Fastpacker's Notebook: 10 oz. Shelter System

This is the second in a series I will produce on my quest to find the best techniques, equipment, people or anything else that enhances swift light movement on or off the trail. If I can't find it, I'll build it.

Most of the time I do the Wonderland Trail solo as a fastpack: 3 days or less. In fact, I decided to challenge my old 36 hour trip I did over a decade ago. I may spend up to 20 hours on the trail. When it's time to catch some Z's, I just want to lie down and get on with it. My energy is at a low, and I don't want to spend the time setting up a tent, unpacking my stuff and generally sprawling out in a campsite. Beyond hiking the Wonderland specifically, I want a shelter system where I can catch some Z's just about anywhere, even propped up against a log or rock.

Over the years I've tried many systems, spent a lot of nights in bivy bags, and thought carefully about my specific needs and the easiest way to meet them. My criteria for a shelter system includes 1) multi use items if possible, 2) protection from bugs and cuddly rodents, 3) protection from rain and wind, 4) flexibility to use in areas not suitable for traditional camping. I am constantly refining my system, and this year am as close to my "perfect fastpacker system" as I have ever been; let's go over each part:

B4: field tested and proven (see prior blog post), this half shelter/bug protection unit is useful during the day when at rest in buggy areas, strolling in the evening when the bugs are swarming, and prone protection from bugs and critters when trying to catch some Z's. At about 2 ozs I don't leave home without it anymore since I made them last year.

  custom ZPacks 3/4 bivy, bottom up

custom ZPacks 3/4 bivy, bottom up

3/4 BIVY: My only "single use" item. Since I have upper body protection with the B4, I only needed protection from the chest down. After some email discussion with Joe from ZPacks, he built a 3/4 length bivy for me that uses 1.4 oz/sqY cuben fiber on the bottom (durable enough where I don't need a ground sheet) and 1.4 oz/sqY breathable cuben fiber for the top, which is also completely waterproof. Simple to put on, I just pull it up to my chest area and overlap the B4 on the top. A simple draw cord on both makes an adequate seal. In fair weather this combination is all I need. The bivy weighs about 3 ozs.

  ZPacks poncho on a rainy day

ZPacks poncho on a rainy day

PONCHO: I have never really been a poncho user in the past, but have decided to become a convert. I have hiked and even run in rain and heavy snow with it on. When exploring options for simplicity and multiuse, a poncho makes sense for me. It serves as rain protection true, but also as a ground sheet and half shelter when prone. If I am expecting any kind of rain, I lay out the poncho underneath my upper body as a ground sheet and fold the remainder over the top. The ZPacks poncho (also made from 1.4 oz/sqY cuben) incorporates side zippers, so these can be zipped up; with the hood facing down, my upper body is now protected from precipitation. My only remaining problem was a simple way to keep fabric off my face. After experimenting with delrin rods, connectors, lines, stakes and trekking poles, I finally came upon the simple solution: a (correction) 60" delrin rod, the ends dipped in Plastidip with some painted across the top of the pole, providing some "stickiness." I simply pop the pole inside the zipped up poncho and the non slip surface keeps it in place with no further fussing. If it's really windy and raining hard, I suppose I could stake down some tie outs on the poncho from the inside but the B4 should provide additional protection from windblown rain that makes it inside the half shelter. At 5 ozs the poncho rounds out my system for a total weight of 10 ozs, (excluding the rod) plus the poncho covers my frontpack and backpack whilst hiking in rain, serving additional duty as pack cover. I designed the total system to avoid staking, so essentially it is "stand alone."

Here are some specific shots showing the configurations. 

  overlap of 3/4 bivy and B4

overlap of 3/4 bivy and B4

Here I am wearing the B4 and the bivy to give an indication of the total overlap of the two pieces. Of course, when you add a pad and sleeping bag when prone, this overlap will decrease:

  inside the shelter without the poncho

inside the shelter without the poncho

This is a shot of my daughter in the two pieces with a full length 2" pad inside, inside a FF Vireo bag. I am using a short length of delrin rod in this system. The rod is extremely flexible (can be rolled up) and the coated ends and length allow me to place it anywhere in the B4 or the poncho without it slipping out of position.

  shelter with poncho deployed

shelter with poncho deployed

This shot is with the poncho being used as both a ground sheet (under the upper half of the body) and shelter from moisture. The delrin rod is used to keep the poncho cuben fabric away from the B4.

This view shows the amount of headroom with the delrin rod deployed inside the full shelter system. I plan on clipping a small amount of cord to the rod with a rubber coated clip on the end to hold the noseeum fabric of the B4 away from the face.

Remember that I am developing a system for specific uses; light weight, flexible protection designed for sleeping only, not for camping. I'll be doing some trips this year that require a lot of movement and mileage while sometimes packing upwards of 3 cameras and perhaps a tripod. Maybe I won't be stopping in traditional campsites. Maybe I'll be on the trail after sundown and before sunup. Maybe I'll be doing some trail running to eat up some miles, so I can't have "bouncy" packs.  I need equipment that is compact, multiuse and light....really light. I found an old notebook from 1993 with notes and diagrams I made about developing essentially the same system, so this is something to which I've devoted considerable contemplation. Hopefully my methods may be of use to fastpackers out there who want to carry but a few pounds, but pounds that provide flexibility, multiuse and protection from the elements. I've seen numerous people over the years running the Wonderland, but few actually do it backpacker style, meaning completely self sufficient in any weather with the ability to go multiday if required. With today's materials and innovative cottage gear industry, excellent custom and off the shelf gear is available for just about any need and a long way from what was available in 1993!

Next up: I'll be making "pole mittens" and arm protectors for hiking in rain with a poncho.