Saturday, October 25, 2008

Dad and son at Courtois Creek

This weekend I took my son out to Courtois Creek. That's where the Ozark trail starts. The first part of the Courtois Creek section of the trail runs through the Huzzah conservation area.

There is a camping area and no camping is allowed outside of designated camping spots. That makes transportation easy. We didn't have to hike in and search for a place to set up camp. we just hung the hammocks right next to our car. I think it was probably the prettiest day of the year in terms of fall colors. The pictures don't really do it justice.

The downside of "car camping" like this (as opposed to backcountry camping which is what I think backpacking is all about) is that you are stuck next to a bunch of other car campers who have come mostly to drink beer and talk loudly until late hours. So you don't sleep well in these sites. When we arrived we got out of the car and a neighboring camper was blasting techno music. Not exactly the what you expect when camping in the Ozarks is it?

I bought an ultralight pack for younger kids to use when they come camping with me (the older ones can use the G5). It's an REI Flash UL. It's designed to be a daypack but it works as a lightweight frameless pack for a kid. It's simple and lightweight and the price is right.

This is a hammock that I made for a kid to use when they come hiking with me. It took like 5 minutes to make and $15 of material from Walmart. I followed the directions for Risk's Test Hammock. He says it should cost only $9 but I think webbing is more expensive than when he wrote the directions. The material is from the $1/yard bin.

My son Hyrum is the world's pickiest eater. But there is one backpacking meal he likes and it's one of my favorites as well. It's Mary Janes Farm Organic Black Beans and Rice. I find it takes a bit more water than the directions call for. But it's excellent stuff to eat with chips.

Now I had hiked part of the Courtois Creek section of the Ozark trail during the summer but part of the trail was overgrow and I got lost and had to bushwhack until I found the nearby road which I followed to the campground (If I'd been paying better attention to my map and compass it wouldn't have happened). Ironically that mistake caused me to miss the best part of the trail. So this time Hyrum and I set out to fill in that gap. The stretch I missed is only about a mile long so we left our packs at camp and just walked it after breakfast.

This section of trail is unbelievably gorgeous, especially on a crisp autumn day like we enjoyed. The pictures really don't do it justice.

The trail leads between a sheer cliff that rises on one hand and the creek on the other. If you look back at the map we camped about where the "P" is and then followed the trail (shown in red) to the northeast next to the creek and then did one or two switchbacks as we climbed out of the valley.

There are many caves in the cliff beside the path and some of them go back quite a ways. We went into this one and followed it back until it began to get too dark for us to see, then we chickened out and headed back out.

Once we climbed out of the valley we wanted to head back to camp. Rather than reversing our steps we followed a path along the top of the cliff. It's kind of hard to see what's going on in this picture but it's a view of the path by the creek taken from directly above.

Here's one we did to give Hyrum's mother a heart attack. Hyrum is dangling his feet over the cliff. As you can see he was a little nervous about the height as well.

All in all we had a very nice trip. Not as much hiking as I'd like but that's they way it goes when I bring little ones along.

I did learn something. I designed my quilt to be good down to 40 degrees. I found out on this trip that that was pretty accurate because it dropped into the 30s and I was cold during the night! We've now got some material to make a 20 degree quilt. But what I really want is something for my feet. The rest of me was pretty good but even after I put on a second pair of wool socks my toes were cold. I think next time I'm going to try a vapor barrier inside my socks. I'll explain more about that after I try it.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Gear for Autumn 2008 Hikes

I was thinking that I ought to record some of the gear that I take with me on my hikes. I try to be a lightweight backpacker so I try to be very minimalist in what I carry and I also try to carry the lightest possible version of whatever I decided I need to carry.

To begin with here is the pack I currently carry.

It's a Gossamer Gear G5 pack. Gossamer Gear makes some of the lightest weight packs you can buy. This pack weighs a mere 10.5 ounces. I already owned one of their Mariposa packs which is a little larger and heavier (at 16.8 ounces) and I liked it but as I got lighter and lighter in what I carried I found that I didn't need the space. The G5 is just about right for my 3 season use for short trips (1 or 2 nights). I might use the Mariposa in the winter or for longer trips.

A lightweight pack is a great thing but it requires lightweight gear as well. A hiker who usually carried 50 pounds on his or her back probably has a pack that weighs 6 pounds. Now if this hiker says "hey I want to lighten up, I'll get a lighter pack" and then tries to jam their current gear into a G5 they will have problems. A lightweight pack is designed for lightweight loads. A heavy pack is heavy because it has to be made of very sturdy materials and have lots of features to enable it to carry heavy loads comfortably. My packs don't even have frames. Yet they are very comfortable to carry (I hardly notice them) because there isn't much weight inside.

Actually it's a bit of an exaggeration to say that my packs don't have frames. What they do is to utilize a somewhat stiff piece of gear to make the pack stiff. Below you can see two closed cell foam pads. The one on the right is a NightLight torso pad from Gossamer Gear. It weighs 3.6 ounces and folds up in thirds. The folded pad slips into a pad sleeve on the side of the pack facing my back and provides all the stiffness I need. It is also very comfortable against my back, both when hiking and sleeping.

The other pad is a Walmart pad. It has the same "egg crate" surface but it is wider and full length with a total weight of 14.7 ounces. As it gets colder I need to carry this pad to put under me in my hammock.

The picture below is of my bridge hammock that I use in the cooler months.

I would use it in the summer but it has no bug protection (although I could sew some on if I weren't so lazy). It has a double layer of cloth and I slip the Walmart pad between these to keep from losing heat as the breeze blows under me. Those breezes can rob a LOT of heat even when the temperature is only slightly cool. This hammock is extremely comfortable but probably not the lightest weight thing I could carry. The reason is that a bridge hammock requires two spreader poles to keep you from getting squeezed by the hammock. The hammock, including stuff sack, poles, and suspension lines, weighs 38 ounces. But it's worth it for me because it's so comfortable. When I'm using the Walmart pad inside the hammock I use the torso pad as a pillow.

Speaking of staying comfortable while sleeping here is my quilt.

My sweet and beautiful wife made it for me. Notice that it is a quilt, not a sleeping bag. Sleeping bags weigh more than is necessary since they have insulation both above and below. But the insulation below you is compressed by your weight and so does very little insulating. A quilt is basically the top half of a sleeping bag. This design is simplicity itself. The insulation (2.5 oz/yd Climashield XP) is sewn (only along the edges) between two layers of 1.1 oz/yd rip stop nylon. Then the bottom edge is folded over and sewn shut to form a foot box. If I get warm during the night I sleep my feet out of the footbox. That's another benefit of a quilt over a bag. The quilt can be snuggled close around you or draped loosely over you, as the temperature demands. Just like your sheets at home. The keeps you from sweating during the night which would chill you as the temperature drops. The quilt weighs about 10.7 ounces.

Here is the quilt inside a Dry Bag from Walmart. Notice the roll top closure. So if my pack get's wet my quilt will still be dry. The dry bag weighs 1.3 ounces.

A major weight saving strategy of lightweight backpackers is multipurpose gear. If one piece of gear can serve more than one function then you save weight by having fewer pieces of gear. Here you can see my poncho/tarp from Golite, another company that caters to lightweight backpackers.

It's longer in back than in front so that it will protect my pack as well as me while hiking. In the picture you can see some yellow cord tied to loops sewn in the corner of the poncho/tarp. In camp I tie these cords on and set it up as a tarp over my hammock. So it's both clothing and shelter. The total weight including stuff sack, cords, four stakes, and two rubber bands (for closing the head hold when using as a tarp) is 12.5 ounces.

Here are my smaller items. First is my kitchen set. Inside is my pot, pot stand, alcohol stove,windscreen, fuel for 2 or 3 meals, lighter and a washcloth. The total weight is 7.6 ounces. This is actually one of several kits that I sometimes use. In another post I go into details and describe each one and the pluses and minuses of each.

This is my knife/multitool, a leatherman squirt P4. Some people prefer the model with the scissors rather than the pliers. But I think a knife can do anything scissors can do and sometimes there is no replacement for pliers. The other tools are screwdrivers, an awl, and a file. It may be overkill for backpacking but you never know. And it only weighs 2 ounces.

The new LED flashlights have been a big boon to lightweight backpackers. I'm shocked to think that I ever carried a flashlight with 2 or even 3 heavy D batteries. LED lights draw very little power and provide adequate light for most purposes. If you have ever used a flashlight you quickly realize that what you really want is one attached to your head that points where you are looking so you can keep your hands free. Both of these are headlamps. The one on the left is a Petzl E+lite. It weighs 1 ounce with the battery and the protective case next to it weighs 0.6 ounces. This is an excellent light. It has high and low settings, flashing settings, and a red light option (which keeps your pupils from constricting as much at night and making you blind for a few seconds after the light goes out). The one on the right is a Gerber Tempo. It's tougher and takes a single AAA battery but it only has one setting. The elastic strap is homemade and turns this little flashlight into a headlamp. With the strap and battery it weighs 1.4 ounces.

I have two for when I'm backpacking with one of my kids or with my brother. However often I will bring both when I'm solo for a backup.

A critical piece of gear is a first-aid kit. I've enhanced this little one with a mirror and a tick-pulling tool (critical in Missouri). The mirror may seem a bit strange. In the old days they told hikers to bring one for signaling planes in an emergency. That seems like quite a stretch to me. But it can be useful when examining the back of your legs for ticks in the evening.

I call this my hygiene kit and I keep all these items together in a zip-lock bag. From left to right it has: [Top row] toothbrush, floss, earplugs (the woods are noisy at night!), q-tips, toilet paper, biodegradable soap (also used for toothpaste), [bottom row] lightload towel (a truly amazing towel), sunscreen, moquito repellent, SPF15 chapstick, and some ibuprofen (for aches and pains) and melatonin (for sleeping) in a baggy (better living through chemistry!). The entire kit, with ziploc bag, weighs 8.4 ounces.

In another post I'll go into more detail about stoves, food and water, and my clothing choices to round out my pack list. Then I'll total the weights and see if I am really a "lightweight backpacker".

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Council Bluff Lake, October 10th and 11th

My brother Grant and I went hiking around a lake called Council Bluff Lake, just off the Ozark Trail. We really couldn't have asked for nicer weather. The leaves were just beginning to turn. While I like hiking solo it's also great to hike with someone. We had lots of fun talking and enjoying the scenery together.

The hike we took was an 11.6 mile loop around the lake starting at the boat launch and going clockwise. We were very nearly always in sight of the lake.

One of the funny things about the trip was that by coincidence there happened to be a mountain bike race around the lake on Saturday. We saw a few bikers on Friday, but that didn't surprise us because we heard that this trail was popular with bikers. But we didn't know about the race the next morning. So all morning on Saturday we had to keep hopping off the trail so as not to be run over. I don't know the number of participants but it seemed like a lot. And the race was 4 times around the lake so by the time we were done we had seen some bikers 3 times.

Grant had never slept in a hammock. We hung our two hammocks near eachother so we could talk. I let him use my Hennessy because it has full bug protection (interesting he should worry about bugs being a spider enthusiast). He fully expected not to sleep a wink and in fact it did take some getting used to. But he actually slept well.

There were a few ups and downs but nothing major. So I expected not to get any good views except of the lake. But it turns out that the path crosses the earthen dam that forms the lake (all lakes in Missouri are man-made) and the dam is really quite high so we got a good view of the Ozark mountains, just beginning to put on fall color.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Bell Mountain Wilderness, Sept 26th and 27th.

I had heard that the Bell Mountain Wilderness was one of the nicest hikes in the region. I started at the Highway A trailhead at about 8:30 AM on Friday morning.

At the trailhead there is a registration for all hikers. They ask you to tell them whether you saw any wild pigs on
your trip. That surprised me because I had never heard of wild pigs in the Ozarks. I found out the next day that the pigs had been let loose by a fellow who wanted to hunt pigs. They have really prospered apparently, living off acorns. I didn't see any pigs on my trip.

Much of the trail is through beautiful hardwood forests that are typical of the Ozarks.

But the real treat of Bell Mountain is that at the top there are "glades", places where the bedrock is so close to the surface that trees can't grow. Some of these provide very nice views of the surrounding Ozarks.

The trail from Highway A to the North Bell trailhead is only 8.4 miles so shortly after lunch I realized that I would be there in just an hour or two so I decided to take a detour. In the map you see that there is a loop around the top of the mountain. I took the left fork and hiked down to Joe's Creek. It was mostly dry because it hadn't rained in a few weeks but there were a few pools of clear water that looked inviting. I stopped and treated some of the water for drinking (tasted great) and then soaked my feet. Then I finished the loop and when I got back to the fork I took the right and got to the trailhead about sundown.

I tried my new bridge hammock (bought from a buddy on hammockforums who made it). It's VERY comfortable. Easily my best night's sleep in the woods.

I enjoy hiking solo. It gives one an opportunity to commune with nature and ponder as I walk by myself. I can sing out loud if I want or I can stop and pray and not have to worry that someone will hear me.

The downside of hiking solo is that getting to sleep can be a challenge because at night is when you really begin to feel isolated and alone. But at the trailhead, where I made my camp, there was a fire ring. So I decided to make a fire. Ordinarily I wouldn't do that because it's not consistent with "Leave No Trace" principles. But there was an established fire ring there so I decided to take advantage of it. A fire is amazingly comforting for some reason. Perhaps the fact that our ancestors went to sleep by firelight for so many thousands of years has made it ingrained in us. At any rate after I let the fire die down I got to sleep with no trouble at all.