Sunday, February 23, 2014

A Brief History - Learning that Less is More

I've been pondering why I am so interested in hiking the entire PCT. I find that I spend the small amount of free time that I have studying the maps and 'flying' the route in Google Earth. It is also fascinating to me that for over fifty years I have had no interest in hiking it and then last summer, boom, I can't stop thinking about it. There is nobody in my circle of friends and acquaintances that has this same interest. In fact most of them rather enjoy the comforts of home, or cushy travel like cruises and resorts.

As long as I can remember, I have always been drawn to the mountains and to being in the outdoors. As a kid growing up in San Francisco's Noe Valley district, I used to hike up from our house over Diamond Heights and down into Glen Park. There were no houses on Diamonds Heights back then. I remember the sweeping three hundred sixty degree views from the top and the thrill of exploring through the trees in Glen Canyon. Being in the Boy Scouts got me up into the Oakland hills and camping in East Bay parks. I learned how to camp in the rain, how to stay warm, and how to cope with the realities of living outside.

I guess when I went on my first 'real' backpack trip at fifteen, I already had a base of knowledge and understanding that made it an extremely enjoyable trip even though I was the youngest, skinniest, weakest member of our hiking party. I remember staggering under the weight of my pack, far behind the rest of the group, a trip leader with me to make sure I didn't get eaten by a squirrel or deer. Even under the pain and duress of that trip, I thoroughly enjoyed myself. I remember the hiking cadence I developed then, I said it over and over to myself, starting on the first step of the morning, "We're almost there, We're almost there."

At seventeen I began planning backpack trips for myself and friends and would go on at least two trips per year. I remember hearing about the PCT back then, that was about the time that thru-hiking it became something that people were doing. I remember having zero interest in hiking it then. I couldn't imagine hiking that far. When I went hiking I carried about sixty-five pound of gear, and I was proud of it. I recall that I would stagger as I put on my pack. When I went for a week long trip I would plan for a four to six mile day, with six miles being a long arduous slog. At that rate, hiking the PCT would take years.

So I didn't think too much about long distance hiking because I knew that I couldn't do it. I didn't have the stamina or ability to hike that far with the gear that would be required to keep me alive. I got married in my mid-twenties and by the age of thirty, my wife and I had a couple of kids and a mortgage. I didn't get out hiking much at all. We began family car camping.

Car camping means acquiring a whole new set of gear. Bigger tent, bigger stove, inflatable rafts for the water. The more we went the more gear we brought. After a few years and a few more kids we had a van with a car-top carrier, pulling a box trailer full of gear. I spent the first day of the trip setting-up camp and the last day tearing it down and loading it back up. The middle of the trip was spent lollygagging at the beach, playing in the sand with the kids, or reading a book. I found that I would come back from a trip heavier than when I left. The simplicity and solitude of the forest was somewhere else. We eventually gave up car camping as a family as it was a compromise that neither my wife or I enjoyed for quite opposite reasons. She likes the comfort and pampering of a resort; I am most in my element with out on the trail. It's really cool and at the same time quite challenging to be friends with someone who is so different than myself, it's like visiting another planet.

Sometime around the turn of the century my brother-in-law expressed an interest in backpacking and I volunteered to go with him. It's still hard for me to understand just how far I had transitioned away from backpacking and hiking. I was in my forties and it had been years since I had carried a backpack or even thought about hiking. I went back to what I knew and bought gear based on the previous knowledge that I had. My new pack was seven and a half pounds empty. My stove weighed a pound and a half. My sleeping bag was four pounds, and on it went, I easily reached my sixty-five pound pack weight, and surpassed it.

I remember the trip through the Alpine Lakes Wilderness in Washington State where the light-weight light bulb went on. We had hiked four days and gone about thirty five miles. We were camped at Deep lake below the inspiring crag of Cathedral Rock. I was preparing to cook the fish that I had caught with the fishing gear that I had carried on the frying pan, that I had also carried. It was evening and it had been a long day, we had hiked about six miles with our staggeringly heaving burdens. One of my all-leather Raichle heavy-duty hiking boots' soul had come de-laminated so I had hiked the day in my lightweight trail runner 'camp' shoes.

Up the trail comes this guy in lightweight nylon running shorts and shoes and a pack that would fit in the top flap pocket of my pack. I think it was PCT legend Scott Williamson now that I have seen pictures of him. He was friendly and encouraging and seemed to really love what he was doing and how he was doing it. This guy was still fresh even though he had started that morning at the same trail-head we did four days ago! He would be to Canada before we got to Route 2. I thought to myself, "Self, what he is doing seems a lot more fun than what I am doing."

Since that trip I have been shedding weight from my pack. The first thing to go was my frying pan. The less weight I carried, the more enjoyable the days of hiking became. Getting rid of one thing allowed my to leave another thing behind. I got to the weight where I can wear trail runners without fearing that my ankles are going to shatter from the impact and weight. It was only last summer that I realized that I was at the place where hiking twenty plus miles per day might be something I could do. I have been filled with the thrill of attempting something way outside of what I ever thought possible ever since. I don't know if I will make it, but I am excited to give it my best shot. Thank you Mr. Williamson.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Pack covers, a recipe for soggy underpants

Author in new ZPacks poncho
I have been hiking and backpacking for many years and spent many a day hiking in the rain. I remember the days before I got my first waterproof breathable jacket. Back when Goretex was your only choice and your only alternative was polyurethane coated nylon. I remember spending multiple days backpacking through central Oregon in a rainstorm. All I had was one of those old nylon ponchos. It would whip around in the wind blocking my view of the trail and otherwise cause what I thought at the time to be such inconveniences. Those were the days when I still had an external frame pack. One of the things my poncho did well was to drape over my pack and not only keep me dry, but my pack as well.

When I finally graduated to the place where I could afford that first Goretex jacket I thought nothing would be better. What I discovered was that instead of solving a problem I inherited a new one. My pack which used to be protected by my poncho was now out there exposed to the elements. At the time the solution was a pack cover. Pack covers worked because the external frame of the pack  created a nice hump that the cover could drape over. Not only that but my external frame pack had a couple of mesh panels that kept my back away for the cold aluminum frame and allowed the back of my new waterproof breathable jacket to breathe.
Packcover over internal
frame pack

All was well and the system worked great for a number of years until I again updated my gear, this time replacing my old worn-out external frame pack with a close-fitting internal pack. The comfort of my new pack and the stability of my loaded pack far outweighed the wobbliness of my old pack. I could now travel cross country, off-trail without feeling that my pack was trying to pull me into the nearest gorse bush or topple me into the stream while crossing on a log.

The problem appeared when I was out on a trip and it began to rain. I pulled out my pack cover and tried to cover my pack. I found that no matter what I tried, the design of my new pack made it impossible to cover the top, especially around the shoulder straps, since they connected to the pack at the top. So even though most of my pack was covered, the top, where most of the rain hit it, was exposed. 
Uh oh, slippage!

I found that my jacket, squeezed tightly against my pack, even though technically waterproof-breathable, did not breathe, and water would drip down my back and soggify my shorts. Not only would I be wet, but now my pack would collect water and I had to be concerned and plan how to keep water away from my gear with additional bags. The most effective being a trash compactor bag lining the inside of my entire pack.

There had to be a better way. As I began to think the problem through it became evident that I needed a way to keep the rain from coming between me and my pack. I could either get a jacket big enough to wear over my pack, or I could perhaps consider returning to my past and reinvestigating using a poncho.

I have been using a Marmot Precip rain jacket for a number of years. At 14.3 ounces, it was one of the lightest waterproof-breathable jackets you could get back when I bought it. Since then Outdoor Research has introduced the Helium II with a weight of only 6.4 ounces. My thought was that if I where to replace my Precip with a Helium II I would have 7.9 ounces available for a lightweight poncho. So I searched for a poncho that was within that weight and found the ZPacks groundsheet poncho is only 5.1 ounces. Switching from my Precip to the combination of a Helium II and the ZPacks groundsheet poncho would not only lighten my load, more importantly it could solve the soggy underpants dilemma. I really like the features of the ZPacks groundsheet poncho though I don't think I will ever use it as a groundsheet. I have a hard time taking something that I want to remain waterproof and put it between me and the ground with all of the sharp twigs, rocks, and pinecones that seem to inhabit the floor of my campsites.
Rain protection - packcover versus poncho, poncho wins!
You look like you have football pads on!
Lightweight hikers like myself are obsessed with the idea of dual use gear so the idea of carrying a poncho just for use as a poncho doesn't sound as useful as something that could double as a groundsheet too. However I will probably never use it that way. As for dual-use, I think of it as a poncho and pack-cover. I really like the design, especially the water resistant zippers. The most annoying thing that I remember about my previous ponchos was the way they would whip around in a stiff breeze. I think the zippers will go along way to keep me covered and the whipping to a minimum.

I have not had a chance to fully test my new combination on a real trip in the woods yet, but my preliminary test hikes around town have proven the value and concept. I have found that if there isn't any wind you really don't need to have a rain jacket at all. The sides of the poncho are more than adequate to protect your shoulders and upper arms from the rain. And the best part is that my pack and undershorts were still dry at the end of my test hike.