me some longer contiguous routes.  This has allowed me to explore some new trails that are only accessible by FS roads (i.e. roads I don't like driving on in my tiny car).  I've found that walking FS roads can be surprisingly pleasant, especially on Sunday mornings when there are no cars out.  And the best thing is that I can make longer backpacking routes if I use FS roads so I get to see some new terrain.

This weekend, I made a partial loop with the Bartram Trail, Rabun Bald Trail, Holcomb Creek Trail, and FS roads.  There were two waterfalls on Holcomb Creek Trail, and fabulous the fall color on Rabun Bald, Georgia's second highest peak.  
Loads of fall flowers were blooming, like this gentian.
I parked at Osage Mountain Overlook just over the NC border, and ascended Rabun Bald on the Bartram Trail.  Before descending Rabun Bald via the Rabun Bald Trail, I took a detour down the Batram Trail to check out a side trial I'd been curious about.  About a mile south of the summit, I reached signed Flint Gap, and the marked side path to Flint Knob (0.7 miles).  The trail was easy to follow, though blazes were sporadic.  Unfortunately, there were no views from Flint Knob, but at least it there was a nice rocky summit to mark the top.   It looks like the trail continues on to a residential community, so I didn't bother going any further, and instead retraced my steps back up Rabun.

After having dinner on Rabun Bald and chatting with some dayhikers, a family was setting up camp at the summit, so I decided to head down the Rabun Bald Trail to find a quieter campsite for the night.  Normally, I wouldn't set up on a ridge, but the views of the fall color were just too pretty.  Plus, I knew I'd be super warm cause I was testing out my brand new, hot off the sewing machine DIY winter karo top quilt (more on this in future posts).
Camping on the leeward side of the ridge
Fabulous sunset view.
The next morning, I continued the steep descent down Rabun Bald Trail, and took a left on the FS road.  After about 20 minutes, I hopped on the Holcomb Creek Trail.  It was sad that the large hemlocks described in the guidebook were all dead, but there were several large tulip poplars and the trail was quite nice.  Holcomb Creek Falls was impressive, and lovely Ammons Creek Falls was framed with brilliant red sourwood which made for quite a sight.
Holcomb Creek Falls.

I'm so glad I got over my aversion to road walks so I could check out some trails I hadn't done before- both Rabun Bald Trail and Holcomb Creek Trail were definite winners!
Holcomb Creek Trail.

Trails Illustrated Map #778

Tim Homan's The Hiking Trails of North Georgia

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Arabia Mountain with the Trail Dames

Visiting the yellow daisies at Arabia Mountain has become an annual tradition.  Dramatic display of yellow flowers bloom all over this granite monadnock dome.  An abundance of unique plants adapted to the desert-like conditions are splendid in late fall.
Enjoying the yellow daisies with the wonderful Trail Dames.
I organized a day hike with Trail Dames to Arabia Mountain.  This is great hike for adventurous beginner hikers and nature enthusiasts.  Though it's accessible to Atlanta, it never feels crowded because visitors are dispersed over an extensive trail network, plus there are opportunities for off-trail navigation over open rock faces that are rare in the southeast.
Yellow daisy (also called Confederate daisy though I avoid that name, or Helianthus porteri)
Arabia Mountain is one of the few places around that has rock cairns (piles of stone) to mark the path.  Some parts of the trail were marked with blazes on the exposed rock, so it was easy to compare how much easier it is to navigate with rock cairns and how suited they are for treeless areas.  We also talked about the importance of staying on rock surfaces and treading carefully to avoid stepping on rare plants and lichen.  
Vernal pools still held water even though hasn't rained for a while.  Other depressions in the rock contained dish gardens full of rare plants that look like they could have been landscaped.
Investigating critters in a vernal pool.
Rare black-spored quillwort
If you do visit, be warned that temperatures on the exposed rocks are very extreme.  My favorite time of day to visit is very early morning to catch the soft light and cool air.  In fact, I arrived a few hours before everyone on the day of the hike so I could enjoy the loop before most people wake up.  
dew on purple milkwort
Ladies tresses, a type of orchid.

For more information and trail maps:
Arabia Mountain Nature Preserve Website

Guidebook to the plants:
Guide to the Plants of Granite Outcrops by William Murdy and Eloise Brown Carter.