Bye Bye UL, SUL etc

SUL? Mt. Baker RTM gear (95 miles bike/hike)

SUL? Mt. Baker RTM gear (95 miles bike/hike)

Although I am no longer a paying member, I regularly check in to the forums over at BPL; there's a lot of experience in those pages. There was recently a discussion on SUL (Super Ultra Light) and the lack of posting activity, which got me to thinking about it. Actually, there have been discussions all over the web about this subject for years. When Jardine's book came out it made a huge difference in my approach to backpacking, and I became very cognizant of weights. But at some point along the way, after cutting my total load to less than 20 pounds, I have put very little thought into gear weights, as the quality of gear is generally good and the weights have lowered over the decades. Been a long time since I puts weights into a spreadsheet or list. I no longer concern myself with useless "base weights".....what does that mean? When you are wearing your clothes, pick up your pack with food and water and that's what you're schlepping. I've even heard of people stuffing their pockets with various gear to keep their "base weight" down.

Base Weight: weight of your entire gear kit, excluding consumables which are food, water, and fuel

Not to be confused with skin-out weight, which means the weight of everything you're carrying AND wearing.

It appears UL is defined as a base weight of 10 pounds or less, and SUL starts at 5. When I put on my pack and start down the trail, my measure of a load is how comfortable I feel over hours, do I have to take off the pack frequently, or does the extra load beyond my body weight interfere with my enjoyment? Now, although I don't own a scale, this doesn't mean I don't pay attention to the published weights of gear I may pick up. In my selection process I look at function first and foremost, then weight along with durability, cost and other factors. I look at volume; how much room does my gear need? How can it be packed for maximum efficiency? What gear do I need during the day? How am I going to carry liquids, how much do I need to carry, do I want to add something like Tailwind to my water, do I need to filter?  How much food, cook or not? What temperatures will I deal with on the trip, weather, clothing requirements? Bivy? Tent? 50 degree? 20 degree? Do I even need a sleeping bag or quilt? These are but a few considerations that go into trip planning, and these considerations dictate what gear I will bring on any given event. From there I make my gear selection and pack up. I heft the pack, loaded with food and water, and do a quick assessment. Anything I can cut? Anything I need to add? Nowhere in this process do I consider UL or SUL weights, I have retired these terms from any trip planning I have done in the past 10 years or so, and it seems I am not the only one. The state of the industry has changed tremendously over the past 20 years and perhaps the UL and SUL monikers will be put on the shelf and gather dust, just like Jardine's book, having served their purpose but are no longer needed.

EXAMPLE HIKES

not posed: sagging with UL base weight

not posed: sagging with UL base weight

For illustration purposes I'd like to offer experiences from two different hikes on either end of the spectrum, yet both are considered UL or SUL according to base weights: An 8 day hike into Washington's Pasayten Wilderness in August of 2014 with my daughter (101 miles), and a Wonderland Trail fastpack (solo, 93 miles) in September of 2015. The Pasayten trip had us carrying 10 days of food with a flexible itinerary. I had a ZPacks Duplex tent, a 9.75 ounce 50 degree quilt, plus other cutting edge light gear. We both used older Gossamer Gear Mariposa packs because they could swallow the gear, especially all the food (full bear canister and Ursack). My daughter likes to eat hot food, so we had the utensils and cookware, albeit super light. However, the packs were weighty, with mine at 35 pounds and hers at 30. But once underway (starting with a 4,000 foot climb), it became obvious that she was struggling with the weight. I repacked, taking all the food, bringing my pack weight to probably just under 40 pounds and reducing hers to less than 30. It was the trip of a lifetime, but I've never suffered so mightily. That older GG pack destroyed me with this load; if I took the weight off my shoulders I had to cinch up the waist belt so tight that I had temporary nerve damage in my legs. When I took the weight on my shoulders I had to pop Advil to deal with the pain. Yet I'll bet that my "base weight" on that trip was 10 pounds or less.

tiny packs for the Wonderland: SUL? stuff sack includes quilt, down sweater, booties, Hoodlum

tiny packs for the Wonderland: SUL? stuff sack includes quilt, down sweater, booties, Hoodlum

In 2015, with a favorable weather forecast in hand, I fastpacked the Wonderland Trail in 3 days, and my base weight was under 5 pounds (SUL baby!); NeoAir Xlite, Borah Gear cuben bivy, 50 degree quilt, clothing, trekking poles and assundries, including camera gear. I remember putting my full pack(s) on a bathroom scale, with food and water, and it came in under 10 pounds. I even packed a ZPacks Pocket Tarp with stakes, just in case the weather changed. My pack was unnoticeable on my back (and front). What a difference compared to the Pasayten trip!

As I research and plan this season's trips, my mind goes to clothing and gear, not to weights. But I'll bet that even my toughest trip will not have me thinking about the load on my back, and not have me wondering if I can get my "base weight" down to UL or SUL; familiarity with my gear allows me to generally assess what I'll be carrying on my back without having to create a spreadsheet. Seems, without really thinking about it, I've replaced the SUL/UL terms with C (Comfortable) or RC (Relatively Comfortable) or even ID (It'll Do). And so it goes.

Hiking Tools: Design, Trial, Assess, Repeat

typical sketch process for designs

typical sketch process for designs

My daughter laughs when I tell her I'm an engineer, as she is about to graduate with an engineering degree. But is my process so different? Every year I learn something after being outside, and of late I've been trying to customize my kit to optimize my trips based on these trials. In truth I could get away with one pack and some of my 15 year old clothing, but the thing I've been fiddling with the most has been my sleep system. I tend to run on the warm side but last year's trip to The Colonnade had me wondering how I could improve the experience. I'm comfortable with a bivy on these types of trips where I am not dealing with rain, but even with a 30 degree quilt and NeoAir XLite pad I resorted to donning my rain shells to stave off the chill, and I'm guessing the temperature didn't get below freezing. The 3.2 R Factor for the XLite has been fine for summer trips so my chilliness is probably due to my sleep layers. I also have to factor in usage, as I spent some considerable time sitting up in my bag to experiment with night photography. So with these factors in mind and my trip goals for this year, I will be trying a system built on an old climbers concept, but slightly altered.

I can safely say that most of today's cottage manufacturers of outdoor gear came about because the user/founder(s) couldn't find anything on the market that fit their needs, and out of frustration started making their own gear. Fortunately for me, I don't have to learn how to sew, weld, tape, resource or glue because there have been people willing to do this for me.

Daughter's friend takes refuge from hoards of mosquitoes (2011) in B4

Daughter's friend takes refuge from hoards of mosquitoes (2011) in B4

B4: This was a simple concept based on a dire need; my daughter has a physiology such that any type of biting insect seems to gravitate toward her feastable flesh. Many a time I would escape unscathed yet she would sport numerous welts from biting bugs. The B4 was a way to lounge at campsites free from attack without having to resort to tentage. In this case I took advantage of a buddy's wife who had all the tools and was able to sew up this design lickity split. Our B4s have been in use since 2011 and have proven to be the most effective solution for keeping bugs at bay while taking breaks on the trail. After using this once her skepticism disappeared.

custom 3/4 length WB bivy, ZPacks circa 2013 (bottom side up)

custom 3/4 length WB bivy, ZPacks circa 2013 (bottom side up)

Although his business model no longer supports it, Joe from ZPacks has also done some custom work for me in the past, including two front packs and a 3/4 length bivy made from the older version of breathable cuben. This bivy has made it into my pack many times since 2013 and is still a viable option for many of my trips (mostly as an emergency shelter combined with a WB shell) . I have also had custom packs made by Chris over at Zimmerbuilt. But to address my sleep situation previously mentioned, I am trying an old but new concept; a multiple use system based on the climber's concept of an Elephant's Foot half bag and Parka for the top, utilizing the parka as the "top half" of the sleep system to minimize weight. Feathered Friends still makes the Vireo, with more insulation in the lower part of the bag with the premise that users will be wearing a down sweater or parka on top to supplement the less lofty upper section of the bag. MLD offers their FKT Quilt on the same lines. As Tucas offers the Sestrals Poncho, also billed as a wearable as well as sleep piece of kit. I should also mention that both my daughter and I have the Feathered Friends Rock Wren. However, real world usage of the Wren as an insulated top (I have had a Wren since 1996) is marginal, useful for midnight bladder calls or standing in one spot for short periods. If you visit the As Tucas website, you will see that owner Marco still entertains custom work. And so, after exchanging some emails, I have put forth a project that will address my needs:

• insulated top with hood, wide enough to draw arms inside and close off the arm holes, long enough to overlap the • elephants foot, a non-zippered half bag (48" X 28"). I am having the elephants foot made with Apex 133, a less lofty option versus the jacket with Apex 167. With this system I will leave my puffy or other insulating top at home, as this sleep jacket can be used on the move if warranted.

Typical Scenario: I've been hiking hard all day and have arrived at at stopping place, either intentional or out of desperation. Although the weather is clear, I'm above 6,000' in the Cascades and the temperature is dropping along with the setting sun. My 62 year old bod is having a hard time producing heat because I'm foolishly doing trips that are very hard and my fatigue level is (X amount) more than 20 years ago. I lay out my 9.1 ounce custom bivy (Borah Gear) and expend even more energy blowing up that damn NeoAir Xlite. Experience has taught me that I need to trap heat before I feel cold, so I donned my Jacket (with short sleeves), put on a beanie and cinch the hood, reveling in the warm cocoon that also covers my butt and upper thighs. A little food helps stoke the fires and I am now able to concentrate on photography, video or time lapse shenanigans with a little exploration beyond the campsite while the alpenglow is ablaze. If I start to get too warm I can ventilate with the full length zipper or remove the hood. When I'm ready to retire I retreat to the bivy and pull up the elephants foot, knowing that if my toes get a little chilly I can put on my EE booties, and if my fingers need some supplemental heating I can use my Black Rock Foldback Mitts. Although my sleep/jacket system doesn't pack as small as if it they were stuffed with 950 down, I am less concerned about vapor transfer and wetting out with the Climashield. During the night I unzip my bivy but only stick my arms through the jacket, trying with varying success to capture the Milky Way or Orion. In the morning I pack up still wearing the jacket to retain heat as long as possible, and perhaps even hike for 20 minutes until my ancient metabolic furnace finally kicks into gear and I'm able to shed down to appropriate layers. Then I'm off for 17 hours, arriving late because I underestimated the time needed to cover day 2 distance and elevation, but able to sack out in a protected spot that would never accommodate a tent but is perfect for my bivy with minimal fussing with gear: IOW, throw down and sleep.

typical bivy spot above treeline: custom Borah Gear bivy, custom Zimmerbuilt pack

typical bivy spot above treeline: custom Borah Gear bivy, custom Zimmerbuilt pack

Planned Trips using this system:

Glacier Peak Circumnavigation (@107 miles). My daughter and I attempted this last year but turned back due to time. This year I will solo it and plan 4 to 5 days.

PCT Section J (75 miles): I did this in one shot years ago, starting at Stevens Pass at around 2 PM after getting dropped off, and ending at Snoqualmie Pass about 10 PM....two nights later. On that trip I learned the true meaning of "sufferfest." This time I will plan on 3 days and try to end at Snoqualmie much earlier on day 3, and perhaps actually take in the scenery this time.

9,000-10,000' forges on Mt. Rainier: I've done the Grand Tour but have some areas I want to further explore, conducive to hard 2 day trips, or 3 at the most; Curtis Ridge, Puyallup Cleaver, Success Cleaver, Cowlitz Park, and a practically unexplored region between Ptarmigan Ridge and The Colonnade. Typical scenario on these trips; forge to an appropriate lower level spot to sleep on day one, then on day 2 push towards 9,000' or beyond and hike out.

 Black Bear Traverse: This 100 mile hike in the Olympics is a classic, described in Mike Woodmansee's book "Trekking Washington"

I hesitate to write about an as yet nonexistent piece of gear, but I will put it through its paces all season long and confess, whichever way it goes, the efficacy of this design. So far I've had excellent luck with custom gear so have confidence that these designs will prove effective in my use.

 

 

 

 

 

Willis Wall Songs and Instrumentals

I've been working in the studio lately after a break and compiled two playlists on Soundcloud, one for a song sampler and one for instrumentals. After all this is Willis Wall "Multimedia" and a lot of work goes into music production for my videos. I also like to have fun in the process. If you like slighly bent music and not so love songs, give a listen. Vocals by Darrell Dodge and May Palmer (Gimme a Latte). Additional instrumental work by Dan McInerney (guitar). These are in no particular order, but the latest are Bolerow, Settee and B'roke, with remastering on some previous songs like Paranoia and Enumclaw Love. Core music by the Willis Wall Trio, who shall remain anonymous. To aid in listening, these are the songs with vocals:

Gimme a Latte•  Enumclaw Love •  Never be so Lucky •  Paranoia •  So Special •  3 of Us

 

Fastpacking Quiver for the Wonderland Trail

I say Wonderland Trail but this equipment list could apply to any multiday hike in late summer. As I prepare to do my annual Wonderland hike, I have prepacked some equipment and have alternatives, depending on when I go out and possible weather conditions. When I say "fastpacking" I mean probably a 3 day hike of this 93 mile trail, or 4 at most. With the permit chaos this year, I will probably repeat last year's itinerary; start at Longmire, with day 1 ending at Mowich Lake (35 miles, 9500'), utilizing the free walk in camping available there. Day 2 would take me 25 miles with 6000' elevation to stop at White River campground. Lots of places to spread out for an evening, even paying for a site if need be. Day 3 would finish up (33 miles, 6100' elev) the trip back to Longmire. The advantage of this itinerary is no need for permits. Plus, because these days will be long, I have the ability to stop anywhere appropriate to "rest." Resting is not camping, meaning no tent etc, it means simply lying down for a few hours of shuteye. With this in mind, my equipment list is apropos.

EQUIPMENT for RESTING: I won't nail this down until I know the dates, which will be spur of the moment. If the weather is iffy enough to warrant more than this, I of course will go for a walk up permit. Bur for now I will either use my Borah Gear Cuben bivy, or my Borah Gear custom eVent bivy. The Cuben bivy is 4.5 ozs, but this year I had John make me a custom bivy out of breathable cuben, with a side zip and bug net weighing 9.1 ozs. Either can be paired with my ZPacks Pocket Tarp (4 ozs), but the erection of a tarp outside of Mowich Lake crosses into "camping", which will require a permit. Because I will use either my Enlightened Equipment 50 degree or 30 degree Enigma quilt, my pad will be the NeoAir XLite. Minimum weight for these items, 26 ozs. Maximum, 41 ozs.

Zimmerbuilt custom pack: 4" deep

Zimmerbuilt custom pack: 4" deep

PACK: Real simple, this year I have used a custom pack made by Chris Zimmer (Zimmerbuilt). I designed it so that it took advantage of my entire back's real estate, but is only 4 inches deep. A center full length zip allows easy access to contents; one can only imagine trying to get at an item at the bottom of a 4 inch deep pack. I also had side pockets installed on the minimal hip belt, which is only there to prevent swaying, not for any weight transfer. This makes for an incredibly clean design and exhibits no bounce or sway. Because of the reduced overall volume of this design, I had Chris put in 10 female buckles; 2 top, 2 bottom, 3 on each side. This is why I call this my "Ultimate Pack System", because I can add my custom food bag for longer trips. This add on, also made out of XPac material, is also rectangular shaped with a buckled roll top. It stays secure by buckling into the four top and bottom buckles, and I have the option of further securing with 3 horizontal straps across the back. I have found this add on also handy for keeping water bottles, pringle cans and other items I need ready access to. Most of the time I never need to open the main pack during the day.

PACK ADD ONS: I also designed a custom front pack for this system, which has yet to be built because of Chris's busy schedule. However, I have options in the meantime. I can attach an older custom front pack, also Zimmerbuilt made (2015), or a custom camera pocket, sized for my Panasonic LX100 and a water bottle pocket, which I have used for my InReach and other small items. For my Wonderland trip, I will probably be stripped down with no front pack and no add on food bag.

Zimmerbuilt Ultimate Pack system loaded to the maximum (21 lbs) for 6 day trip

Zimmerbuilt Ultimate Pack system loaded to the maximum (21 lbs) for 6 day trip

I had this entire pack system loaded down for a 6 day trip with my daughter a few weeks ago, with the front pack and a full food bag. Everything weighed in (minus water) at 21 lbs, with only 9 of that being the gear. I found this to be the weight limit for an acceptable carry, as everything is on my shoulders with this system.

CLOTHING: I'll use one of my long pants and a NTS upper short sleeve. Because I have to be careful with sun exposure, I have been utilizing bike sun sleeves for a few years on blazing days. My noggin will either be covered with my ZPacks Pointy Hat, or an OR cap. For slightly cooler running I use a Beyond Clothing Brokk shirt. On this trip I will not pack a down sweater or vest, as I will either be moving or resting. Therefore I will use my Beyond Clothing ALPHA jacket for the insulation piece (these Beyond Clothing pieces have been drastically discounted as of late). I have used the Alpha jacket during periods of activity over the past 3 years and I can attest to the efficacy of this insulation. As a movement piece it fits perfectly into the ensemble, capped off by my ZPacks Challenger Rain Jacket, which I had made in size XL with pit zips and the extended 40 inch length. With my slim pack design it fits perfectly over my pack(s), essentially acting as a poncho. What's missing? Rain pants/rain kilt/long underwear/change of clothes. Everything I wear dries out by body heat, even if soaked. I will, however, pack 2 more sets of socks, and possibly an extra NTS shirt. Footwear will be by Inov8.

OTHER: med kit, which I will pare down to the minimum. My daughter tends to have more foot issues than I do, so we make sure I have plenty of foot care items. I haven't had a blister for years. Spare headlamp and batteries (lots of night hiking on this trip), spare camera battery, sunscreen, toothbrush, iPhone, InReach, minimal tripod, sunglasses, ZPacks mitts and Challenger Rain Mitts, BeFree .6 liter filter collapsible bottle, and about 5 pounds of food. 

I anticipate my total weight, including food and water, to come in at approximately 10 pounds. This weight is unnoticeable when carrying and allows me to cover the distances required for this itinerary, even at age 61. Of course it helps that I have hiked this trail over 30 times. This familiarity, coupled with years of experience, makes me completely comfortable with this setup. Consider that 20 years ago I did this trail in 36 hours with probably 5 pounds of total gear. 

I realize that the sparse nature of my kit is not for everybody. I actually prefer sleeping in a bivy (but not in the rain). I am very familiar with my body, nutritional requirements, and mental fitness and I have been able to dial in my equipment, much of it custom made, to my exact needs. I've seen decades of trial and error, and know what works for me. I enjoy both accompanied and solo trips, and my annual Wonderland hike allows me to traipse through this familiar terrain and recharge in the process. I also enjoy the ongoing process of dialing in gear and stressing my body and mind in the doing. Hopefully my next blog entry will be a trip report, where I can refer back to this post and recount my experience, hopefully giving the reader some useful information that he/she can perhaps embrace, or at least try. Cheers!

minimal pack setup in the Enchantments

minimal pack setup in the Enchantments