Sunday, May 26, 2013

Backpacking Gear

Here is a picture of all the gear I carry with me on all 3 season trips that are one week or less. Not included are what I wear while hiking, food, camera gear and a bear canister (only use when required by law).

From left to right:
Cheap trash compacter bag
1 Liter smartwater bottle
2 Liter Platypus
Bug spray
Hand sanitizer
Food hanging kit (OP sack, 50' dyneema line, rock sack (blue), silynylon food bag(yellow))
Tarp stakes (6 in small white bag)
Clothing (in green bag)
First aid kit
Toiletries (toothbrush, toothpaste, lip balm, soap, Aquamira drops, swiss army knife, bic lighter)
Toilet Paper
Tarp and Bivy (in white sack)
Brunton ADC Pro (watch, barometer, altimeter, thermometer, ect all in one device)
Titanium spoon
0.5 Liter bottle with Ethyl Alcohol
Alcohol stove with windscreen (inside modified smart water bottle)
Sleeping bag (in red bag)
Petzl headlamp
Titanium pot inside pot cozy
Gossamer Gear Gorilla backpack
Black Diamond hiking pole (single)
Thermarest XS sleeping pad (orange thing under all the stuff)
Gossamer Gear torsolight 1/8" sleeping pad (grey thing under all the stuff)

I could trim down a little but I have been pretty happy with this set-up so far.
I will probably add a headnet to this but I have been fortunate enough to avoid really bad mosquitoes.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Western Mountaineering Summerlite

Choosing a sleeping bag can be one of the more difficult gear decisions. It is difficult not only because it is a critical piece of gear but also because what is necessary in a bag depends on so many factors such as environmental conditions, user health and metabolism, and user experience. Of course, cost is also a major factor for most of us and this needs to be considered. This review will be on the Western Mountaineering Summerlite sleeping bag. I will first go over why I chose to buy the Summerlite and then I will go over real world performance.
Western Mountaineering has an excellent reputation in the backpacking world for producing high quality down sleeping bags and clothing. They are a California based company using high quality European goose down as their fill material and all labor is done locally (San Jose). They also have very good customer service. All of this quality comes with a price, as you can imagine. Western Mountaineering bags and clothing are not cheap.
Although cost is an issue, I also think that a high quality bag is a worthy investment. With proper care they will last many years and staying warm is important in most environments.
I bought the Summerlite in late 2009, it has been my primary sleeping bag since then, so I know this bag really well.

Lori playing around in the new Summerlite

I chose the Summerlite based on a few factors. Living in California I knew that I would not be exposed to a lot of wet, humid weather (I have used down bags in the pacific northwest without issue but it is more tricky there); I would be camping mostly in 3-season weather; I wanted something that was lightweight but effective; I was familiar with using sleeping bags (rather than quilts); and the incredible reputation of the company also factored in.
The Summerlite is rated as a 32o F. bag, has 10oz of down and uses very light shell and liner material. Total weight is around 19oz, not bad at all. I had heard from many people that Western Mountaineering was conservative in their temperature ratings, that they were in fact warmer than advertised.
Temperature ratings are a really tricky thing and can vary widely between companies. Some are more “optimistic” with their temperature claims while others are more conservative. There is a US system and a European system as well. While not useless, ratings need to be taken with more than a few grains of salt. Individual metabolism and preferences will also play an important role in how warm a bag feels.

I don't have very many pictures of my Summerlite, this is from the Western Mountaineering website

With that being said, I had hoped that I could be toasty warm down to 32o with only a minimal base layer on (on a sleeping pad as well). I also hoped that I could supplement the bag with some other layers and get myself down to 20o while still remaining comfortable. Unfortunately, I was a little too optimistic with my hopes.
I can say with absolute certainty that with only base layers, on a decent sleeping pad, in tent or bivy I am comfortably warm down to the low 40s. If I throw on a light down jacket, hat, pants and wind shell, then I am good to the mid 30s, to go below that I need to really supplement by clothing. There is a limit to the effectiveness of layering as the bag is not spacious, so adding too much clothing will have diminishing returns. It also helps to eat something high in fat before bed. And site selection is important, I try to sleep under trees if I expect colder nights and out of the wind.
I hope that I am not misleading anyone, the  32o rating is accurate, the lower rating of a bag is not intended to represent the lowest temperature where you can expect to sleep soundly and warmly. It is more likely to keep you warm enough but not necesarily comforatable. There are many bags that are rated at this temperature that are not as warm.

Summerlite inside HMG Echo shelter
Perhaps the epic reputation that Western Mountaineering has caused me to have unrealistic expectations, that and the glowing reviews I have heard. In hindsite, for the conditions I normally encounter, I should have gone with a warmer bag. I have made it work but I have certainly had some cold nights.
My current thinking is that I am going to start looking at sleeping quilts rather than sleeping bags. I think they will work better for me, are more versatile and there are quite a few really good quality cottage gear manufactures making them. If Western Mountaineering made the kind of quilt I am looking for I would certainly consider them.
The bottom line is that the Summerlite is a really good bag, I would say it is very good for 2+ seasons. If you are looking for a traditional sleeping bag for warmer temperatures and don’t mind shelling out $350, then I would recommend it.  But if you are looking at camping in the shoulder seasons and expecting temperatures in the 30s or lower, do not want to be confined to a mummy bag, or are a colder sleeper then I would say keep looking, there are plenty of great options out there.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Mountain Laurel Designs Superlight Bivy

It's time for another review and I am very excited about this one. There are some things that really clicked with me when it comes to backpacking: the switch from boots to running shoes; the switch from a white gas stove to alcohol fuel; and the switch from using a tent to using a tarp and bivy.

The transition from tent to tarp and bivy for me was sudden. I had been reading about reducing pack weight and as one of the heaviest items tends to be the tent, I knew I could make some progress quickly here. I can also get obsessed with an idea and as soon as decided to try out a tarp, I started working on making it happen.

Long story short, I made myself a tarp out of silnylon and loved it... with some exceptions. Now, I love Nature and that is one of the appeals of the tarp, you can be protected from weather under it but still not feel totally closed off from the environment.

In front of my homemade tarp (Henry Coe S.P.)

 But, I don't love all things found in Nature and some of these things really like me, as a meal. I had a pretty bad tick experience in Henry Coe State Park and that convinced me that I needed a little extra something to keep the bugs and crawly things off me while I was sleeping. I also realized that most of the time I don't want to bother setting up the tarp, I am lazy that way. The problem with this is that under certain conditions my sleeping bag (with all that nice fluffy down inside) would get wet from dew.

I actually made an all mesh "tent" that fit under my tarp. It worked but was a pain to get in an out of and I still had to set up the tarp to make it work. I started just climbing inside it at night, without setting it up and sleeping in it. that worked ok but didnt keep off the dew very well.

Sleeping bag inside my mesh tent (somewhere on the PCT)

In comes the bivy sack!

Bivy sack covered with gear

It is basically a nylon shell that zips over the sleeping bag and sleeping pad. There are tons variations from waterproof/breathable to emergency bivys to all mesh bug bivys. Of course, in my quest to lighten my load, I wanted something lightweight with a big mesh screen over my face so I could breath lots of fresh air.

Campsite on the lost coast trail

After realizing that I didn't have the patience to keep making my own gear, I started looking around for pre-made bivy sacks. I narrowed it down to a couple and then started checking out the gear swap section of backpacking light

Check it out here

Awesome deals can be had and my experience has been very good. People are generally very honest about the stuf they want to get rid of and give very fair prices. I like recycling gear, especially when it is still in good shape. I managed to find a Mountain Laurel Designs bivy for sale and I bought it. Got a pretty good deal too (and I didnt have to wait 8-10 weeks! for them to make me one).

Link to MLD they make some really nice stuff you are just going to have to plan far ahead and be patient.

The first time using it was awesome and I have brought it on every single trip I have taken since. (Except when I go with Lori, then we use a 2 person tent, she is not so into the being one with Nature thing)

Bivy in the foreground, various ultralight shelters in the background (High Sierra)

It keeps the bugs out, the dew off, the sleeping bag warmer and I feel like I am in a warm cocoon. Not everybody is into these things, it can be claustrophobic for some and I admit, I do sometimes think I must make a very enticing human sushi roll for the wandering beasts of the wild. But, the simplicity and the functionality are superb. It has also saved my ass on some damn cold winter trips.

Bivy under home made tarp, during a big dump of snow in Yosemite

The superlight bivy is very well made, I don't know exactly how many nights I have on it, somewhere around 40 or 50 and I bought it used (though it was like new). Still no signs of wear and tear, still fully functional if a bit dirty, I fully expect it to last for many more years. There are different versions of it, I have the one with the silnylon bottom and endurance shell with an event footbox.

Campsite near Castle Peak

Really, I cant say enough good things about this bivy, I highly recommend it to those looking for a simple, light and functional piece of gear.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

ZPacks Hexamid

This is the first of a series of gear reviews for what I use when backpacking. As a preface, I tend to backpack mostly in 3 season conditions (25 to 100 F.) with the occasional foray into the mountains during the winter. I am a convert to lightweight backpacking and so I weigh everything I take with me. Weight is a prime consideration along with functionality and cost. With that being said, here we go with one of my favorite pieces of gear: the Zpacks Hexamid Solo tarp.

When I consider a shelter I try to balance weight with function. Weight because I have to carry the damn thing and function because when I need it, I want it to work. Being blessed to live in California, I rarely need shelter from the rain, I actually have to make an effort to find rain and even then I don't always succeed. So, I normally sleep under the stars in a bivy sack (review to come soon). But I always carry some form of shelter, just in case. Therefore, I want something light because it will spend most of the time in my pack.

After considerable research and talking with other ultralight gear heads I decided to purchase the Hexamid.

Hexamid Solo in my backyard

This is a really well thought out shelter, built by Joe Valesko. It is made from white cuben fiber and weighs 6.5 ounces (with all guylines but not stakes). Joe offers many options and will custom build as well, I purchased the solo tarp with the optional extended beak.

With extended beak rolled up

It requires one hiking pole and six stakes to set up (8 stakes for maximum security). I have it set up rather high here, this would be for maximum ventilation. It can be staked much closer to the ground for more storm protection.

Condensation can become an issue for single wall shelters and the Hexamid is no exception. This is most noticeable with cooler temperatures and/or damp conditions. Water condenses on the tarp and can drip onto whatever is below. However, most of the water that condenses will run down to drip off the edges of the tarp. I have accidentally brushed against the tarp and that can get things wet. Because I almost always sleep in a water resistant bivy, I am not worried about the condensation getting my down sleeping bag wet.

Hexamid with sleeping bag for perspective

The Hexamid is not a large shelter, this is both good and bad. The good is that it weighs less and does not require much space to set up, this can be a considerable factor when camping in some steep rocky areas where there is limited flat space available. The bad is that there is not a ton of space to hang out and move around. As I use this only when absolutely necessary, this is a reasonable compromise. I don't mind the limited space, I can sit up and lie down and that is really all I need to do under a tarp.

I have to admit, I have not had the opportunity to really test the Hexamid out in serious conditions. Most of the time it stays in my pack. I have spent one rainy night in it (stayed dry, no problems) and I have taken it snow camping (not recommended).

In the snow

This is a very minimalist shelter and for my style of backpacking it works perfectly. For 3 season use, this thing rocks. But you have to be aware of its limitations. Care must taken when setting it up as one side does not completely go to the ground, this is the side that should be away from prevailing winds. It does not provide much privacy, if you camp in campgrounds then expect people to be able to see you (the cuben fiber is somewhat transluscent as well). If you are snow camping, I would recommend something different.

Finally, if you are expecting a lot of bugs or you just cant stand the thought of creepy crawlies (big reason I use a bivy), then I would recommend going with the Hexamid that has an integrated bug net. This adds about 5 ounces to the total but provides complete bug protection.

If you want more information or want to check out some of the other cool products at Zpacks here is the website:

Sunday, May 5, 2013

From Morocco with Love

It took me well over 30 hours to reach Agadir, long flights and layovers take their toll. In the future, if I go again, I will probably try to fly through Spain rather than Germany, I think it would be easier.

Killing time

The hot desert sun brought out the smell of exotic spices from dark alcoves. Thin faced men call out in Arabic and French, trying to lure you into their shops. Strange sounds and smells from the camel caravans drift by on the warm breeze. Dark eyed women gaze from covered faces. These were the visions I had when I learned I would be going to Morocco.

The reality was not far from this. The hot desert sun did bring exotic smells, but it smelled more like raw sewage than raw spice. Men did try to lure me into their shops, but it was in English (after they unsuccessfully tried French).

 "Hello Sir, how are you? Where are you from? Oh! America, a wonderful country, Americans are almost as nice as the French. Where are you going? Just walking around? Let me take you to my shop... It is Berber shop, with many spices. Come, come with me." I follow, somewhat curious and somewhat wary. It was obvious he wanted to sell me something. We rush through busy traffic, dodging cars and go down a narrow alley. In a small, dark alcove is a shop brimming with bowls of herbs and spices. "This is my cousin, Moustafa, this is our shop, we sell spices from the mountains. Would you like to have some tea? Come in , sit down, have some tea." I sit down, surrounded by jars and containers of spices. Oils, soaps, and creams line the shelves.

Moustafa shows me the tea he will prepare. "Only four ingredients, all natural, good for your stomach" After putting the tea in the teapot and lighting the single burner stove, he continues to talk, showing his wares. Roots, flowers, herbs and spices I don't remember many of them, but the black cumin stands out. He put a small pile in a piece of cloth and vigorously rubbed it then thrust it under my nose. "Smell this, isn't it wonderful?" It did smell great, although I had the brief thought flash through my mind, was this some trickery?

The tea was ready, he pours a long pour into a small glass cup. "Drink, it is very good, and no sugar" It was wonderful, and very sweet, I know there is sugar in it. We talk about family, about life. He shows me his soaps, his amber, argan oil and creams. "Try this" as he rubs some oil into my arm " Doesn't it smell good?" It did, my arm was warmed by his vigorous rubbing. "Would you like to buy some?" We go back and forth, I was not that interested but it was an amusing experience. I pick out a couple of small items. "Very good, now this is Berber shop, no bargaining, we have fixed prices" Yeah, right... I don't take the bait. We bargain, I am trying to do the conversions in my head while we discuss. 8 dirham to the dollar.

It is friendly, and we finally settle on a price. He is happy and I know I am overpaying, but my goal was to get him down 50% and after that I am happy too. In hindsight, I could probably have gone lower but I don't mind, I pay a little for the experience. We chat some more, drink some more tea and then I go on my way. There is something satisfying about purchasing this way. It is time consuming but it is more personal as well.

Shoes anyone?

I wonder what it means

I was jet lagged and had a busy week ahead of me and so I make my way back to the hotel. This was to be my only real taste of Morocco. The rest of the week was all work.

My office

One nice thing was that we were fed on site, best food of the trip was here.


At the end of the week, we had a couple of hours to do the tourist thing.

My French Counterpart, Bruno

We went to the Medina, a replica of the old town square which was demolished in an earthquake in the 1960's. It was very clean and seemed very un-Moroccan but still was interesting.

Global Melon Team (minus Rakesh)

 And no trip to Agadir would be complete without a visit to the Agadir Oufella with views over the city.

Agadir at night

View from my hotel room
MMMM, shrimp!

On the way back, I had one night in Frankfurt. Great city! I was surprised how much I enjoyed myself there, maybe because it was so easy to get around.

The only picture I took in Frankfurt

As much as I enjoy traveling, this month was a bit much. Good to be home for a while!

The garden groweth

The garden is showing signs of life, most of our seeds have sprouted and our transplants are taking root. The weeds are a constant battle but that is not surprising.

We ate the Pak Choi already and the radishes are next. Chard is starting to look ready as well.

Lori weeding

I will be mulching soon, need to find a bale of straw somewhere.

And being a part of a community garden is fun, nice people and surrounded by vibrant life!