2010-02-28

Overnight in Big Sur

I just went on an overnight trip with my housemate in Big Sur. This was my first trip to Big Sur proper, but my second trip to that National Forest.

Route: http://www.gmap-pedometer.com/?r=3507114  (not including hike up to the falls)

My housemate hadn't been backpacking in quite a long time, so he borrowed some of Jess' gear (tarp, stove, pot, compass). Last time I was in that area I got pretty wet, and predicted weather was 50's so we packed pretty warmly (I packed as normal). We threw together food Thursday night and food Friday night.

The drive went quite fast actually. On the way I stopped and picked up a couple of 2-liter soda bottles (with soda in them, drank one, poured one out). We drove past the Big Sur campground and stopped a nice (though a bit pricey) place: Nepenthe. It was beautiful, and only a bit over normal prices for the quality of food ($14 or so for a chicken sandwich). The Iced tea was way overpriced though. We could see the ocean, a hawk soaring over, and a hairy woodpecker hammering on a tree outside.

We went to the campground, and the person there didn't actually know what we should do about overnight camping. So, we drove over to the ranger station just down the road. They told us to park in their back lot. So we did. It cost $5.00. After a bit of futzing and repacking, filling bottles (I left with 4 liters, my housemate with 5, 1 being gatorade), we got on the road. We were obviously way overpacked for water (especially with it raining on us at and all)...

So, we got on the trail around 1:00. We started by walking back up the road, into the campground, and up to the falls. Falls trail was closed, but there's a way around. Oak grove trail was closed as well. So after coming down from the falls we ended up walking through the campground to go back up. We then took the trail up to Mount Mitchell.

The trail quickly climbs out of the park, then levels off a bit to a slow horse-graded trail. The trail quality slowly drops off with occasional washouts. It's all side-hill on rather steep hills. It's basically all on the south-side of the hill, so the hill drops off to the right.



It being the wet season we passed a couple of streams. It had, in fact, been raining on us since the falls. As a result we'd seen only a couple of people in the park, and a couple more as we came up the trail out of the park. For a short section just after it levels off a bit we could hear and see the river far below (probably 1000 feet by this point). The river was brown and had overrun it's banks.

We stopped at a stream and refilled water, the rain had been spotty, and was off again. We ate a granola bar each and continued on. The trail got a bit monotonous here, the hill-hugging side-hilling on narrow trail started to get to our hips and knees. Eventually though it works it's way very slowly up and onto a ridge. The views at this point are getting quite impressive (see my photos http://www.flickr.com/photos/smalladventures/sets/72157623530592248/).

While sitting and nibbling etc. we saw a very large bird. It looked like a Turkey Vulcher, but was too large. It had large white patches under the wings. After we got back we looked it up and discovered it was in fact a Condor! The size and the white markings were pretty unmistakable. It was quite nearby as well! There are only 348 condors living, only 187 of those are in the wild.

We stopped for a while to put on warmer clothes, eat something, drink, and just take in the view on top of the mountain. The sun was low by now, but we figured we *might* still have enough time to push down about a 1000 feet and about 2 miles to a known good campsite. Just barely after the top of the mountain the trail got quite confusing, we spent a bit of time futzing around finding it again. The sun was setting at this point, we noticed that the ground was pretty flat. Going just a bit further we found a spot in a lower-spot on the ridge that looked well protected by trees, it was flat, and on kindof soft ground on not-too-lumpy hummocks of grass.

We we're getting quite chilled, so we both put on even more clothing in bteween pitching the tarp, and cooking dinner. I'd forgotten to get spices for the couscous, so all we had were some freeze-dried vegies, and the extra salt we could shake out of our gorp. It was still food, and good enough. We had some pudding with us, but didn't make it. It was a full moon (it would've been a good night to push on had we wanted to), but instead we walked back to the mountaintop and enjoyed the night view out over the ocean.


I was super lazy come morning. I'd had to pee once or twice in the night. We were kind of wet from the rain, wet socks, wet shoes, etc. I didn't really feel like getting up until it warmed up. My housemate got up at dawn and walked up to the mountaintop to watch the fog rise up off the water and roll in from the ocean. I slept, YAY! We got moving before too late though. We'd ALSO neglected to bring any sweetener for the cream of wheat we had for breakfast, but we DID have freeze-dried strawberries (mmmm!) so it was okay. We got moving quickly and after not far at all stripped off the bulk of our clothing. The sun was coming out and the sky was blue.

We hiked down VERY fast that and without particular event (except amazing views). We were off the trail by 11:30 or so.

2010-02-21

Gear Review: Petzl Elight

If you've been looking for a relatively bright, ultralight, indestructible headlamp, this one is pretty sweet. I'm currently sitting in the laundromat, with my fully functional headlamp sitting to my right. A minute ago, I found this in the dryer.

What the E-light is and is not:
Jess and I both carried Elights for our section hike of the AT. I've talked to and read people who carried photon's (most popular is the photon 2) for the entire trail. So don't take that to imply too much. That being said, we've night-hiked with the elights on the north-country and baker-trail's (famed for being hard to follow). I've hiked down mountains at night in the rain in the whites. Jess did Seattle SAR training with hers as well.

That being said, it's a compromise light, halfway between the traditional headlamp with AA batteries, and the photons. If you plan on bushwhacking at night, or caving (though it makes a great secondary cave light), it's simply not bright enough. Most of the trails mentioned above were not that hard to follow, and the baker trail has reflective blazes.

The Elight is 0.9 ounces with battery, has flashing and red modes (with seperate red LEDs for battery life), and is a headlamp.

All in all, it's a wonderful do-it-all piece of gear if you like your gear light, but a bit dim for planned night-hiking, a bit heavy/excessive if you're SUL'ing it.

Gear Review: ULA Circuit

I got a backpack as a graduation gift from my parents in 2006. I had picked the backpack out myself. It was ordered from a guy in Utah, who sewed it in his garage. The pack was a ULA Circuit.

Since then, ULA (http://www.ula-equipment.com) has gotten some rave reviews from backpacking magazine and others. It's now 2010, so my pack is 4 years old. Here's some of the trips it's been on.

3 day trip in racoon creek state park
3 day trip in a small park in Pennsylvania
3 day trip in western massachusetts, bad blackfiles
3 day trip in the white mountains, above treeline, lots of sliding on butt on the rocks
9 day trip on the baker and north-country trails much bushwacking through thorns
3 day trip on the laural highlands trail
3 day trip in shenandoah national park
9 day trip on the olympic penensula, going up and down cliffs all day, some bushwhacking, and hitchhiking.
2 day day-hike style trip in yosemite in november
3 day trip in Yosemite high-country, up to 10,500 feet
4 day winter trip in the desert south of big sur
7 day trip in rain in the white mountains, a little above treeline
3.5 month 1500 mile trip on the Appalachian trail
2 day snowcaving trip in tahoe

Not including hauling it around when car-camping or as a work backpack for a few weeks after getting off the trail, etc. So, >163 days total of backpacking, plus other usage and any trips I'm missing :).

Specs for the backpack
weight: 2 lbs
volume 3500 cu (including all pockets)
suspension: no framesheet, carbon-fiber hoop
fabric: spinnaker cloth
features: hipbelt pockets, ice-axe loops, mesh side pockets (good for bottles) mesh back pocket, drawstring top, no hood.
comfortable carry weight (my opinion): 45 lbs

Surprisingly this pack is still alive, even with it's 2 lbs weight. The hipbelt pockets were made of a thin cloth and are patched with layers of ducktape, the bottom has a hole or two. There's a hole from the back mesh pocket to the main compartment. It's time to replace the pack, but were I on a through-hike I'd totally just keep hauling with this guy. If you look through the list you'll see I've dragged it over rocks, bushwhacked through heavy briers, and generally beaten the hell out of the pack. I'm pretty hard on gear to start with (I care for it, but I push it's boundaries).

Faults with this backpack:
- The hipbelt leaves something to be desired. It's mounting leaves the bottom of the pack below your butt. The belt is also not particularly shaped, so it tends to droop heavily towards the back.
- You cannot get all weight off of your shoulders, ever. The pack likes to be carried at 60% of the weight on the hipbelt 40% on shoulders. You can move it to maybe 80% pretty easily, at 90+% the pack gets awkward and hangs wrong (I made these numbers up).
- The waterproof-ish fabric is shortly not so. This isn't much of an issue since almost no packs stay waterproof, but it's something to keep in mind (especially since the roll-tops on the newer designs look like they might be).

Un-expected features of this backpack:
- The shoulder straps attach to the bottom/back of the pack, this means that they LIFT the pack. This is awesome because you don't get bag-sag in the back of the
backpack, greatly helping weight distribution.
- The bottom of the pack cuts inwards towards your pack, also helping with weight distribution (for those who don't know, pack weight down and away from the back is the least comfortable).
- The hipbelt pockets are huge, awesome, and easy to access
- The mesh pockets are great for stuff or water-bottles. The bottles don't don't fall out yet are easy to get in and out

Other notes on the pack:
- The shoulder straps are VERY wide set, be warned. (great for me)
- You need to shift things in it a bit. I pack carefully for weight distrobution and such, if you pay no attention it will stab your back due to it's lack of a framesheet. I'm happy with the tradeoff though for a lighter backpack.
- The new "Amp" backpack looks to be it's replacement, but sadly it's length is somehow very very different, and it simply didn't fit me after I ordered it, and I had to return it. His 18" fits a 21" back as I measure (my circuit is an 18").

WARNING: This pack has been redesigned now significantly, and I can't speak to the newer design. I'm actually looking at granite-gear for my next pack as the new ULA pack is more featured and loses some of it's advantages over the granite-gear vapor flash. The vapor-flash also looks to have a better hipbelt. Stay tuned for more as I look for a new backpack :).

EDIT:
chalk up another trip, overnight in Big Sur.

Archery

When I was young, my brother had a 20 pound bow. We took it out one weekend and shot for a bit. After that every so often I'd go and get the 20 pound fiberglass bow and shoot in the backyard.
Eventually my dad handed me his 45 pound bow that he bought when he was 14. I had a hard time drawing it, but after a while I got the hang of that too. When my brother wanted to shoot as well, dad got out a 55 pound bow that he'd gotten in trade from someone years back, so he could go shooting with my mom (which they never did). I'd been shooting more than my brother, so I used the 55 and my brother used the 45. My brother only shot a little, but I shot on and off all of the way through highschool. I was never very good, but I got okay, and it was fun. Eventually I went to college and couldn't bring it, so I dropped the sport.
A couple of years ago now I moved to the bay area. When I did so I realized I could have my bow again and eventually brought it out here from my parents house. Recently, Jess and I have been spending a lot of time looking into survival skills, and we realized almost everything depends on dear-skin and sinew. This renewed my interest in archery, and got her interested. So, not long ago we picked up some new arrows and went looking for an archery range.
It turns out that north of here, near the Lafayette BART stop, there's a very nice field archery range. So, we loaded up our bikes, I slung my bow from my backpack, and we put the arrows in Jess' panniers and hopped on the BART near our apartment.
The route up to the archery range from Lafayette turns out to go over a mountain (Jess had planned the trip, so she knew this to start with). It was quite the beautiful ride though. At the actual park there isn't much water, and at the archery range there is none, so we brought water and snacks with us. When we reached the park we found that there's about 3/4 mile of trail to get to the actual archery range (it's a rough dirt-road passable by car, but with a locked gate). We did this by bike. The archery range itself is in the middle of a very large cowfield, out in the middle of nowhere. Quite the beautiful setting. There are fences to keep the cows out of where they might get shot.
We shot for a while, and discovered that Jess simply can't draw my bow. This is for 2 reasons, 1) it's 55 pounds, and 2) it's 50" long and designed for a very short draw length. Meaning... someone short like me (I'm 5'6" and short-limbed, she's 5'10" and long-limbed). We had a good time anyway, and met some other archers as well. As it turns out they were basically a group of the best archers in the area, all having won quite a few awards. My bow is a recurve, and that's what Jess and I were interested in due to being able to make them ourselves (if we want to someday). Half the archers we met shot recurve, half shot compound bows. We got some tips on proper draw form which helped a lot.

So, it was generally a good time. Since then I've gone shooting once more alone, and then I got Jess a 45 pound bow (heavy enough to hunt) for Christmas, and we went shooting again together. It was a lot of fun. Her shoulder still wears out pretty quickly. I had to get a new firing glove because I actually broke a blood-vessel in my finger shooting without one. The last time we went we got more tips from another guy we met about how to actually hunt and such. He used to hunt quite a bit, and seemed to feel that taking a whitetail was pretty easy (unusual for an archer). He hunts from the ground, but not still-hunting (still-hunting is moving looking for still dear). He had some super-light carbon-fiber arrows and very small broad-heads. I'd seen the arrows before, but only for target shooting, and thought you needed a heavy head and arrow for hunting. He also talked about hitting the animal in just the right spot for the angle you happen to be shooting from, and practicing that a lot.

More on archery to come I'm sure!

2010-02-20

A note on tarps vs. tents

Most people I talk to are confused about using a tarp for backpacking, instead of a tent. So, here I'd like to relate some of our anacdotal experience with tarps, some of their advantages and disadvantages.


So here's a question.
What is a tarp, tent, hammock, or other shelter actually for? Why do you carry it? Why do you pitch it?


Now, Jess and I both really like being outdoors, we go backpacking because we like to be in the woods. That's why we're out there. So, for us the primary purpose of a shelter is to keep dry in rain while sleeping. Secondary purposes include keeping us dry while cooking food, keeping mosquitoes off us in bad mosquito country, blocking wind in cold weather, a privacy screen when in tight camping quarters, keeping snow off us, an emergency bivuac (think vapor layer), and to lower condensation.

This list is probably not comprehensive, but it's close to it for us. Many people use shelters also as sort-of a place that feels like "home". 90% of the time Jess and I will sleep without a shelter. On the AT we only pitched it if we thought it was going to rain. So for us, we're already in the 10% case once we're using the tarp at all!

What is a tarp anyway
When I'm talking about a backpacking tarp, what do I mean anyway? I'm actually referring to basically any large piece of plastic. Jess and I have nice silnylon tarp with grommets (1 tarp each). Also note that when I speak of a tarp I'm also referring to its matching groundcloth. Water doesn't just stay still when it hits the ground, it moves, primarily downhill. Covering above you is the first step, but then you have to deal with the running water as well, and possibly damp ground. A groundcloth steers water away from the sleepers.

So, here's a quick list of some of the things a tarp gives you:

Open air, view, and circulation
Depending on pitch of course, but sleeping under a tarp feels much more "outdoors" than sleeping in a tent. To us this matters a lot. We love to be outdoors.

Additionally this means that if it's a steamy summer night, you won't end up soaked in your own sweat, the airflow is free around you, so it's just like sleeping under the stars (you can even stick your head out and do just that if you like).

Robustness in simplicity
It's just a tarp, no poles to break, if it tears, tape it... it's still a tarp. You get used to ways to pitch the tarp, Jess and I got 1 that we used 95% of the time.
In any case, every pitch is a little different, and you get very used to sortof hacking something together each time. At 2am when I feel a sprinkle on my face in the night, the two of us could get up and pitch the tarp in probably about 3 minutes.
The great thing about this is that if something goes wrong, it's just like normal. Your pole breaks, well, grab a stick, tie to a tree, whatever. We tore a grommet out of Jess' tarp. No big deal, we just tied it off by sticking a rock against the tarp and tying a rope around that.

Movable floor
If the floor isn't attached to the roof, you can remove it. This is great for cooking indoors, cleaning house etc. Part of the reason it feels more like the "outdoors" is that there isn't that process and annoyance like a tent. With a tent any dirt you bring in, is now "in" the tent. With a tarp, you just brush it off the ground-cloth. You can put some items off the ground-cloth, but under the tarp, like muddy boots. This is a wonderful feature after hiking in the rain all day.
Another advantage of a movable floor is you can put down your stuff and then pitch a tarp OVER it. Earlier I mentioned pitching a tarp in the middle of the night. With a tent, you'd need to pitch the tent, then climb in. With a tarp, you're stuff stays dry *while* you are pitching it. This can easily save you 5 minutes of rain on your stuff.

And now for the downsides:

No bucket floor
This is a big one. There are a lot of workarounds it turns out, but it's tricky and none are as good as a bucket floor on a tent. That is, the bottom part of the tent going about 6" up the walls that's seem-sealed. This will let you virtually put your tent in a stream, and still stay dry in it. With a tarp you have to be significantly more careful about water-flow in a rainstorm, to make sure it ends up under and not on your ground-cloth.
In the entire 1500 miles of the AT I actually had a real problem with this once. Every other time we were able to make the groundcloth work. On that night, I should add, everyone in the campground with a bucket floor (having assumed they would keep water out) had pitched on ground a few inches lower, and most of their tents filled completely with water. My tarp was *also* hit by a falling branch, and there was about 3 minutes straight of light due to lightning... So my flooding tarp wasn't really my problem anyway :).

No mosquito netting
If it's bad mosquito country... good luck. I hiked from Georgia to Massachusetts on the AT sleeping under a tarp for rain, and without ever using mosquito repellent. There are a number of tricks for reducing mosquito and no-see-um bites, and I hope to go into that in a later post. In the end though, when it gets really bad, it's just bad. There are workarounds, but they are annoying.

Stability and wind protection
A tarp is never going to be as stable in the wind as a good mountaineering tent. Though it should be noted that due to ease of futzing with the pitch it's FAR more stable than a low quality or non-mountaineering tent.
On a mountain I twisted my ankle, we were on an open meadow. The wind picked up to the point where had we opened the tarp in the air, we would've been unable to hold onto it. We *did* get the tarp up, and it didn't tear. We slept that night. It was extremely loud due to being somewhat loose which made sleeping hard, and took a long time and a lot of work to set up without losing the tarp.

So, think about sleeping out sometime, no tarp, no tent. If you like it try using a tarp. It's a lot safer and easier than you think. DO do some research into how to pitch a tarp first though! I intend to write a new article on that soon, in the meantime see our article on www.smalladventures.net/backpacking.

2010-02-18

Our first bike-tour

Jess and I decided to try a bike-tour.
Here was our planned route:
road map

This was not long after we'd finished fixing up Jess' bike (probably something we should post about as well).

We threw together basically our normal backpacking gear, put it all on rear-paniers on our bikes and set off.
It went quite well overall. We actually take the route listed there out to the bridge, but fairly close. One interesting thing is that you have to cross the bridge on the west-side. Not the east by bike, the other side is reserved for foot traffic.

Having crossed the bridge we noticed we have some other choices we hadn't expected. There is the route noted on the map there that goes up and over the mountains. This is fairly steep and apparently quite beutiful. We were feeling a bit wussy, this being basically our first bike-tour, and my knee didn't feel to great. So after a discussion with a competent looking cyclist we chose the bike-path. The path goes down to the west and back under the bridge. Then follows the water circling around and into town.

After passing through town and climbing tam (a pretty good climb for us, my bike lacks especially low gears, and Jess hadn't really ridden much before or lately) we stopped by the park headquarters. There we talked to someone in the gift-shop for a bit and got some tips on where to camp. Armed with this advice we continued onwards. Looking at our map though we noticed that there's a trail that cuts across the top of the mountain. I used to mountainbike a fair bit, and the trail looked kinda smooth, so I talked Jess into taking it.

It was beautiful, but a lot of climbing still, we mostly pushed our bikes though we both had a good time experimenting with our street bikes riding on the dirt :-). Jess' first initiation into mountain-biking. On the way we met a few other cyclists, mostly using very low gears our bikes didn't have.

Turns out the campsite we ended up at had a hiker-biker spot, and that the hiker-biker spot is something like 8 bucks a piece, instead of 30 for the spot. It's below the bathroom, so it smells a little, but it's a nice spot. We also found a can of soup there. After wandering out on a short hike to see the sunset and stretch our legs (different exercise from biking) we made a our dinner (burritos made with vegitarian refried beans, cheese, and instant rice), as well as the can of soup we found on Jess' homemade alcohol stove. That evening it actually rained on us, we slept fine under our tarp (see our backpacking gear for details on tarping, www.smalladventures.net/backpacking).

It was surprisingly cold actually (note that this was over a month ago), even by our standards, though certainly not cold with our 10F bags.

Next day we rolled out of bed, and had a pleasent ride back! The ride back was of course *much* easier, but we were also quite exhuasted. A beautiful weekend though

2010-02-17

First Post!

Hi!

Smalladventures is experimenting with a blog. We found that we
haven't been posting much new content to the website, so I (mbrewer)
thought it might be useful to create a blog and try that instead.

We have a LOT of lessons learned from the Appalachian trail that
haven't made it onto smalladventures yet, and I appolagise for that.
We've learned tons about how to backpack, and in particular about how
little it takes to have a good time, and what a wide variety of styles
work well for people.

Also we've been experimenting with making neat things, just starting
to explore bike touring, learning to sail, etc.

This is just a first post to test out the system, but hopefully we've
got a lot of content coming soon.

 - mbrewer (KB1PMC)