Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Backpacking Equipment: Should You Buy New?

I was driving to work the other day and in front of me was a car with a great bumper sticker that read "NEVER BUY NEW".  Simple and to the point.  I thought about it for a while and for a lot of things in life, this is a good mantra.

There are times when buying new is the right thing to do and there are times when buying used just makes sense.  A few pieces of backpacking equipment come to mind that I personally would only consider buying new - a sleeping bag and water filtration equipment.  Everything else is on the table for me.

Right up front let me say that backpacking can be expensive to gear up for.  If you're just into day hikes then you'll probably get on the trail for the least money.  But for any that want to spend the night out in the woods, then there is a list of essentials that can drain your wallet fast.

Before I dive into ways to save money on backpacking equipment, here's a quick rundown of the basic essentials for the Backpacker.  You'll most likely need something from every category depending on what your goals are.  I've listed what I beleive to be a reasonable budget for new/used next to each and it's by no means the top end equipment.

Backpack [$275/$195]: Here's where you'll want to buy right the first time.  It's certainly easier said than done but if you're a 4 season backpacker, then I'd suggest a minimum size of 50 Liters in a backpack.  This is the mother of all gear and from this the sport gets its name.  So, fo many it tops the list in terms of what to look for first.  Buying too small or spending too litttle here can and will certainly limit you to how much gear you can comfortably carry.  Having a pack that is too small for the task is frustrating and there's only so much 'cramming' you can do before stuff just plain ole' won't fit.  My suggestion: Go big becuase your list of equipment will only grow with time.  This piece isn't the one to skimp on but there are deals out there if you do your homework and read the reviews.

Sleep System [$450/$300]: There are a few different methods and options here of getting some Zzzzs out on the trail.  Generally speaking, the more you spend the more comfortable and protected you'll be and the better rest and recuperation you'll have after a long day on your feet.

A few of the more popular sleeping options include the sinple Groundcloth and Tarp, the Bivy, the old Standby the Tent or the increasingly popualr Hammock & Tarp.  All these systems in some way keep you protected from the elements.

And, of course, you'll need a sleeping bag or top quilts and under quilts to keep comfortable.  And depending on what season you're headed out will steer you into one temperature rating or another.  In this category I personally wouldn't buy a second hand sleeping bag.... but all else is fair game.  Keep in mind here that temperature ratings are only a reasonable guess as to how comfortable you'll be.  Some sleep warmer than others.  And there is no one single sleeping bag that will keep you comfortable [and safe!] from 0F to 70F.  If you're going to be a multi season backpacker, then you'll need at least two different sleeping bags.

Cook System [$125/$40]: You've got some choices here too in terms of how you want to eat or how much time you want to spend cooking.  Dehydrated meals are lightweight and relatively inexpensive and they only require a method of boiling water and a spoon.  My choice for Backpacking was a simple cook system that boils water and that's it.  I didn't go the way of cookware and cooking utensils.  For me, that was too much money, too heavy and takes too much time.  Dehydrated meals or even Cliff Bars keep my pack lighter and my wallet fuller.  The lowest cost option I've seen in this category in terms of boiling water [aside from using the campfire] is the home made Cat Food Can Alcohol Stove.  It's about as cheap as they come but still gets the job done.  Heck, save your money in this category and use it on a better sleep system.

Water Purification [$30-$75]:  Here's one of the absolute essentials in most cases.  I normally bring along 2 Liters of water when I go to any of my favorite spots but I also pack a Sawyer Mini Water Filter which is low cost and is rated to filter over 100,000 gallons of water. Here's another category where I'd suggest buying new.  The reason is that it's impossible to gauge the number of uses a used filter has already been through and what was the condition of the water that was passed through it.  And the Sawyer Mini Filter comes in around $20 so there isn't a ton of money to save here anyway.

Lighting [$30/$20]:  As with anything there is always a way to spend more than necessary.  There are some pretty interesting lighting gadgets out there that work off portable USB chargers that can double naturally as phone charging stations.  All very cool but pretty pricey as well.  Those gadgets I'll leave to my family to pick up for me for Christmas and my birthday.  My lighting system has evolved and grown a bit over the years but a single headlamp with backup batteries is really all that is necessary.  But with all the 'evolution' in the gadget industry you can easily pick up last years tech at a fraction of the price that was paid for it.  It's here that you can really trick out your backpack and make your time in the woods even more fun.

As an aside, I think that lighting my campsite is really enjoyable and with the advances in LED lighting you can put out a fair amount of light for low energy.  I also like the idea of the small UCO Candle lanterns as there's always something about the light of a flame that does it for me.  Of course, building a camfire is also a means to light your area too and that's something I almost always do.

Clothing/Footwear [$400+]:  There is nothing that takes the fun out of a trip more than being colder than you like or being wet when you don't want to be.  When I'm out in the elements it's then I'm glad I've made good gear choices in this area.  And the gear that falls into this category can cost you more than all the other stuff combined if you're not thrifty, especially if you're aiming to outfit yourself for 3 or 4 season backpacking.

There are ways to save money here and ways to be smart about where and when you travel.  If you are new to the idea of backpacking then I'd suggest you start out with planning your trips in the late Spring or early Fall.  It's then that you will need the least amount of additional warmth and that means less spending on Clothing.  Odds are you've got enough general wear items that could keep you comfy for an overnighter.  If you do catch a chill you canalways retreat to your tent/sleeping system or stoke up the fire.

When the Backpacking bug really bites you and you've got to venture out 3-4 seasons of the year be prepared to spend for comfort.  Generally speaking the more you spend, the more comfortable you'll be, and the higher the price tag the lighter or more compact the clothing is.

So, with all that said, you can see that there are more than a handful of items you'll need to pick up in order to hit the trail comfortably and you can easily spend $1,000 or more on new gear.  And if you're looking to be a 4 season backpacker, some equipment just can't be utilized across the temps between the seasons.  Cook gear, backpacks and lighting are all easy to use no matter the weather but going from 60F overnight lows to 20F lows just can't be accomplished comfortably or safely with the same sleeping bag, for instance.

To whittle down that inital cost, there are a few resources I've used that I've had great success with.  I've secured great, modestly or barely used equipment at some deep discounts.

Gear Trade:  This is probably the first site I run to if I'm in need of a new piece of gear.  Some folks out there that get items as gifts and don't want or need are happy to sell them to you at discounts of 25%-50% off retail.  Or some that just want to upgrade or replace something unused are offloading it here on the cheap.

The site is well categorized and has a search option so you can zero in on what you're looking for fairly quickly.  And, payment is through PayPal so your credit card info is safe and you've got automatic buyer protection.  Additionally, each buyer or seller has to create an account and gets rated based on those that bought from them.  So you've got the opportunity to know who you are buying from and how they've done in the past.

FYI - I have bought and sold on this site and gave and got great deals on quality gear.  Here's a place where you can beat retail pricing hands down and get some higher quality gear from big names.  There's even some popular retailers that sell returned items here.  Backcountry and Campmor are two I've noticed.

Hammock Forums:  Here's another one of my go-to places that I have used in the past.

I scored a great deal on my Warbonnet Blackbird double layer hammock here last year and saved about $50 off retail.

Here's a quick disclaimer:  Some of the top brands you won't see deep discounts on as they hold their value extremely well.  Hammocks and Down Quilts by various cottage manufacturers are some of the higher value items that you probably won't find for an absolute steal.

Buying here is pretty easy but you've got to scour the For Sale Forum very regularly to get an item.  There are no bidding wars but it's a first come, first served sale.  If you are the first to reply to a For Sale thread with "I'll take it" then it's yours.

With that said, you do have to create an account [super easy] and then you can buy off the threads.  You cannot, however, sell anything until you've contributed the appropriate number of comments to the forum.  The moderators want to see their members as actively participating in discussions and sharing of hammocking/camping knowledge first before they let you use their site as a way to offload your unused gear.

Still - I like what they are doing and as I mentioned, I grabbed up a good deal on my hammock.

ebay:  Of course, right??  Now here's a site that you can grab up great deals, too.

Last November [2017] I decided to round out my gear list with a tent and was really after a Big Agnes.  After extensive searching through all the Black Friday and Cyber Monday deals at all the big name and little name retailers I couldn't find anything under $200.  Ouch.  That's a big ticket for a tent in my opinion.

So, I scoured ebay and found an outstanding deal on a brand new, never used Big Agnes Solo Tent with a great rainfly and vestibule.  The seller had received a bunch of camping gear for his birthday and was just never into using it.  Good enough for me...

Craigslist:  And how can we forget Craigslist?  I haven't landed any gear here yet but I have bought other items in the past.  It's almost always a steal but the selection is normally very limited.

I just keep thinking about that Bumper Sticker I saw and although there are some things I just can't buy used, I've still landed some great gear and saved a bunch.

I hope you find all that interesting or useful!  If you've found another resource for grabbing up great gear at lower prices then please, by all means share!  I'm always on the lookout for something to add to my pack [whether I need it or not ;) ]

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Getting Ready for my First Tree Camping Adventure

Tree Camping: the act of climbing up a tree to camp overnight via hammock, portaledge or other which is hung from said tree.

Who doesn't like to climb trees??  Didn't we all enjoy that as kids?  I sure did.  I had more than my fair share of favorites on the farm in Ossian where I would spend a Saturday afternoon climbing.  And if I felt overly adventurous I might even bring a lunch and a book.  There was just something about climbing up a tree and finding a spot to sit where I could look out over the landscape.  On a sunny afternoon, it was a great way to pass the time.

It's been more than a handful of years since I ever did any tree climbing but I've found a new twist on one of my favorite past times and I am in.  All in.

As with most anything, I've watched a handful of YouTube videos on the subject and I'm an expert :)

Seriously though, I have spent about 40 hours or so researching Tree Camping and it sounds like a fantastic way to add even more adventure and excitement to my backpacking trips.

And here's the thing.  I almost always solo backpack and that leaves me somewhat exposed so, even though tree camping may sound moderately risky, it does provide me even more stealth and protection.  I'm not one to be nervous about solo camping.  If I was, I guess I wouldn't do it.  But, the Tree Camping thing sounds like fun.

A few words up front:

Don't do what I do.  I am in no way a subject matter expert.  This stuff not only sounds dangerous, it is dangerous.  My first few climbs will probably top out at 15 feet or so but I've watched some Tree Camping enthusiasts climb over 75 feet and spend the night in a hammock way up there.  Can it be done safely??  Absolutely.  But there are rules and there is such thing as having the proper equipment.

With that said I'm going to spell out all the equipment I've purchased and where I learned about all this so if you feel the desire, you can learn more yourself.

Climbing Equipment:  If you're planning on a climb of over more than just a few feet, proper climbing equipment is a must for your own safety.  I've briefly laid out five pieces of climbing equipment below that will give me all the safe adventure I could ever want in tree camping.

These are just my choices.  There are many others.  What was insisted upon by those I was learning from was the Petzl Gri Gri Belay Device [or Gri Gri 2, or even Gri Gri +].  See below for more info on that.  But other than that device, no other brand names seemed to be singled out as the only or best choice for any of these components.

Additionally, I feel that I've leaned heavily toward the mechanical means of ascending and descending.  There are a few knots [I can think of about 5 great ones] that I have learned, in some instances take the place of mechanical components in a pinch.  For my first few experiences [or maybe all of them] I chose to go the mechanical route as I thought it had a higher safety factor and would compensate for my inexperience.

The Climbing Rope:  Here's your starting point.  I purchased my Edelweiss Flashlight Dry 10mm Climbing Rope from Outdoor Gear Exchange on sale for $109 and free shipping.

Here's not the place to 'skimp' nor should you buy something off craigslist which most probably has been used.  This is, like all the other gear here, a direct link to your livelihood and safety.  You can certainly spend more than I did but I found little else for less cost.

Another thing to be mindful of is how much rope you'll need.  In one method of Single Rope Climbing, the anchor point for the rope is at the top of your climb allowing you to use the full length of your rope to ascend.  In other methods, your anchor point is at the base of the tree, effectively halving the total distance you can ascend.  My rope is 60 Meters in length giving me more than enough to climb as high as I can ever imagine wanting to.

The Climbing Harness:  I purchased a Black Diamond Alpine Bod lower body climbing harness just like this one from Back Country.  It was relatively low cost [~$45] and it is a must.  When suspended from the climbing rope you'll want something comfortable.

I chose this one because of it's wide leg straps.  Once it's on, it won't come off until my feet are back on the ground.  That means I'll even be sleeping with it on so it's got to be comfortable.

The four gear loops around the perimeter of the belt come in handy for attaching extra carabiners, a lanyard and other climbing equipment should I need it at the ready.

The Hand Ascender:  Here's another climbing device I picked up - the ascender.  Just like the name says, it is used for moving up the climbing rope.  It is meant to be uni-directional meaning it will only slide up the rope.  When any downward force is applied, teeth in the cam 'bite' onto your climbing rope and halt your downward travel.

Note that the hand ascender only works effectively with climbing rope of a certain diameter.  My 10mm rope fits right in the middle of this hand ascender's range.

I picked this one up at GearTrade from a company called Campmor.  It was brand new but selling for $55 shipped.  It came in it's original sealed packaging with all the safety information intact.

The Belay Device:  The Petzl Gri Gri 2 from Back Country [~$80 shipped] was another gotta have to make the task of getting down from the tree safely achievable for me, the novice.

I most likely won't have anyone with me to belay me safely down from the tree so I'll be using this device from Petzl as a self-belay.  It was not cheap but came highly recommended by all those YouTube tree campers I watched.

Locking Carabiners:  The last in the five-some of Tree Camping Equipment is the locking carabiner.  Here's one device that there are a fair amount of aftermarket 'non-climbing rated' products out there.

Carabiners are kinda cool and their 'design' suits lots of uses that are not climbing related.  So I was careful to choose climbing rated locking carabiners as all those I watched and learned from insisted that I absolutely settle/accept nothing less.

There are cheaper 'wire gate' versions out there that are used for attaching gear to backpacks for instance.  These should never be used for climbing/life safety.  Nuff said on that.

So, with these five pieces, I've got all I need to safely ascend and descend most of what I'll be interested in.  Now, all I need to continue to acquire is knowledge and skill.

I'll be out in the woods soon and look forward to having fun.

Friday, March 2, 2018

10 of the Best Solo Backpacking Tips

So, you're thinking about your first solo backpacking trip?  Whether you've got a few concerns before you get started or are ready to take the plunge next weekend, here are a few things to consider before heading out for your first solo trip.

Before I divulge some of my favorite secrets to a pleasant solo camping experience, here are just a few facts about me:

I started backpacking about three years ago and have loved every minute of it.  I've got a full-time career and a houseful of lovely girls [my wonderful bride and my three daughters] that keep me hopping most of the time.  So, believe me when I tell you that any chance I get to go outside for a night out, it's precious.  Don't get me wrong, I love my girls.  But, a night out in the woods with a roaring campfire and a great, warm sleep is extremely relaxing and charges my batteries.

I've been out about 20 times since that first time out with some friends and I would guess that nearly all of them have been solo trips.  It just so happened that my first solo trip came unexpectedly as a friend of mine was supposed to join me then had to cancel last minute.  He had planned on meeting me out at the campsite but had his plans change.  Since I was already on my way there, I wasn't turning back around to go home.  That's a great tale for another time.  Suffice it to say that the solo camping experience was suddenly thrust upon me that night and it left a great impression.

There are a handful of lessons I've learned from camping solo and for me, following these few rules make the difference between a fair night out and a great one so I'm happy to pass them on if they may be of some help to you.

First things first.  It's okay to be a little apprehensive about going off on a solo trip.  That nervousness will give you the incentive to think things through and make necessary preparations.  If you're overly nervous - bail out or get someone to go with you.  If you don't have any reservations then you're either extremely brave or you will end up venturing out unprepared mentally and physically.

If you can't enjoy yourself out in the woods alone then what's the point?  This is supposed to be fun, right?  There's no enjoyment in being alone in the woods and scared.  I want to see you have as much fun as I have had so I've got a few tips that I think have prepared me and made nearly every solo experience of mine super fun and rewarding.

1) Start off in your backyard [or close].  Seriously.  If I had to do it again, this is where I would start.  If a night 'alone' in your wooded backyard makes your hair stand up on end then maybe solo backpacking isn't for you.  But if after a night or two in the backyard you were wishing you were farther out, then read on.

2) Always tell someone where you are going and when you expect to return.  This one nearly goes without saying but still, there it is.  You'll want to make sure your family knows where you are and when you will be back.  That helps you and them rest easy about this whole thing.  Just so you know, your friends might think you are absolutely crazy to head out for a solo trip.  Most of mine did.

3) Don't go where you've never been before.  I struggled a bit with putting this one as #2.  It might be even more important than #1.  If you're really up for your first solo, make sure you are going to a place you've been before.  Have some familiarity with the trail and the intended campsite.  This is a huge help to calming your nerves and to any family or friends that might be a little nervous for you.

I've got [2] favorite campsites and I've camped at each of them with a group and solo more than a handful of times.  The familiar surroundings and sounds instantly put me at ease and make my campout much more enjoyable.

And...knowing the trail and the campsite well means you know what gear you need to bring to stay comfortable.  One of my favorite sites has a nearby stream but the other doesn't.  So depending on which I visit means I pack in more or less water or if my purifier comes with me.

4) Make sure you've got a way to communicate from your car to your campsite and back.  If you've followed rule #3 you should know if you will have a good signal for your phone or not.  You're safest bet is to choose that familiar camping spot that has good phone reception along all points of your trail.  And needless to say - keep the lines of communication open.  I always let my family know when I arrive at the trailhead, when I'm at the campsite and when I'm getting ready to call it a night.

5) Keep your hike distance to the camping area short.  I enjoy all aspects of my solo adventures from packing the night before, leaving work early, to the hike and the campfire.  It's all good.  But, one part I like to keep to a minimum is the distance I'm covering when I'm off on a solo trip.  Both of my favorite spots are about 20 minutes from the trailhead.  For me, that amount of time and distance is perfect.  And it's far enough away from the road to eliminate road noise but close enough that I can get back to my car quickly if I need to.

6) Find a shelter if you can.  I've solo camped in a lean-to, out in the open in a hammock, and in a small 2-3 person cabin.  All have their advantages, but the cabin always makes me feel the most secure.  It's small and heat-able via a propane stove and it's got a deadbolt which makes me feel instantly safe.  I've camped in all three situations/styles evenly but that little cabin sure is fun and in the winter it makes for the best choice.

Now, I'm not going to tell you that you will never run into a coyote, bear or other potentially harmful creature, but in the 15 or so times I've been out solo, I never have.  Maybe it's blind luck but generally speaking, if an animal gets your scent odds are way in your favor that it will just run off and leave you be.

7) Start your trip with plenty of daylight.  I must be completely crazy.  My first solo began in the dark.  I had been to the campsite before, but I got out of work late and it was still winter time so light faded fast by the time I got to the trailhead.  By the time I had my pack on and was moving, I had to turn on my headlamp to see.  This was my second time out backpacking and this time it was solo and in the dark.  You might not want to be as daring as I was.  Some may say I was foolish and some may say I was brave.  I was probably a bit of both.

8) Keep busy once you are at the campsite.  Once you land at your desired camp area, there is lots to do.  Solo camping is fun but you've got no one else to lean on to help out with camp chores when you are out on your own.  That means you are going to be busy gathering campfire wood, purifying water, setting up your sleeping area and getting a meal started.

All this stuff is a good thing.  It gets your mind occupied with the tasks you need to do to stay comfortable.  That leaves less time for worry and anxiety.  I've found that all of my campsite chores can easily take me 2 hours from the time I arrive.  And if you like a campfire like I do, most of the night will be spent either feeding the fire or gathering wood.  The more wind there is, the more wood you will burn through.

9) Light that Campfire?  As part of your camp chores, gathering firewood is a great way to keep your mind focused and that will keep any nervousness at bay.  I'm a big fan of the campfire.  For me, it not only occupies my mind, but I also love the smell and the sense of security it brings me.  Some may see a campfire as a signal for curious animals to come in.  I've never experienced that.  For me, the campfire is a symbol of safety, security and warmth.

10) Take up Tree Camping.  If you haven't heard of this before and you are an avid backpacker then I am sorry.  By telling you this, I've almost guaranteed that your next three paychecks are all spent on Tree Camping gear.  What can I say?

As briefly as I can tell you a bit about it, tree camping is essentially a combination of rock climbing, hammocking, and tree climbing.  The idea is that you [with all protective gear possible and professional training] climb a tree with use of harness and climbing rope.  Once at a height of 20 or so feet [I've watched some that ascend upwards of 100 feet!], you anchor in a hammock or portaledge then camp out in the tree canopy away from any potential harmful critters all the while remaining in your harness and anchored to the tree.  You awake in the morning completely refreshed, ready to descend to the forest floor to pack it all up and go home.

If you're willing to commit your next month's wages on Tree Camping equipment then, by all means, look up a You Tuber by the name of Tree Fool.  Don't say I didn't warn you.

I hope you've found one or two tips useful.  I'd love to hear about your first or most recent solo trip and what it is you do to make the most of it.  Comment below!

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

How I Chose the Right Backpacking Tent for Me

I'll admit that I'm more of a casual backpacker than the full blown section hiker or through hiker that has spent many nights out on the trail.  But honestly, I think that's what makes backpacking even more special to me is the fact that I can't get out as often as I'd like.  So, when I do get the chance to break away, the time is even more precious and savoured.

Over the past few months I've made the decsion to expand my backpacking gear and picked up some "go to ground" winter equipment.  I've previously spent all my time and available resources on hammock camping so it's a bit of a change of pace for me.  I've found though that Hammock Camping in the winter is a bit more of a challenge and requires some pretty expensive gear to keep yourself warm.  With Christmas coming, I knew I'd have a little extra cash and wanted to find a few pieces that would make winter camping an option for me.

So, on the search for the perfect backpacking tent I went...

Let me begin by 'saying' that the google search engine literally exploded when I typed in the words backpacking tent.  There are over 6 million results.  Wow, that's a lot.  But, I was buckled in and up to the challenge of finding the right tent for me.  Could there really be that many variations, models and manufacturers??  Time would tell.

I started my search in late October, well in advance of the Black Friday/Cyber Monday sales that I knew would come.  With three or so weeks to go, I left myself plenty of time to scour all the different retailers and tent manufacturers.

Here was my backpacking tent criteria:
1) Price - I needed to be in the $150 range.  I had about twice that to spend but also wanted to upgrade my sleep system too.  I was, after all trying to "save" money by going with a tent over bulking up on a bunch of goose down for my hammock.  I tell you up front I did land below this range but it took quite an effort.
2) Winter Camping Capable - Most of the tents I viewed were listed as either three season or four season.  That rating is a little subjective based on where you are, how cold it is and how much shelter against the winter wind you've got.  The Four Season tents were astronomically higher in price but also completely overkill for what I needed here in Upstate New York.
3) Decent Sized Vestibule - The rain fly of many of the tents I looked at was oversized to provide an area outside of the main body of the tent as a vestibule.  It's a place to store your wet, muddy gear that you'd rather not put inside the tent with you.  I was looking for the vestibule to be a place where I could cook out of the wind and weather.  The tent I ended up with scored high here.
4) Room for One - Since I was purchasing the tent with winter camping in mind, I knew that a smaller tent would be easier to keep warm.  I ended up with a one-man tent but quite a few tents for two made for serious contenders in my search.

As I was whittling down my options [and I'l share them with you in just a bit] I decided to just spend two to three days really mulling it over before I hit the buy button.  Black Friday was approaching and I knew the sales would be popping up.  It was then, however, that I had a little revelation. On the way to work one morning there was a car in front of me at a stop light.  On the back was a bumper sticker with the words "NEVER BUY NEW" on it.

As I thought about that during the day, I guess I agreed with that mantra in most respects.  When it came to buying a backpacking tent, used could certainly be a worthy option for me.  I don't think I could bring myself to buying a used sleeping bag; but a tent, yes.

So, that changed my focus quite a bit and I began searching for the tents that were on my top two list.

Here are the contenders on my list:
The Big Agnes Fly Creek HV UL1 - Wow, did I spend a lot of time looking for a retailer that would let this one go for under $200.  After three or so days of looking I gave up.  I even tried GearTrade, eBay, and Amazon fo a great deal on a used one.

This tent checked all but one of my boxes - the price.  It was one of a few tents I was looking for that has a front entry.  The vestibule was a bit smaller than that of a side entry tent but it appearded to have enough room to do my cooking.

I did have to do a little reasearch to learn that the HV stood for High Volume and UL meant Ultralight.  The bottom line was that I couldn't find this tent for less than $210 out the door so I pushed on to find another.

The MSR Elixir 2 -  After I gave up the search on the Big Agnes I found the MSR Elixir 2 on an eBay search.  It was a customer return that had not been used and was marked to move at just over $150.

At this point I was pretty well set on pulling the trigger but wanted to sleep on it.  This looked like a once in a great while deal and now I had all my boxes checked.  And even if it was a two-man tent, it was still only moderatley sized and I was betting it would hold heat well.

One stand out feature was the size of the vestibule.  With a side entry, the overall dimensions of the vestibule looked to be larger than the Fly Creek and that would certianly allow me to cook while keeping the rain fly closed.

So, as it turns out neither of those tents made it into my backpack after I made one last attempt to make sure there were no killer deals out there.

The Big Agnes Fairview 1 - As luck would have it, I stumbled upon this little gem on eBay.  It was sold by an individual who had never used it.

It has a simple two pole design and came complete with a footprint, the fly and the tent - all for $100 plus $12 shipping.

Aside from the price, I was drawn to it by the minimized amount of mesh at the top.  For winter camping that lack of mesh should help keep the heat in.  I'm a little wary of how it will perform in the way of condensation but the fly has two hold open vents at the top to keep air flowing.

Once I get this out on the trail and get a few nights in it I'll be writing a full review.

At the end of the day I feel really good about my purchase and the whole process of getting there.  It appears that Big Agnes has discontinued this tent so I can't verify what the retail was on it but at $112 in my backpack I feel I got a great deal on a solid name brand. And having the footprint included was another bonus that many manufacturers sell separately.

Do I feel like I betrayed all the Hammockers out there?  Nope.  I still love my hammock and it will continue to be a favorite.  I feel like I just added a few tools to the toolbelt and have extended my backpacking season all at the same time.  And as most hammockers would say, Hang You Own Hang!

Saturday, December 2, 2017

First Glimpse at the Wiggy's Super Light Sleeping Bag

As the late fall/winter season 'springs' on us here in Upstate New York it was time for me to re-evaluate and again ignite my passion for the outdoors.

If any of you have read of my first winter hammocking experience, you'll know that it wasn't pleasant for me.  In fact, I wonder now reading that blog post again after more than a year, if I was ever in any danger of hypothermia?  If not for the campfire, I'd bet it was a possibility.  But, I'll always look back on it as a net positive experience as I learned a lot of great lessons that trip.

I've decided over the past few months that even though I love hammocking and will continue to hang when the weather is a bit fairer, I wanted to broaden my experience and extend my backpacking adventures to year round.  To do that I could either invest a small fortune in down insulated equipment or venture down the well-trodden path of tent camping.

From all I've read and experienced, it is 'harder' to stay warm in a hammock as opposed to tent camping.  'Harder' meaning more equipment is necessary - tarps with doors, underquilts, top quilts and naturally the hammock.  So, not only is there more equipment involved, there is also more to carry if you're wanting to venture out in the cold with a hammock.

I happened on a video on YouTube a few months ago about a guy using a water-drenched Wiggy's sleeping bag during a 40F night.  He explained that he'd heard great things about this US company and how that even wet, the Wiggy's sleeping bag promised to keep its user warm even on cold nights.

So, this young man put himself in this water-soaked sleeping bag during a cold 40F night to test the theory.  And the results shocked me.  After just a few seconds in the sleeping bag [the guy was down to his boxers] he immediately felt warm; a little discomfort at being wet; but warm.  He promised to update us in the morning and turned off the camera.  And when the morning came the camera came back on to find him warm and completely dry.

So, needless to say, that got my attention with that company.  As I thought about that experiment he conducted, I appreciated that he did it but did he have to take it to that extreme?  Was that condition something that was really realistic?  I guess to some point it was, but for me personally, at the very least I would have shaken the water out of the bag before I got in.

As I investigated this company and their sleeping bag lineup I found that they have a minimum of eight different sleeping bags to choose from assorted according to temperature rating.  And since they are all made right here in the USA that was the deal closer to me.  Awesome.

Wiggys Sleeping Bag Variety:
1) +50F - The Summer Weight
2) +40F - "Nautilus" Desert
3) +35F - FTRSS Overbags
4) +30F - "Backpacker"
5) +20F - The "Ultra Light"
6) 0F - The "Super Light"
7) -20F - The "Ultima Thule"
8) -60F - The "Antarctic"

Weights range from around 3 LBs for the Summer Weight Series to a whopping 8-1/2 LBs for the Antarctic weight sleeping bags.  And Wiggy's has designed their +30F Backpacker and lower temperature rated bags to fit inside of a special outer bag they call the FTRSS Overbag.  It's basically a secondary sleeping bag that is specially designed to zip in any of those other bags widening their temperature rating by another 40F.  That's a great idea.

I went with the 0F Super Light at an on-sale price of $150 delivered for the Mar-Pat Camo covering.  I opted for the regular length and width and when prompted for the foot box style I decided to go with the boat foot [more on that later]

Here are my first reactions:

Price - Isn't this where all of us first consider whether we're in or not?  I had a certain price range and I wasn't going to blow my budget.  Down sleeping bags were a serious contender from a weight and warmth standpoint but almost all manufacturers had a price point north of $300 for a 0F bag.  FYI - Honorable Mention goes out to Paria Outdoors as their 0F Down Sleeping bag would have cost me only $128 delivered over the Black Friday weekend.  Why didn't I go with them??  Well, I almost pulled the trigger on that bag but down is not effective when wet and that YouTube video really sold me on just how warm the Wiggy's bag would be.

Delivery Time and Packaging- Wiggy's had a very solid delivery time at about 4 days from order.  Considering it was free delivery they certainly could have sent my order on the slow Parcel Post boat but instead sent via FedEx Ground.  Kudos.  The bag was not delivered in its stuff sack and at first glance, I thought the bag was really big and lofty.  Wiggys put the bag in a secondary waterproof bag and everything arrived completely intact and sealed.

Zipper Wind Baffle - Whoa.  These guys should list this as a selling point on their sleeping bags because it is substantial.  As a hammock hanger, I'm a little conscious of wind and it's effect to steal the warmth right off me.

This baffle is huge and thick, easily covers the zipper and instantly squashes any chance of heat escaping.  Wiggy's could have skimped here but chose not to.  That tells me something about their know-how and commitment to making a great product.

The zipper baffle is a big bonus that would have sold me even further if that were possible.  And its small touches like this and others I'll show you that has me excited to see just how warm this bag is going to keep me.

The Zipper - The next thing I noticed was the quality of the zipper.  I'm not really much in the know on different zipper types but this one feels very heavy duty.  The teeth are all plastic and I can appreciate why.  I imagine that brass zippers would be quick to freeze.

We will just have to wait and see how the zipper holds up year after year.  I have full confidence that if there was an issue, this company would be quick to respond and take care of any repairs.

From the few times I've used the zipper, it does move relatively freely from both inside the bag and out.

The Foot End - Here's a big one for me.  Nothing ruins a great night out in the woods quicker than cold feet.  And when I noticed there was an unusual foot end option for the Wiggy's bags I had to learn more.  There's always a reason for doing something out of the norm and I figured these guys probably have a good one.

The Boat Foot End option I chose is best described in Wiggy's terms below:

When selecting the Boat Foot option, like the name implies, the foot end of the bag will be shaped like the bow of a boat. The shape causes the Lamilite fiber to come together at the foot end of the bag increasing the insulation markedly and thereby increasing the Lamilite's ability to insulate. 

My feet tend to be the first to get cold so I took the advice and order it with the boat foot. It's still plenty roomy so I'm optimistic.

The Stuff Sack - Here's where I'm probably going to have to trade off warmth for size.

One impression the Wiggys Bag left me with is its size, loft, and stiffness.  It ranks higher than I'm used to in all three of those categories.

Loft is directly attributable to warmth and insulation value so I guess I expected a thicker bag but be forewarned that this bag just won't compress like down does.  Pictured to the right is me trying to get this beast stuffed into the compression bag.

Not to worry, it did make it but even it's compressed state this sleeping bag is probably about 25% larger than the compressed state of my Teton 5F bag.  That means there will be a trade-off in my backpack but I'm not overly concerned.

Summary: I'm pretty excited to see what this bag can do and I'm confident that it was a great purchase.  In going to ground camping for the winter I thought I needed a sleeping bag upgrade and I'm certain this is it.  Wiggy's has had this great sale on the Super Light for a few months now so if you're in for an upgrade or for your first sleeping bag for the colder months, it might be worth a visit to their site.

Until next time!  Get outside and have fun!

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Choosing Your First Backpacking Stove

Whether you are buying your first backpacking stove or looking to upgrade or downgrade, there is no shortage of products on the market to consider.

If you are the casual backpacker, like me, it's easy to get wow'ed by all the different choices out there.  We've got Canister Style Stoves, Wood Burning Stoves, Fuel Tablet Stoves like the Esbit, and Alcohol Style Stoves.  And I'm sure I haven't named them all.

The question is...are any or all of these worth the investment?  I'm like most any guy and I like to have stuff.  Having a few different style stoves is fun and can make the camping experience all the more enjoyable as you try one stove this trip then choose another the next trip.  But, like most others, I don't have unlimited resources so I've got to make choices on how and where to spend my money for this awesome hobby.

Before you run out and buy your first stove, I'd suggest you start off with the absolute rock-bottom investment and make your own alcohol stove.  Pair that with a dehydrated meal or two and you're off and running.  We'll talk about that homemade alcohol stove in a sec but first just let me digress for a moment.

Yes, eating a great meal is important to having a great time.  At least it is for me and my gang of backpackers.  We like to eat well at the end of the day and first thing in the morning a hot cup or two of coffee is super important to me having an enjoyable time.  With that said, you can have an absolute fantastic meal by going with a Mountain House, Backpacker's Pantry or Packit Gourmet Dehydrated Meal.  And all you need to enjoy one of those is about 12-14oz of boiling water.

Every one of the stoves I list below does a great job of boiling water.  There are about [5] Characteristics of Backpacking Stoves that make some the right choice for your needs and some not so much.
  • Investment - The Home Made Alcohol Stove is the front runner here in the short term.  You can make one for under $1 but you'll have to constantly invest in your fuel source.  Boiling 12-16 ounces of water takes about 1 to 1.5 ounces of Alcohol and that stuff is really inexpensive.
  • Pack Weight/Volume - That Home Made Alcohol Stove scores high marks here as well.  Even with a few days worth of fuel, you'll hardly notice it in your pack.
  • Fuel Source - Any of the wood burning style Backpacking Stoves top the charts in this category since you'll never have to pay for your fuel nor will you have to pack it in or out with you.
  • Wow Factor - The Biolite Stove takes first place in this category in my opinion.  Not only does it take an unlimited free fuel source [wood, pinecones, etc] it also has a thermocouple which can change that heat energy into electricity to charge your electronic devices.  That's really something to brag on.  There's been more than one occasion that I've almost pulled the trigger on one of these.
  • Speed & Finesse - The Canister Style Stove just as the MSR Pocket Rocket or Jetboil Flash are the winners here.  I've boiled two cups of water [starting at around 60F] in a whopping three minutes with my MSR Canister stove.  That's over twice as fast as my Alcohol stove.  Winner, winner, chicken dinner.

Our first style stove is the Canister Style Backpacking Stove.  The Jetboil Flash is aptly named with lighting fast Boil Times of just over 2 minutes and is one of the premier canister style stoves in the market.

Jetboil offers quite a few models with prices starting near $80 and moving up from there.

Note though that those prices, although a little high include a complete cook system [minus the fuel canister] with a burner, canister stand, pot, lid and cozy.

That's not a bad deal for all that gear.  You're completely set for cook gear with one purchase.

One great advantage the Canister Style Stove offers in addition to it's duper fast boil times is a fuel control knob.  That adjustment allows quite a bit more finesse in cooking and sautéing over just the standard full on flame 'boil my water' play.  And it saves fuel.

Coming in as an honorable mention Canister Style Stove is the MSR Pocket Rocket.  I own it's little brother the Micro Rocket and it's a great little stove that packs up small and weighs next to nothing.

Both the Pocket Rocket and the Minor Rocket are very similar and as will all canister stoves, they both have that same standard fuel canister threaded connection which is universal for all different makes of fuel canisters.  So there's no worry about which fuel to buy - MSR, Jetboil and Primus are some of the most popular brands.
Next in our lineup of stove types is the Wood Burning Camp Stove Style.  The Toaks Titanium Stove is one of many, many brands and style of woodturning stoves but nearly all follow the same principle.

The distinct advantage of this style stove is the limitless supply of free fuel available.  In a downpour this style stove would be tough to use unless there was overhead cover and some dry kindling but all that aside this style seems to be a popular choice.

I doubt there will be one of these in my future as I'm all about the campfire at my campsite anyway.  For my needs, I don't see this style stove as useful.  They are relatively slow to start and slow to boil water.  And some wood burning style stoves are manufactured of titanium which can easily run in the $80-$90 plus range.

The pocket style Esbit or Fuel Tab Stove is lightweight and super inexpensive.  Some of these style stoves can run under $10 with Fuel Tabs costing under $1/ea.

Aside from the advantages of super low cost, super low pack weight and relatively low fuel cost comes the additional benefit of it's ease of use even in wet weather.

The Esbit Fuel Tabs take a flame very easy and burns for about 8 minutes which is ample time to boil 2 cups of water for that dehydrated meal and a quick cup of coffee.

The "WOW-FACTOR" award goes to the Biolite Camp Stove.  It certainly takes low marks on up front cost and in pack weight but if you're the kind of backpacker that likes a little more pizzaz in your gear, you might want to consider this Backpacking Stove.

The unlimited fuel source of wood and/or pine cones makes this a one time investment that's always at the ready.  And the super cool Thermocouple which converts heat energy into low voltage re-charge power for your mobile device makes this stove awesome.

I haven't seen any bad reports about poor reliability or short lifespan on the thermocouple so that's good.  But at $130 or so, this one just might need to be a gift to me from someone in order for me to own one.  Still, I'd have to say that I'd be really happy with one in my pack.

The real stand out winner in my list of Backpacking Stoves is the Home Made Alcohol Stove.  Designs vary but they all operate much the same way with the same general effectiveness.  They are super simple to make and require very few tools.

The only downside [and its barely that] is that there is no real flame control so once they are lit they basically burn at the same rate until the fuel is exhausted.  If you need to adjust heat, it all about moving the pan away from the flame.  Not a big deal to me since I'm almost always about boiling water and little else.

Boil times are also on par with the woodburing style stoves so there's no big advantage either way.  But at less than $5 to make even the souped-up styles, I just love it.

As I pointed out in the beginning.  If I could roll back the clocks, I'd save the money I spent on my canister stove and spend it elsewhere.  The Alcohol Stove does everything I need it to.  I hope that helps you make a good decision on your first or next Backpacking Stove.

Are you of the same opinion as me on the Alcohol Stove?

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Sawyer Mini Water Filter versus the Katadyn Befree

I've had the Sawyer mini now for about 2 years and it has, without fail, served me well for the parts I choose to use.  One minor [and I mean minor] complaint with the Mini that I have is the Squeeze Pouch that's included with the purchase.  Other than that [and there are some really easy workarounds], the Mini earns a solid 10/10 for price, reliability and pack weight/volume in my opinion.

Whenever I'm on the trail and need to fill up from a non-potable water source, I always use my Mini with a disposable water bottle and my Nalgene.  My disposable bottle is always easy to identify as my 'dirty' water and the Nalgene always as the 'clean.'

I long ago replaced the Squeeze Pouch that came with the Mini with a smartwater bottle.  I've tried other bottles but the smartwater is the best because of it's thicker wall and higher water volume.  Sturdy is a good quality to have out on the trail because if the water bottle fails, I'm out of luck for purifying water - at least with the Mini.

I chose the disposable water bottle over the Sawyer Squeeze Pouch because it's much easier to fill.  The Pouch packs up fabulously and weighs next to nothing, but it doesn't lend itself well to filling up in a slow moving stream or brook.  I've tried it more than a few times and I can only fill it to about 50% capacity.  If I had any input on the design I would have increased it's volume by at least 50%.  That would have added marginal cost to the product but would have given it much higher marks in my opinion.

My setup here on the right is my absolute standard any time I hit the trail [less that Squeeze Pouch].  For me, the Sawyer Mini has proven itself to be a really great, low-cost option [~$20] that should last me a lifetime since it treats over 100,000 gallons of water.  That will produce more clean water than I'll ever drink on the trail.

But like with any new invention or product enhancement, the Katadyn Befree has certainly got my attention.  I already own a low cost, reliable solution so the BeFree would have to seriously tip the scales to have me reaching into my wallet.

I'm not entirely sure when these came out but one look and I can see my biggest complaint against the Sawyer Mini is solved.

The BeFree does come in three sizes - 20oz, 1L, and 3L so I'm certainly not limited to go with the 3L option.  But the price tag of $40 plus tax & shipping on the 20oz has got me a little hesitant.   

That's a fairly good investment over the Sawyer Mini and it's got me wondering if the BeFree's solution to my one little complaint about the Mini is worth the extra cash.  

My first reaction was to add one of these to the cart immediately and check out before they are gone.
But, after some careful consideration, I've decided to hold off.  The filter does has a noticeably faster rate than the Mini which is a slight advantage.  But as I've said before, I'm in no rush once I'm out in the woods.  If it takes me another 3-4 minutes to filter my water, that just doesn't add up to spending another $40 for a very similar setup to what I have now.

And one other serious question I have is the 'toughness' value of that bottle.  I didn't see any info on any manufacturer warranty.  I know that REI would stand behind it forever so that's not a major concern, but unlike the Sawyer Mini that fits most any disposable water bottle, I don't have an endless supply of water containers.  If the BeFree container springs a leak I'm up the proverbial creek until I can get a replacement from the distributor.  

So I guess I'm in a holding pattern for now.  If my Mini fails me or gets lost then the BeFree would be a contender for replacement for sure.

Use another filter system or have some comments about my take on these two?  Let me know in the comments section.

Backpacking Equipment: Should You Buy New?

I was driving to work the other day and in front of me was a car with a great bumper sticker that read "NEVER BUY NEW".  Simple a...