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.  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.

I have found a hopeful solution with Nunatak, specifically their new offering of the Skaha APEX Ultralight Climashield Jacket. The amount of on line customization makes for this synthetic is as close to ordering a custom garment as one can get. I was able to specify Apex 3.6 oz/yd for the body and the lighter 2.5 oz/yd in the (full) sleeves. Instead of a hood, I opted for the extra tall collar. Other pulldown options I chose: 6 inch extra back length (making the entire jacket a lower covering cut), a full handwarmer front pocket,  inside left zip pocket, and an outer shell of Robic ripstop (WPB). The cut is roomy and made for layering, and although I don't anticipate that it will be roomy enough to comfortably pull my arms inside, I am sure this will be an option if absolutely necessary.

Nunatak is also making a custom elephants foot half bag with the 2.5 oz/yd Apex and the Robic outer shell. When discussing the details with Jan at the company he agreed that this piece in conjunction with the jacket I ordered will have plenty of overlap to make the sleeping aspect complete.

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.  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 and try 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"

Only real world usage will tell if this system performs to my expectations, but Nunatak Gear has an excellent reputation for quality work and the experience background of Jan points to someone who has been there; in fact, when I balked at the cost of the elephants foot further emails convinced me to go for the whole system. I am also eager to test the Robic outer fabric and see how it holds up without the benefit of a bivy.