A record of my weekend backpacking trips and thoughts on ultrlight backpacking gear and techniques.
Monday, November 10, 2008
Eastern Taum Sauk Trail (with boy scouts)
This weekend I went with our scouts on an overnight backpacking trip over Taum Sauk mountain. It's the highest mountain in Missouri but of course that doesn't count for much. I think it's something like 1775 feet. It's part of the same St Francois mountain range that I've hiked before. It turns out that the St Francois mountains are among the oldest mountains in the United States. They are much older than the Appalacians and of course the Rockies are just babies in comparison. They are made of an igneous rock called rholite. In the past I've mistakenly called this red granite.
The trail is very rocky and in places you have to scramble up large boulders because that's where the trail goes. In my mind this is another argument for lightweight hiking. It was no trouble for me but I wouldn't want to do it while carrying 50 pounds.
The weather wasn't optimal and we were about 1 week late for the fall colors. On the previous weekend we had hiked the Green Rock Trail in St. Louis at the very height of the fall color season and during perfect weather. That was just a day hike (although it's a pretty streuous 10 miles, I've done it with Kimberly and Brittany before and also done a bit of it with Hyrum). This was an overnighter and we planned to camp on top of the mountain. The colors were still pretty nice as you can see but it had turned cold.
We camped at the top. There is a lookout tower there and nearby there is a glade with a nice view of the surrounding Ozark mountains. I didn't know what the campsite would look like at the top of the mountain and so I didn't bring my hammock and opted for my bivy instead. On a previous trip with the scouts to fish at Montauk State Park Hyrum and I ended up sleeping in the car because the campground that the scouts picked had no trees. So this time I went to ground to be on the safe side.
Here you can see my setup. Because of the cold I brought both my 40 degree quilts (one is red and one is blue, both are visible in the picture). Inside the bivy you also see my Big Agnes insulated aircore pad. It's 2.5 inches thick and that makes it possible to even sleep on my side like I do in my own bed. It's heavy at 24 ounces but it's worth it.
The small white thing is my FlexAir pillow. It's quite an ingenious device. You insert a drinking straw into a slot on the side of the pillow to either inflate or deflate. When you take the straw out the air can't escape. Your first tendency is to fill it up all the way. The problem there is that it is so small that your head feels unstable, like it's about roll off the pillow. So you actually only fill it part way.
My bivy is an REI minimalist bivy. The term "bivy" is short for bivouac sack. It's basically a one-man tent that is only big enough for you and your sleeping bag. You can zip it shut and you are completely enclosed, although the material over your face is only bug netting so you can still breath. Many, like mine, have no supporting poles. Others have one hoop to keep the material off your face. But a bivy is only water resistant rather than waterproof like a tent. So I brought my poncho/tarp which I could set up over my bivy if it were to rain. That's really the right way to use a bivy. The bivy has enough water resistance so that any wind-blown rain that gets in under the tarp won't get you or your bag wet. The reason that the bivy isn't fully waterproof is because if that were the case there would be severe condensation problems inside the bivy. Even with a breathable but water resistant fabric there is still some condensation. The bug netting over the face helps minimize this by allowing your moist breath to escape but it doesn't eliminate the problem because moisture comes out of your skin all the time anyway. When I wake up in the morning the shell of my quilt is noticeably damp. But nothing serious.
Now I wasn't expecting rain so why bother with a bivy? Well the bivy also protects you from wind and keeps you warmer than you would be otherwise. That was useful on this trip! It was quite windy and we were really cold on that mountain top.
The bivy has another advantage over a tent that came up on this trip. We had hoped to see the Leonid meteor shower which was near it's peak. But when we arrived on the mountain top it was cloudy as it had been all day. Then, about 8pm it cleared up and we had a wonderful view of the stars until about 5am. In a bivy you can lie protected from the cold wind and still have a perfect view of the stars.
Underneath the bivy I tried a space blanket for a groundsheet. Not sure it helped. In the picture I'm using it incorrectly. Any ground sheet should be tucked away under the tent or bivy it's used with. That way if it rains the sheet won't direct water under you. In this case there was no rain forecast so I didn't bother.
Even with the bivy and two quilts I was still cold. I woke up at one point while sleeping on my side because the shoulder that was up was cold. It had compressed the quilt against the top of the bivy and compressed insulation doesn't insulate as well. My feet were a bit cold as well although not as bad as last time. I tried vapor barriers on my feet this time to see if my feet would stay warmer. I used those thing little bags you get at the grocery story to put your vegetables or fruit in. I put the wool socks over that and after a bit I didn't notice the plastic (much). I think they may have helped some but my feet still felt cold. My upper body was almost too warm at times. I'm going to ask my wife to make some insulated booties for me to wear while I sleep. Since they won't be as tight as socks they may help by allowing for more circulation.
The next morning we hiked the loop you can see in the map. Since it was just a loop we left our packs at camp (that helped some of the smaller scouts a lot). We went to Mina Sauk falls which is the biggest waterfall in Missouri. The creek wasn't running that day but it's still a really pretty rock formation. But like a dummy I left my camera at camp and so I don't have a picture.
Past the falls a mile or so you come to the Devil's Tollgate. The scouts had a great time climbing all over these massive rocks.
Here is a slightly better picture I stole from someone's site. It was also taken on a November day but the colors turned out better.
The Ozark trail at this point follows an old wagon trail that passed through the Devil's Tollgate. Unfortunately it was too narrow for wagons so people had to disassemble their wagons, taken the pieces through, and then reassemble on the other side. Unfortunately the hill rises steeply on one side of the tollgate and there is a creek on the other side so there was little choice. Now it's a fun place for the scouts to climb on.