Wednesday, September 13, 2017

3 Wins, and 3 Fails from My Latest Backpacking Trip

Here are three wins, and three fails from my latest backpacking adventure. Hope they're helpful!

Win #1: SOL Escape Bivy

Bivy sacks are like rain gear, able to keep you warm and dry from the elements, yet often failing due to your own sweat. Sure, you can pay obscene amounts for breathable gear, but even the priciest options don't often work as advertised.

My solution for rain gear is to avoid it most of the time by using an umbrella, and when you do need it, opt for the cheap and breathable Frogg Toggs. This past weekend I learned the solution on the bivy side: the $35.00 Escape Bivy by SOL. Like Frogg Toggs, it's cheap and claims to be breathable. And best of all, it works!

I spent two nights in 50°F weather, where I was warm and dry thanks to the bivy and my 45°F sleeping bag. If that bad boy hadn't been breathable, I would have woken up a cold, wet, mess. The bivy, like Frogg Toggs, isn't the most robust material but with care should do fine. I love the idea of cowboy camping, and having a cold friendly solution that lets me sleep under the stars is an absolute win. During camping off-season, the bivy will find its way into my car emergency kit.

Win #2: Fun Food!

We mixed things up a bit on the food side, and were mostly rewarded. It felt downright luxurious to have cheese, hummus, Cholula and olives on the trail. These definitely spiced up the usual tuna and minute rice staples.

We discovered that granola, powdered milk and hot chocolate mix allowed for a number of useful breakfast variations. If in a hurry, we could eat the granola dry and on the go. If we wanted to live it up, the granola plus powdered milk made for a filling breakfast. The hot chocolate was ideal for warming up. And the last morning, we just mixed all three ingredients together and enjoyed hot chocolate granola. Yum!

On the dessert side of things, Martha White Muffin mix and a generic packet of pudding both called for a single ingredient: milk. I brought along some extra powered milk and mixed these up. Both the muffins and the pudding were a hit. The muffins took some effort to bake, but were more than worth it. The pudding was like magic: add the powdered milk, mix in some water, and bam! you've got pudding.

Win #3: Murse Chest Pack

We've been on a number of camping trips this season, and from the beginning, I opt'd to bring my man bag EDC bag. It was tempting to try save ounces by dumping out the contents and only bringing the essentials that seemed to apply. The first couple of trips we were car camping so this exercise seemed silly. By the later trips, I'd gotten used to having bag with me and found that its contents came in use in surprising ways. There was that time when we were backpacking and needed to haul back a bunch of water bottles to camp. The reusable shopping bag in my murse was perfect for the task.

Along with being functional, I also think it's invaluable to have experience with the gear you're going to depend on daily. What better way to make sure that your first aid kit is up to snuff, then to use it while hiking. So the contents of the bag were going.

But how to carry them? My first thought was to leave the bag at home and just dump the contents into a lightweight stuff sack. That would save me a few ounces, but would give up an advantage of having a separate bag. That is, when I drop my pack at camp all my essentials would be in a grab and go form. After more mental wrestling, I decided I'd bring the the bag and the contents as is.

After experimenting I found an arrangement that made carrying the bag comfortable: I shortened the main strap so that I could effectively hang the bag around my neck (like, say, a nope-on-a-rope). I fed my backpack's 'brain' through the opening and then clipped the top close. I put my backpack on and wriggled into the strap holding the murse. The result was that the bag hung around my neck, yet the pack was bearing the weight. I had just created a $15.00 improvised chest pack.

While I'm sure the setup looked goofy, it was surprisingly comfortable and most of all, it was convenient. My phone and sunglasses were always at the ready, and when I dropped my pack, the chest pack turned back into a camp purse. I was never without my flashlight, TP, hand sanitizer, first aid kit and other essentials.

Fail #1: Cooking using tent stakes

I know what you're thinking: Huh?! Alfie, one of my outdoor YouTube gurus, has a simple cooking setup that I've wanted to try. He puts tent stakes in the ground and builds a small fire around them. He then lays a small piece of wire mesh over them, voila! he has a mini grill. It's lightweight and seemed functional. I was hoping to try something similar with newly purchased tent stakes and the lid of my pot. Specifically, I wanted to make a surface where we could melt cheese on tortillas.

The project started off reasonable enough, as you can see in the above photo. But apparently, I had not accounted for the might of David's fire and the relatively fragile nature of the tent stakes. Once the fire was ablaze, the exposed parts of the stakes completely melted. Well done David!

We ended up warming our tortillas by wrapping them in foil and dropping them in the coals. I'm sure this tent stake cooking method works, but I need to be working with different stakes and a far smaller fire.

Fail #2: Blind Faith in Google Maps

The above photo looks innocuous enough. But what it shows is the point at which route US 615 turns into, what we assumed, was an off limits fire road. It was at this point that we realized that Google was planning to take us into Shenandoah using an obviously incorrect route. Ultimately, we were wrong about the above road and with the right amount of Chutzpah could have driven on it and gotten to about 1 mile away from the parking lot in Shenandoah. Still, this was clearly not the right way to enter the park. It was a bone headed move to just blindly trust that Google was routing us correctly.

Speaking of maps, next trip I'm absolutely going to spend the time to get the USGS topo maps on my phone. I'm sure it can be done, and having couple phones with maps is, in my estimation, just as reliable as having a paper map. It felt manly to bust out the map and compass, but man, it would have been nice to just bring up my phone and have the GPS tell me exactly where on the map we were. Plus, it makes the map one less thing to pack (and forget).

Fail #3: The case of the missing Bird and Trout Knife

After thoroughly enjoying the Cold Steel Bird and Trout Knife on my last trip, I was excited to get some more dirt time with it. Between its neck sheath and super light weight construction, I knew that it would be there when I needed it and out of the way otherwise.

On the first day, I busted the knife out a few times for some basic cutting tasks. But by evening failure struck: I went to reach for the knife and found it was gone!

I searched the area high and low, but alas, nothing. For the rest the trip, I relied on old faithful: a Derma Safe folding razor blade (which did quite well, thank you very much).

The million $15 dollar question was this: did I put the knife down and forget about it, or did the knife fall out of the sheath. By the end of the first week of heavy use, the knife came out of the 'locking' sheath with a tug. So it is at least plausible that the locking mechanism was a dud, and it fell out on its own. But it's more likely that I didn't put it back fully in the sheath or that I just dropped it myself. I really liked this knife, but not enough to risk losing it again.

The result: I've got a new small neck knife on the way and we'll see if it impresses me as much as the Bird and Trout. If not, I'll take my chances and go back to Cold Steel.

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