Friday, September 30, 2011

The Best Form of Flattery

Imitation is the best form of flattery as they say, and I was definitely flattered when fellow blogger JJ Mathis from JERMM'S Outside contacted me recently inquiring about the little titanium solid fuel stove in my Trail Cooking with Minimal Fuel post. I gave her a tip or two, told her where I had purchased the titanium, and a couple of weeks later she sent me a photo of her version of the stove (featured below).
I had been using a Trail Designs Gram Cracker solid fuel stove for a long time with very good results. Their three piece design utilizes a main body with removable wings that stick up to hold the fuel cube. The reason for the removable wings is so you can place them low for one cube, or high for two cubes stacked on top of each other. Since I never use more than one fuel cube at a time, even when cooking for two people, the removable wings only added complexity for me. The one thing that has always bugged me about the design is the fact that the residue from the Esbit runs down into the slot that the wings fit into, creating a little extra work to scrape it off or the wings start to not fit right. Since I'm always tinkering with making my own gear, I set out to make my own one piece version of the stove, and have been using it for about a year now. JJ Mathis saw it in the post I mentioned above, has since published a great MYOG post showing exactly how she made her own, and dammit if she didn't do a better job than me! ;-)
You can check out her MYOG Solid Fuel Stove post for yourself. Nice job JJ!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Make Your Own Cuben Fiber Backpack!

Warning: Making your own gear can be addictive!

If you've been thinking about making some of your own backpacking gear, I say go for it. All you need are some basic tools (i.e. an inexpensive sewing machine and fabric cutting tools) and lots of motivation. When I started making my own gear, I had never used a sewing machine before. I started with silnylon seconds, a reasonably affordable trail worthy fabric, which was a good choice because I made lots of mistakes teaching myself how to design and sew durable outdoor gear.

The first thing you need is a solid plan. The pack shown here is one I recently made for my son to use on our JMT hike. It's basically the same pack I made for myself over a year ago, with some minor refinements. My goal for this pack, the J3Plus! (ingenious name huh?...John pack, third generation, Plus meaning just a smidge bigger than the original J3) was to make the pack out of just one linear yard of some very expensive 1.43 ounce (per square yard) Cuben Fiber I purchased from The diagram below shows how I cut out all the cuben pieces with almost zero waste. You will note that that hip belt doesn't come out of this piece, as my original pack I didn't require one. Like most people, my son likes to use a hip belt, so I bought an additional 1/4 yard of material to make it for him.

Lots of other parts and pieces too...reinforcement patches, shock cord, webbing, grosgrain, mesh...

After cutting out the main pieces, I work on the subassemblies, meaning all the parts that will attach to the main body of the pack. First the shoulder straps. The shape is angled at the top where it attaches to the pack body, allowing the straps to be slanted to match your shoulders. At the bottom, they taper in on the sides.

Opening the shoulder straps, I fold the top and bottom edges for a nice clean seamed edge. Notice the top fold is much larger...this is so the material is double thick where it gets sewn to the pack body.

Then folding it inside out, I sew the side seam, leaving the top and bottom open for now.

Now turning it right side out, I sew the 1/2" webbing onto the bottom that will attach to the ladder lock, making the length adjustable. I put the singed edge of the webbing in between the outside layers so it can't rub you wrong anywhere. This is one of those refinements I have made over time. The x-box stitch (not to be confused with a Wii stitch), is a very strong one for an application like this.

Then I trace the outline of the strap onto a piece of 3/8" closed cell foam padding (from Gossamer Gear of course...only the best for my packs!), and cut it out. Baby powder is your friend...coat the foam and it will make slipping it into the strap much easier. It smells nice too!

After inserting the padding, I sew some very lightweight 1/2" grosgrain (thinner and lighter than the webbing at the bottom), to make a daisy chain so I have the option to attach things to the shoulder straps. For this I use a series of bar tack stitches.

The completed straps are set aside for now, the tops still open.

The padded hip belt is made similar to the shoulder strap, tapered slightly down on top, and rounded with the stitch closing in three sides.

Turning it right side out, I cut and insert the foam similar to the shoulder straps, this time 1/4" thick padding. The 1/2" ladder lock is attached for the shoulder straps, an upside down design as compared to most packs (Jardine style...keeping any extra strap material out of your arm pits). A quick release buckle is attached with 3/4" webbing to secure the hip belt, and I place the plastic buckle on the side for comfort.

Onto the side pockets. I use the Cuben material for the sides, and some mesh material for the bottom so any rain can run right out.

Sewing the rectangular mesh onto the bottom is a bit tricky, and patience is a virtue!

The top of the side pocket gets some elastic sewn into the top seam to gather the material, keeping the contents nice and snug.

And the completed pocket, angled to be lower in the front so it's easier to reach into without removing your pack.

Now that all of the subassemblies are complete, I move onto the main pack body. The top closure is just like a stuff sack, and it requires a draw cord channel. At each end I fold an angle...

Then I sew them so they stay put.

Fold the top down twice, first 1/4", then 1/2", and make a nice long stitch along the bottom.

The completed draw cord channel, a beautiful thing.

On my first packs I measured and marked directly on the pack where all of the pieces would be attached. Then later I got smart and used a large piece of construction paper to make a full size template.

I tape the pack body in place over the template...

...and because I can see through the material I am able to easily mark all of the places I will attach things to.

Everywhere there is a stress point, top corners of pockets, tie out points, shoulder straps, hip belts, etc, get reinforcement patches sewn to the inside of the pack body.

Lots and lots of reinforcement patches!

Since I add a lot of tie out points, I've found an easy stitch to use. You basically use a tight zig zag stitch, (not quite a bar tack stitch), and sew forward, then backwards at an angle, and forward again. That way you don't have to turn the material as much, and I've found this to be very strong.

All of the tie out points are complete.

Now I attach the hip belts using a zig zag box stitch, then I attach the side pockets, overlapping the hip belts.

The rear pockets are all mesh, and they overlap the side pockets for a nice clean finish.

I love my dual rear pocket design because it makes it easy to keep things organized.

Next it's time to close up the pack body. With the pack inside out, make a stitch down the side leaving a 1/2" seam allowance. I use a felled seam for the main closure because it's quite strong. Simply "fell" the end over and sew right through it, attaching it to the pack body.

For the bottom, I fold it over then use a zig zag stitch.

In order to make the bottom of the pack rectangular, I sew the ends, cut off the excess, and do one more stitch.

Finally I attach the shoulder straps. I originally used an x-box stitch, but I found that because the cuben material really doesn't have any give to it, the threads started to rip in this very high stress area. I have since gone to a zig zag x-box stitch and have had no more problems, but I am currently testing some stronger thread. Logically, the more holes in the fabric, the weaker it is, so I want to use less zig zag stitches if possible, making it just that much more durable.

Add the draw cord and some shock cord, and the pack is complete.

Now get out and use it! FYI this pack is 3,035 cubic inches including the outside pockets, and weighs 6.30 ounces including the sternum strap. Since my son opted not to use the sternum strap, his pack weighs just 5.95 ounces. Not bad for a good size pack worthy of a thru hike!

Now that I've given you enough to get started, not exactly step by step instructions, but enough...GO MAKE YOUR OWN GEAR!!!

Oh yeah, the fourth generation version of this pack is already in the works. For the new version...contoured shoulder straps, a different top closure, and if all goes well, it will be completely waterproof and still weigh under 8 ounces!

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Lacing Tips

If your shoes aren't fitting quite right, don't throw them out just yet. The solution may be as simple as changing the way you lace your shoes. Here are a couple of techniques that have worked for me.

Sore Toes?

Your laces just might be making your toe box too tight. I have one of those pinky toes that tends to ride kind of sideways underneath the adjacent toe, creating the perfect place for a blister to form. I'm sure it's from years of jamming my feet into shoes that aren't wide enough for my feet. If you like your shoes to fit snug everywhere but in the toe box, try this....

You can lock in the tension of your toe box by pulling the lace through the hole, then going around the lace and through the same hole again. Then lace the remaining holes like you normally would. Now when you pull your laces tight, your toe box won't tighten up. In the photo below, the shoe on the left is locked in on the third hole up, the one on the right on the second. Play around with different settings to find what feels best for your feet.

Sore Spot?

Many long distance hikers have been known to hack out part of their shoe in a desperate attempt to relieve their pain. Before you go to this extreme, simply try lacing straight down over the sore spot as shown below. This will reduce the pressure in that area, and hopefully eliminate your pain.

Happy feet are essential to a good hike. If there's a spot on your foot that doesn't feel right, stop immediately and address it or it will just get worse. Preventing foot problems is much easier than dealing with painful blisters or injuries!

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Trail Cooking with Minimal Fuel

The lightest cooking fuel adds nothing to your pack weight - that is, if you don't mind gathering fire wood, making a cook fire, and tending to it while cooking your meal. But...if you're lazy like me, or you just hike until you're tired and hungry (OK that sounds more like me!), there's a good chance you prefer a simpler approach.
My backcountry cooking style is almost as simple as "set it and forget it", and I am still able to achieve an extremely lightweight kitchen. Freezer bag cooking (or FBC) is popular among backpackers because it's so easy. You simply carry your meal sized portions of dehydrated food inside quart freezer bags, pour boiling water right into the freezer bag, stir, seal, and insulate with a cozy. Then you wait for around 10 minutes and dinner is ready. But I have a way that is just as simple and uses a fraction of the fuel (not to mention the weight of all the freezer bags and the cozy!)...
Pour your dehydrated meal right into your cook pot. In this example, it's black bean soup, instant white rice, and some Delight Sauce. Add enough water to cover your meal by about half an inch, then set aside.
The lightest, most efficient fuel I've found is Esbit. I made my own titanium version of Trail Design's Gram Cracker Esbit stove. Their little 0.10oz stove is great, but since the Esbit fuel turns to liquid while burning, it runs down and fills the deep grooves with fuel which becomes solid when it cools. This creates additional work for you to scrape off the residue before you can disassemble and store the stove. My one piece design eliminates the grooves and almost never needs cleaning. I store it in a tiny MYOG cuben fiber sack to keep the dirty little stove away from everything else in my kitchen.
Esbit can be a little difficult to light, but there are tricks to making it easier. A few drops of denatured alcohol lights it very quickly, but if you're using Esbit, you're probably not carrying alcohol. I've even tried alcohol hand sanitizer, which works OK, but I don't tend to carry it either. My favorite method is to take my tiny pocket knife and scrape a small groove into the top of the cube at one end, creating a small pile of powder on the top. This Esbit powder ends up being relatively easy to light with your mini bic.
By now your meal has already begun rehydrating and it's time to get it cooking...
Bring it to just a boil, stir, cover, and blow out the flame. Let it stand for about 5 minutes to finish "cooking". As compared to bringing water to a rolling boil (for FBC cooking), this method takes about half the time, which of course uses less fuel.
After cooking a dinner for two, I typically end up with around half of my Esbit fuel cube left. My experience is we use less than one Esbit fuel cube (0.5oz) per day for two people, making a hot breakfast and dinner each day. This is about as close as you can get to carrying no fuel with the added bonus of not having to tend to a wood fire the entire time you are preparing your meal.
My Trail Designs 1.3 liter Sidewinder Ti-Tri stove leaves me the option to use it as a wood burning stove, which I have as a backup to Esbit. That way I don't need to carry any extra "just in case" fuel.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

John Muir Trail (Trip Report)

This hike has been a work in progress for the past year. In 2010 we did a 112 mile hike in California on the PCT section-A in the spring, then another beautiful 55 miles in Oregon from MT. Hood to Cascade Locks in late summer. The "Big One" for 2011 would be the entire 212 mile John Muir Trail.
It turns out getting a backcountry permit in Yosemite National Park and surround areas is much like winning the California Lottery. We felt lucky when we managed to get a thru-hike permit starting at Tuolumne Meadows, which is at mile 24 of the JMT, so we would be skipping the Yosemite Valley portion.
The initial plan was for 6 of us to do the entire thru hike, and another 2 to join us on the first 36 miles until we got to Mammoth Lakes. Record snow levels, along with other life commitments, reduced the number of thru-hikers to 3. It would have been nice if the entire group could have made it, but truthfully I would go it alone and still love it.
Day one was planned to be a very easy one starting around noon with just 10 total miles and very little elevation gain. Beautiful meadows, a meandering stream, and some good fishing was a great way to start an epic adventure.
After a short steep climb up to Lyell Forks, we enjoyed a pristine campsite next to a roaring stream, but the mosquitos had us in bed early.
Day two - We got on the trail around 8:00am, then headed to our first big climb up Donahue Pass. A small alpine lake with a wet crossing was a chilly wake up call, and wet feet would be unavoidable for the next few hours.
Merino Wool socks kept our wet feet warm along the flooded, steep trail. Looking back down on the valley we just ascended was a nice prize.
As we worked our way up, the high valley was filled with lots of snow, and we wondered how difficult the pass would be.
We kept losing the trail under several feet of snow, but it wasn't very hard stay on course with a good map. This was just part of the adventure which made it fun!
The final climb was obvious as we followed the tracks of previous hikers up the steep slope to the pass.
Marmots guarded the high passes on small granite islands, and they were anything but shy.
The south side of Donahue Pass was covered with way more snow than we expected, which made the descent challenging.
It was a bit slippery on the way down as JP demonstrates. "Wait, I've gotta get a picture of that" says dad.
Postcard style views to the south showed us snowy climbs we would be making in the days to come.
Thank goodness for this bridge or we might have gotten our feet wet. Oh, wait...our feet have been wet for hours!
We took a break, ate our trail pizzas while drying our feet in the sun, and waited for our partner Thumper to catch up.
Here's Thumper crossing another bridge a few miles down the trail.
We pushed up Island Pass, which didn't turn out to be much of a pass at all. Then we were treated once again to two wonderful little alpine lakes. It's so amazing up here you almost start to take it for granted unless you slow down and take it all in. No wonder John Muir spent so much time wandering in these mountains!
As we headed down the other side of the pass, Thousand Island Lake came into view...spectacular!
The JMT and PCT split into two trails at T.I. Lake and the day was starting to get late. We hadn't made many miles yet, so we pushed on past several other amazing lakes and set up camp right before the bridge at Garnet Lake. A measly 12 point something miles for the day, but a very tough 12 miles!
Day three, we decide to get an early start. The sun rise over Garnet Lake cannot be described accurately by words or even by this just have to experience it.
JP is wondering what he's got himself into, as I will find out later.
On the trail by 7:00am, we headed around the lake and had an icy climb up and out of the valley, only to be treated...once a wonderful spot for our first break!
We cruised by more lakes (yes there are lakes everywhere!), and had a heart pumping climb up to Rosalie Lake. Thumper was having a hard time with altitude sickness, but he had already decided he was going to get off the trail, so he pushed on like a champ. We had an easy time clicking off the miles on our descent to Johnston Meadow, and enjoyed the enormous trees towering over the thickly forested low lands.
The JMT and the PCT joined up again, and we took the alternate route through Devils Postpile towards Reds Meadow, where we would get off trail for the night after about 14 miles and meet up with my wife and her cousin at Mammoth Lakes.
Nature does some crazy things, huh? If you're ever in the area, I highly recommend you take the time to see Devils Postpile for yourself. It looks man made, but it's not. The photo below is of the top of the area in the photo above. Crazy!
Day four - After showers and a great big steak dinner last night, I decided to let JP sleep in. 15 year olds have their priorities, and I can respect that. Just the two of us now, we had breakfast back at Reds Meadow Resort with some other hikers and hit the trail by 10:30am. This old burn area runs through the Ansel Adams Wilderness...maybe a b&w photo would be more appropriate?
The stream crossing at Duck Pass was the deepest yet, but it wasn't bad at all.
Maybe you can tell me what kind of bird this is. As I walked up the trail I spotted it and slowed our pace. It looked like one of those big birds that you see on National Geographic where they leave the nest, but don't quite know how to fly yet. I'm sure it's soaring high above the mountains by now.
We got to Purple Lake about 6:30pm, and were in bed by 8:00pm after a big dinner. We ended up doing 14 miles for the day, which wasn't bad after a late start. This place will wear you out, that's for sure!
Day five - You sleep so well after hiking all day, even on a 1/4" thick closed cell foam pad! We hit the trail just after 7:00am, and had a good climb up and over the mountain and back down to Lake Virginia. What a perfect time of day with the sun rising!
An easy descent, we headed towards Fish Creek. The Mosquitos were out in force!
The creek was raging at the bridge crossing.
Then we began the climb towards Silver Pass, just under two thousand feet higher.
Chief Lake was mostly frozen and covered with snow. have to be there to really understand it...amazing!
The final push was all snow and quite steep, but the snow was soft enough that we were able to kick our feet in and didn't slide back down too much. The fields of sun cups made for some slow going.
Heading down from the pass, Silver Pass Creek meandered through a meadow before abruptly falling off a granite ledge. We didn't find a safe way to keep our feet dry, so we walked right through the flooded trail as we had done time and again.
The beautiful waterfall was well worth the wet feet! We made it 15 miles to Lake Edison Trail, the get-off to Vermillion Valley Resort, a favorite of many thru-hikers. We made camp by the river and enjoyed a quiet early night.
Day six- We started with a couple thousand foot climb, and then back down to a beautiful meadow. There are things that grow up here that you won't see anywhere else.
We passed Bear Creek and crossed some of the highest running river fords yet, but again they weren't anything like the reports that were coming back from a month earlier. I'm not sure which I like better...the alpine meadows, lakes, or passes. Luckily I didn't have to chose!
Hmmm...I'm not exactly sure what this sign means. What are they rotating?
A steady climb to Marie Lake got us within a mile of 12,000 foot Seldon Pass..
Near the top of the pass, we stopped to pose for this photo, but it doesn't do a great job of showing how hot and sweaty we were! Just after this shot, on a break on the down side, JP finally broke it to me...he wanted to get off the trail. No, neither of us were injured, although we were understandably a bit sore. Still, nothing a little vitamin-I couldn't cure. But he was realizing we were not quite half way through our journey and he had run out of motivation. You take a 15 year old who enjoys hiking, has done plenty of 1 and 2 night backpacking trips, and put him out on a 200 mile, 2 week trip, and what do you expect?
I got it, was disappointed of course that we wouldn't complete the trail this trip, but was proud of my son for his accomplishment. This was after all, my thing, not his. We had a good father-son "life lessons" talk, then he started pushing the old man to do more miles because he wanted to get off the trail and back to his world ASAP. I was up for the challenge so we hiked on and made it to Muir Trail Ranch by around 6:30pm, a 12 hour and 21 mile day.

Day seven - we picked up our resupply at MTR, and gave most of it away to friends we had made along the trail since we would have no more than a day or two left on the trail. We decided to get off the trail via Piute Pass, which would take us from the west side of the Sierras all the way up and over to the east side.
The trail started out hard, probably the most difficult yet, and I was struggling, so it was slow going. We didn't think we would make it out until the next day at that pace. As was the rest of the trip, the scenery was amazing, but the fierce Mosquitos were determined not to let us stop and enjoy it. I snuck this photo any way, then quickly got back to walking so they wouldn't swarm us.
The day started out very hot, then some clouds moved in and gave us some welcomed relief. The clouds filled in and turned dark and we were treated to a wonderful mountain thunder storm! Rain and hail kept us cool and moving. As the day went on I felt better and better, and we finally realized we hadn't stopped for a break for 4 or 5 hours...first because of the Mosquitos and then because of the storm. We were able to continue up and over Piute Pass through the storm because there was no lightening around.
We made it to the trailhead by around 6:00pm, another 20+ mile day, but we weren't done. You see, we were about 20 miles from the nearest town, Bishop, CA. We could have made camp by the stream, but JP was determined to be clean and in a bed. So what's a dad to do in this situation? You got it, teach your son how to hitch hike. After a couple more hours and three different rides, we made it all the way to town and to a motel. We cleaned up, hit a Mexican restaurant before it closed, and then had a great nights sleep in a bed! Juggy picked us up the next morning after we slept in, then we headed home after a big lunch.


Thank you to my son

JP, I didn't talk you into doing this, and when you decided to join me I was thrilled beyond my ability to express to you. I'm sure you had second thoughts, and I'm glad you didn't back out. We didn't finish what we set out to do, but it was anything but a failure. Right now you might not think so, but the High Sierras will call you back again some day. It's inside of you now, forever. I will cherish the time we spent in that wonderful place for the rest of my life. (What an unbelievable experience to share with your son, I highly recommend it!)

The Sierras will humble you!

OK, this was not a normal year in the High Sierras due to record snow fall, which created many tiring snow obstacles to climb over, along with tons of flooded trails which made it nearly impossible to keep your feet dry. But all that aside, it is still way more difficult than you might think up there. I trained here locally in Las Vegas and did different routes on our most difficult local trails to 11,918 foot Charleston Peak. The trailheads here start out at around 7,600 feet, making the hike around 4,300 feet up and back down in 16-20 miles. While these mileages are similar to the Sierras, and I did this many times in the weeks leading up to the hike, it wasn't the same. It just seemed like I had a hard time getting into a rhythm in the Sierras. My normal average of 2 MPH (including all breaks...i.e. 10 hours = 20 miles) was more like 1.5 MPH. That's a huge difference and quite humbling. And it makes me want more!

Where were all my UltraLight counterparts?

Really, I don't think I saw any backpacks (except a few day packs) that were anywhere near the size of JP's and mine. Some people were just in disbelief that we were hiking so far with such little packs, we were accused of not carrying bear canisters (we did), and one woman even slapped her husband when I told her how much my pack weighed (that one I won't soon forget). You don't have to be so uncomfortable on the trail, and I can assure you were were totally comfortable and full of hot nutritious food off the trail.

Pack Envy!

JP says I'm understating when I say, at least 50% of the people we met asked about our backpacks. For those who didn't know what Cuben Fiber was, I explained it, but when I told them I made the packs myself, they were floored. There was a little buzz in our tiny transient community, which made my head swell (don't worry, I cooled it off in an alpine lake). And there seems to be a market for very simple lightweight packs, so maybe I will break down and offer them up for sale some day.

What I would do differently

The plan to hike 200 mikes in 14 days seemed like there would be plenty of extra time. I mean, an average of 14 miles per day has been quite easy before...1 day you do 20 and the next you only have to do 8 to keep up with the average. There were several factors during our trip that slowed us down, so maybe during a "normal" year this plan would be OK. But the beauty and serenity is so unparalleled, I would just like to slow the whole thing down next time. It felt a little too hurried this time and when I was in a place that was unbelievable, I felt compelled to keep moving. That's not what the Sierras are about. So take a lesson from John Muir, and go as slow as you can so you don't miss a thing!

Oh yes, there will definitely be a next time!