Sunday, March 27, 2016

First Night in the Hennessey Ultralight Hammock

I wish I could tell you that my first night in my Hennessey Ultralight Backpacking Hammock was a success.  I went out on a solo trip on a Friday night in late March after work and I'd have to rate my experience at a 5/10.  Some parts were great while others made me wishing I had made some changes.  But here's the part to remember - I pulled away 7 Great Lessons Learned that will make my next Backpacking - Hammocking night out so much more enjoyable.  And even though those lessons were hard learned, that means they'll stick with me.

I guess if I have some advice for myself it's to write everything down so I can recall accurately what the conditions were and what equipment I had with me.  At least I can make some educated guesses as to the equipment changes I'd need to make it more comfortable next time.

Date: 3/25-3/26
Location: Naples, NY - Beaver Pond Lean To Campsite
Start Time on the Trail: 7PM
Arrival at the Campsite: 7:30PM
Weather Conditions: Clear, Low Winds, but cool 35F
Ground Conditions: Damp but not wet from a Morning Rain
Overnight Low: 32F
Sunrise: 7:02AM
Sunset: 7:29 PM

Equipment:
Hammock: Hennessey Ultralight
Mattress Pad: Cabella's Instinct
Sleeping Bag: Teton Sports Tracker +5 Degree
Backpack: Teton 35 Liter
Camera: iPhone

Food:
Dinner: Venison Bacon Cheeseburgers with Rice
Breakfast: Venison Breakfast Sausage with Pancakes and Maple Syrup

First off, the transition from the car to the trail didn't go quite as quickly as I had hoped.  I was actually about 30 minutes getting my pack together which was a big time waster.  I had a few items that were last minute adds - a larger cook kit, a mini iPad, a seat cushion, a small camp chair and my mini Growler.  This entire 30 minutes was a mistake.  I should have pre-packed all this at home the night before and realized that the limits of my pack were going to be exceeded.  Packing it at home gives you more time to re-arrange and re-think the list of necessities versus wants.  I ended up trying to pack on the fly and re-arrange in the backseat of my car and because my pack wasn't big enough I ended up arranging and re-arranging to try to make it all fit.  Mistake.

Lesson #1 Learned: Make a list, commit to it and pack it at home.

My hiking experience was a 10/10.  The sun had not set yet when I hit the trail and since I'd been that route a few times I wasn't concerned even if the light faded. Overhead was completely clear and the low winds made the 35 degrees feel like 45 once I got going.  Visibility was high which meant I could enjoy all the sights - awesome.  It looked like there had been a lot of trail activity since I'd been here last with my youngest Madeline but all was still super clean and easy to navigate.  It's nice to know that there are folks who like taking care of what others have worked so hard to create and maintain.

It was about a mile to the Lean To from the Parking area and in about 30 minutes I had arrived.  My pace was slow so I could absorb the peace and quiet of it.  I knew when I started out that I didn't want to think about the destination, but to stay focused on every step of the journey to get there.  That's the fun part, too.  Focusing on the destination should happen back at home to help prepare for the contents of the backpack.  I was glad of the weather, the visibility and my ability to take it all in.

Lesson #2 Learned: Don't concentrate only on the destination, but also the journey.

When I reached the site it was around 7:30PM and I knew I didn't have a ton of daylight left thanks to my debacle at the car with the last minute adds to the backpack so I had to get right after choosing a site for the hammock and getting a fire going.  The closer I could get my hammock to the fire the better I would feel and the easier it would be on me to get up during the night to re-stoke the fire.

My hammock set up site was about as perfect as I could have hoped for - about 10 feet from the fire.  How I wish I would have taken a few photos as I was super proud of how it turned out but the cold made my iPhone inoperative.  Bummer.  I found three trees right at the site that were the perfect distance apart and that would allow me to see the fire right from the hammock.  I used my new cord locks and setup was super fast and rock solid.  One thing I'll have to pay attention to next time is to remember that the bottom entry of the hammock needs to point at the foot end.  I had hung it reversed and had to switch it around.  Secondly, if possible look for a site with trees at the head, foot and both sides.  The trees to the left and right are nearly as important as the head and foot because you'll use those side trees to pull out the hammock sides and to tie out the rain tarp.  No trees on left or right means that the tarp would have to be staked to the ground and you'll seriously impede your view outside the hammock.  I'm not entirely comfortable with not being able to see outside from the hammock but maybe that just takes some getting used to.

Lesson #3 Learned: Pick a hammock site with trees at head, foot, left and right if at all possible.

After the hammock was up I knew my next priority was fire.  Thankfully, the lean to was chock full of firewood so hunting around for logs wasn't going to be a necessity.  After my hammock was setup, the wind starting picking up which means I was going to use a lot more firewood and that I'd have to be up every few hours to feed it.  But there was plenty in the lean to.  In retrospect I should have brought a bunch of it down by the fire, as it would have made it a bit easier on me during the night.

My fire starting skills need some serious refining as I couldn't make a fire as easily or as quickly as I wanted.  I was using dryer lint as tinder and although it started easily with the flint and steel, getting the small wood that I had gathered on the ground going was another story.  I was running out of daylight so my setup was rushed.  That definitely had something to do with my failure here.  Luckily I had three different ways to start fire with me or I would have had a super rough night.  Flint and steel will stay on the list.  I picked up a butane lighter in case the flint and steel wasn't working.  It's small and lightweight so I'll continue to pack that as well.  Since neither of those was going to get a fire going for me in short order, my alcohol stove came to the rescue.  I brought it along to play around with since I had just made it two weeks ago.  I had my MSR Pocket Rocket and Butane fuel with me for meal cooking so the alcohol stove wasn't a necessity and I knew I'd now have to sacrifice it in the middle of the fire.  No big deal.  I made it out of a cat food can and it's easy to replace.  It worked like a charm and inside of 5 minutes the fire was cranking.  Whew!

Lesson #4 Learned:  Practice, practice, practice your fire making skills and always bring a failsafe backup.

Once my fire was cranking my attitude really skyrocketed.  It was a little unnerving for me with not being able to start it as quickly as I hoped. And for me, the campfire makes the trip.  But all that aside it was now around 8:30PM and nightfall had hit.  Luckily I had a huge lunch so I wasn't even really that hungry but again, another lesson learned here about dinner when hitting the trail late.  I had brought along an uncooked yet thawed package of venison bacon cheeseburgers [about 1 pound] and I didn't have the will to cook it up.  At around 20 minutes to cook, 20 to eat and 20 for clean up I'd be looking at 9:30PM before I was done.  So, I bagged dinner, hung my food bag, prepped my hammock and fed the fire.  The lesson for next time is to have an easier yet satisfying meal on hand.  I've brought along freeze-dried meals before and was looking at them at the store the night before but decided against it since I wanted the venison cheeseburgers.  Well, here's some great things about freeze dried meals:  They're lightweight, only require boiling water, are ready in 10 minutes and have zero cleanup.  Next time, I'll be bringing one of those for sure.

Lesson #5 Learned:  Always bring a pre-prepared meal for dinner.  Preferably one that is freeze dried.

One quick note on hanging the food bag: At around 8:30PM it was pretty dark so finding the right tree with limited light was proving to be very difficult.  And I found myself wandering farther away from the site than I was comfortable with.  My head light is good but I was pushing it's limits in trying to find a good hanging tree.  I found one soon enough albeit a little closer to the camp than was probably good but with the limited light it would have to do.  Next time I'll want to eat much earlier and hang the food bag while its still light out.

Lesson #6 Learned:  Prepare the evening meal with enough daylight left to clean up and hang the food bag.

The hammock setup was perfect.  And I had brought along some extra paracord in case any of the hammock cord needed replacement.  The tarp that comes with the Hennessey Ultralight Backpacker is barely big enough to cover the hammock.  I can imagine that it would keep me dry in the case of a light to moderate spring rain.  But in a downpour I'm betting I would be wet [speculation here - maybe I'm wrong].  My extra paracord came in handy as I used it to run an extra long tie out for the tarp to keep it raised up high enough for me to view the fire.  Hey - one for the good guys!  I actually had a good thing happen.

After a few more hours in front of the fire the temp was dropping.  It wasn't dropping much, but with the added wind I knew it was going to be a cool night.  I wasn't feeling all cold since I had been sitting about 2 feet from the fire, but now that I was going to call it a night I wondered how the hammock setup would work.

I  had done a fair amount of research on keeping warm in a hammock and to be honest I was a little suspect of my setup but I was hoping for the best.  I perhaps overestimated how warm my +5 Degree Sleeping Bag was going to keep me.

First off, the Hennessey Ultralight is a single layer hammock which is not ideal for winter camping.  That's not to say when it's paired with the right support equipment it won't be effective, but the double layer style hammocks allow you to slip a mattress pad in between the layers.  That extra layer, I read, is a big necessity when winter camping.  Since I didn't have the double layer, I just put my Cabella's Instinct Mattress Pad under me and surprisingly it stayed in place while I was in there.  And maneuvering it around under me was also fairly simple.  I was thinking that this setup just might work.

The bottom entry of my Hennessey Hammock is a unique, kinda cool feature that took a little getting used to at first, but after a few times trying it out earlier, I got the hang of it.  I slipped into my sleeping bag first then entered the hammock.  I had already put my mattress pad in there and it was pretty simple getting situated. I didn't have a ground cover down which meant my sleeping bag was in direct contact with the ground and took on a little ground dirt and dampness from having to stand in it to get in/out of the hammock.  I'll have to noodle that around a bit for next time.  There's a lesson learned here but not a biggie.

Zipping the sleeping bag up all the way just was not happening easily.  My bag is a mummy style side zip and the zipper kept getting hung up as I tried to rip it all the way.  And as luck would have it, the wind was moving from left to right and my sleeping bag opening was on the left hand side.  Not good. A center zip style sleeping bag would have been easier for sure.

My hands and feet were immediately cold but after about 20 minutes, my hands felt a bunch better whereas my feet were chilled but not so bad I had to make an adjustment.  I wonder if skipping dinner had anything to do with my overall comfort being low here?  I've heard that food intake can help with keeping the body warm, especially on a cool night.  Next time I'll have something in my belly before hitting it for the night.

I found the hammock extremely comfortable.  Falling asleep in it was going to be a snap.  The cord stops worked perfectly and my tarp setup left me with a great view of the fire. I had a knit cap on my head and wool socks on my feet and I knew it was going to be a cool night.  I guess I had hoped that the sleeping bag would warm me up but after an hour it there wasn't a big change in my comfort level.  My suspicions about my set up were right.  It was not going to be warm enough to keep me comfortable.  I told myself that I was going to get through the night and chalk this one up to a good lesson in how not to do it...

I can't honestly say how much that I slept, only that I remember being awake, and cold, a lot.  I fed the fire at 1:30AM and decided that getting back in the hammock at that point just wasn't going to keep me warm.  I had read that it's the air space below the hammock that keeps it a challenge to stay warm.  I guess I hoped that the air mattress I put under me was going to isolate me from that cool breeze.  I'm sure it did to some extent but not at all to the point where I was comfortable.

I sat on my foam seat cushion next to the fire for an hour or so and did warm up reasonably and was thinking that the last solo trip out here that I took in December wasn't cold for me.  I had stayed in the lean to then so I decided to give that a go and pulled my mattress out of the hammock and moved my set up to the lean to.  I was up again at 3:30AM to feed the fire and hadn't felt like sleep had ever really set in.  This time the fire was down to just a few embers and it took me at least 30 minutes to get it raging again.  I crawled back inside the sleeping bag and got a few more hours of fitful sleep.

There are more alternatives out there to ensure a warmer night in a hammock.  I'll spend some more time researching them and add them before I venture out again with this system.  A few pieces I think are worth checking out - an under-quilt, a top quilt, and adding a second foam mattress layer underneath my air mattress.  A few more things to consider as well: Will a good meal before bed change my body temp??  I think so.  Last December's successful camp out might be proof of that.  Another method that I should have done in retrospect is filling my Nalgene with hot water and keeping it in my sleeping bag as I bed down for the night.  Madeline and I tried that a few weeks ago when when camped out in the backyard and it did make a big difference.

Lesson #7 Learned: Add one or more components to my winter hammock sleep system to keep me warm at night.

Around 8:00AM the campsite was well lit by the morning sun and the temp had come up a few degrees.  I decided to get up and get moving.  My MSR Pocket Rocket did a great job of boiling up some water but the Stanley Adventure Camp Cookset didn't fit well on the mini stove.  It barely fit, in fact and after it came to a boil it fell off the stove and spilled on the ground.  Fail.  I re-positioned it a bit, refilled and kept a closer eye this time.  Once I was up and moving and had a cup of coffee in me, my body temp rose and my hands and feet were no longer cold.

Breakfast was a great success too.  I premixed the dry ingredients for a pancake in a ziplock freezer bag and brought along an egg.  Once I had that all mixed up and my pan on the Pocket Rocket I was off and running.  I added a few tablespoons of olive oil to my MSR pan and noticed that the concentrated flame of the Pocket Rocket was going to burn my pancake unless I changed tactics.  So instead of leaving the pan on the flame, I held it about 1-2 inches above and kept moving it around in a circle so that the heat would  evenly cook my pancake.  One tip I heard from a co-worker was to pre-heat the pan before adding oil as this would make the pan surface as non-stick as it could be.  And he was right.  The pancake was fairly easy to flip and once it was done I added a few tablespoons of real maple syrup  Completely awesome!

Lesson #8 Learned: Even a tough night's sleep can be remedied with a great warm breakfast.

An hour more at the site to pack everything up and extinguish the fire was all I needed to get back on the trail.  By the time I reached my car, my mood was already better and I was ready to tackle the next trip.

As you too will find out, even bad experiences can be a good thing.  They teach us not that we're inept or incapable but rather inexperienced.  And I've learned 7 great lessons about my latest trip so that my next one will be even better.

If you've got any ideas for me on any of these lessons or have had similar experiences, I'd really love to hear about them.  I'm still hooked on this backpacking thing even when my experience this time didn't turn out all the greatest.  That's all part of the fun and the knowledge I've gained is worthwhile. Write me below or tune into my Facebook page here.  Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Why You Need A Compression Sack for Your Sleeping Bag

30 years ago as a Boy Scout I was taught that you roll the sleeping bag into a tight bundle then secure it with straps that were normally attached at the foot end.

Old School Sleeping Bag with Tie Straps
Sure, I had 'stuff sacks' back then that the bag was supposed to fit into, but the way we did it was to patiently and meticulously roll our sleeping bags tightly so that once all rolled up they would fit into the bag.  Seemed the right way to me.

Well, that was a long time ago and almost all of the new colder weather sleeping bags are overstuffed with either down or synthetics that are very reasonably lightweight but super bulky.  That additional air space that's created is on purpose because the increased volume has a lot to do with keeping us warm when we're inside.

Teton does a nice job explaining how to stuff their sleeping begins into compression sacks and also emphasizes that we should not store the sleeping bag in the sack over an extended time.

The compression sack does a great job at taking what would otherwise be an extremely bulky carry out to the camping site and compacts it into a size smaller than a basketball.  And no worries about damaging your sleeping bag because they bounce right back into shape after you pull them out.

You can stow your bag away in about 1 minute so packing up in the morning is incredibly fast and simple.  And because your sleeping bag takes up so little room, you've got plenty of space left in your pack for all the other backpacking essentials.


Thanks for watching and I'll see you on the trail!

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Saturday, March 19, 2016

So You Want to Be a Backpacker?

I have to admit, as of late, Backpacking Fever has hit me pretty hard.  I think its the adventure of it that has really got me addicted.  And to disconnect a little from the everyday super busy is clearly just what I needed.

But this isn't the first time I've experienced the outdoors.  Not by any stretch.  I grew up on an 86 acre working farm, am an Eagle Scout and served in the US Army for 8 years.  So, I'm no expert backpacker but I've certainly spent some time outdoors both when I wanted to and when I didn't.

This past November I just got the itch to get outside again after years of having zero interest and started getting very curious about backpacking.  I owned absolutely no backpacking gear and little to no knowledge of what to even equip myself with.  But, I did have a long time friend who was a backpacking pro and after a few trips out with him did I begin to realize how much of a pro he really is.

So, if you're thinking about trying out this backpacking thing, stick along with me as I blog about my success and failures.  I've been on four trips now and I've already learned a ton from my own experiences and what I've picked up on from a group of Backpacking buddies that have been so gracious as to let me in their group.  I'm no self proclaimed expert by any means but I firmly believe that you can learn from anyone and enjoy reading about their experiences.

I'll promise you this - I think you'll be amazed at how relaxing, fulfilling and peaceful a long hike and a night out in the woods can really be.  Add to that a great meal, a cold beer and a few friends and I'll bet you get hooked just like I did.  And if you research blogs like mine and others like me, you'll get all the pointers and inspiration you'll ever need to take on this sport.

If you're ready to dive in, read on.  Below I'll list what I think the bare necessities are.  Keep in mind that, generally speaking,  the more you spend, the more comfortable you'll be.  Just because you're disconnecting from the everyday grind doesn't mean you've got to be completely deprived of any and all comforts.  If that's your thing to go super minimalist then go for it, but having some of the most basic comforts will make your escape the most enjoyable.  Go for too minimal the first trip and you might not have as good a time as you could.

"Keep in mind that, generally speaking, the more you spend, the more comfortable you'll be..."

Here's what I started with: And for the record, when I get something into my head I normally go on a shopping spree with only minor regard for cost.  I wouldn't dump a paycheck on anything but my excitement begins to take over a bit and I tend to jump right in without completely dissecting all the information about a piece of equipment.  And that will be to your benefit since I'll share with you the outcome of the rash purchases I made.  Some have been good and some have been unnecessary.

1) A Backpack - It didn't take me long to realize that I could spend a small fortune on a backpack.  But this was a necessity.  I needed to bring stuff with me out on the trail and this was the best way to do it.  After an hour or so snooping around on REI.com and Campsaver.com I had a bit of sticker shock.  As a happily married man, I didn't want to spend $180+ and chance disapproval from the bride.  So, here's where I spent a bit of time looking at a number of sites for the best deal.  I ended up with a 35 Liter Teton Sports Canyon 2100 Backpack from SportsmansWarehouse.com. At $65 it seemed like a happy medium.  I didn't know the first thing about how big the pack was, if it would really fit my needs or my body.  All I liked about it was the price.  As I dive deeper into the sport, I've realized that price really has to be secondary.  That's not to say you can't find a great deal.  Great equipment can come at a smaller price tag.  You just need to weigh your needs and wants before you buy.  So far I've been extremely happy with the backpack I chose although I feel it's a little short for my torso.  But I've been able to cram everything I've bought so far into it so I'd give it high ratings.  **One thing that has been a bit of a pain is carrying full size 1 Liter Nalgenes in the side Mesh Cargo Pockets.  They barely fit and I feel they're always going to fall out.  Other than that this pack is an ace.

"As I dive deeper into the sport I've realized that price really has to be secondary..."

2) A Sleeping Bag - Ok...so now I was on to my second piece of equipment. Again it was becoming apparent that one could spend a small fortune here too.  That wasn't going to happen.  I decided to go frugal on many of my first purchases just to ease myself into this and to be sure it's something I would stick with.  So, since my first backpacking adventure was going to be in November in Upstate New York, I opted for a sleeping bag rated near zero.   It gets fairly cold up here and the last thing I want is to be shivering at night.  Zero fun.  I had already geared up with a Teton Backpack so I bought another of their products, this time the Teton Sports Tracker +5 degree Ultralight Sleeping Bag.  I've been out in nothing colder than 20 degrees so far but I've not been cold.  So it looks as if I've found myself another winner.

3) A Tent - This seemed like the obvious third choice but honestly to date I haven't even taken it out with me.  Unbelievable, I know.  But before you take me for some super hard core lay out on a bed of rocks with only a sleeping bag kinda guy I'll tell you that's not at all the case.  Instead what I have is a super smart and experienced buddy who knows how to backpack in style.  So - before you spend a dime on a tent, look for one of these - a lean to:

Before you invest in a tent, look around for a few of these.
Even with an overnight low of 20 degrees, I stayed super warm in my sleeping bag so no worries there.

4)  Water - I brought 2 Liters of Water with me on my first overnight and it was plenty for me.  I'm kind of a camel so you might need more. There's no need to invest in Nalgenes unless it's going to freeze overnight and your water will be exposed.  Just bring along a few Aquafina water bottles or the like.  It's better to bring the water bottles with the heavier duty caps and the thicker walls.  Some are super light duty and I don't trust the caps to stay on or the bottles to resist breaking, especially if they freeze overnight.

5) Fire - Here's a big one.  For me at least.  If you are the least bit apprehensive about spending the night outdoors relatively unprotected, fire brings about a great deal of comfort and security.  And some of my fondest memories as a Boy Scout are all around a campfire.  Fire brings warmth, comfort, security, and enjoyment.  You don't need to know how to make fire by friction when you venture out for the first time.  But, bring along two different forms of fire making tools and be sure you can successfully build one at home before going out.  Fire is a huge part of the experience for me and I doubt I'd have the same amount of enjoyment without it.  Maybe that's just my personal niche.  But whatever you do, be responsible and build your fire only where allowed and be sure it is dead out before you walk away.

6) Food - Personal preference here in terms of what you want to bring.  How far you are hiking and what the weather is will impact what kind and how much food to bring.  It's better to bring a little too much than to find yourself short and hungry.  The effort of hiking and in keeping your body warm at night will require some extra calories so plan ahead.  And it's always best to bring along food that can be eaten as-is.  If a rainstorm breaks out and you can't get a fire going you'll have to eat cold food.  It's best to bring along packaged granola bars and the like.  They make for great energy food and take zero time to prepare.

"The effort of hiking and in keeping your body warm at night will require some extra calories so plan ahead..."

7) Light - I'd recommend two sources of light on any overnight trip.  Flashlights and headlamps are lightweight and give off a great deal of light.  Keep both sources within immediate reach, especially after nightfall.  A fire will give off a certain amount of light but when you're needing to venture out to use the bathroom or looking for something in your pack, you'll want a better light source.

8) Knife - I don't always use a knife when I'm out backpacking but when you need one you'll wish you had it on you.  And I'm not talking self-defense here but rather a need to cut paracord or the like. I guess it's always good to have one on you although I don't use mine very often.  In any event, a knife doesn't weigh that much and it's never a bad idea to carry one on the trail.

9) First Aid Kit - You don't have to get anything too extravagant here.  Some Neosporin, a few band aids, some aspirin and the like.  Naturally, if you've got other conditions [bee sting allergies, etc] then bring along the essentials for those.

So there you have it, the bare essentials for your first overnight backpacking adventure.  Make your first venture out a short one just to get the feel of it.  My first trip to one of the nearby lean to's was about 1-1/2 miles and that distance was perfect.  I spent the majority of my time at the camp site getting my fire going and preparing a great meal.

See you on the trail!