November in Montana is exciting because of the promise of snow.
Before November, you have to go to high elevations to find snow, like in this photo, which is my camp in Maloney Basin in the Anaconda-Pintlar Wilderness with the Ultralight Backpacking Boot Camp on the night of November 1, 2012.
The promise of snow has me excited more this year than in years past, because of a number of projects I want to work on, like:
Camping with a flat, Cuben Fiber tarp in winter.
Catching trout on a Tenkara rod when ice is floating down the river.
Testing the new Alpacka Dry Suit in a packraft while dodging icebergs in the whitewater of the Gallatin River’s Mad Mile.
Hiking in Kahtoola Microspikes on steep, icy trails.
Introducing my son to backcountry skiing in remote couloirs.
Firebuilding in awful conditions.
You see, for me, winter doesn’t mean putting gear a way, it just means changing gears.
A lot of people have anxiety over cold temperatures and snow, but I really like the beauty that winter brings. I want to share that beauty, and help you enjoy winter, too. That’s why I’m making some intentional efforts to bring solid winter backcountry education to the members of BPL this year. We have cool stuff coming about nordic skiing, base layer technologies, winter shelters, traction devices, and gear made with goose feathers.
Here’s a sneak peak at one of my favorite skunkworks projects this winter: a 12 oz down parka shelled with breathable Cuben Fiber. (Yes, it’s rather warm, and not 3-season-ish at all):
I just returned from two trips in the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness with Stephanie. Chase was attending a leadership camp at Camp Arcola in the Seymour Creek drainage, so we took the opportunity to do some location scouting and exploring of the A-P.
Here’s a Flickr slideshow showing a few of the pretty spots we visited:
View a Slideshow of the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness
For kicks, here’s what I’m using currently for photo/video —
Camera: Sony NEX-7
Lenses: Sony 16/2.8, Sigma 30/2.8, Sony 50/1.8, Leica 90/2.8 (with adapter)
Tripod: Gitzo GT0541 + Really Right Stuff BH-25 Ballhead. I tote along a Gitzo G2180 if I need fluid panning, but it usually stays in the truck. I’m also playing with a Red Rock Micro Running Man (Nano) rig, which I really like, and am shaving grams from, by using carbon rods and such. I’m in the process of building a follow focus for it suitable for the tiny lenses of the NEX-7, which are hard to rack by hand.
Compared to the Nikon D7000, the NEX-7 setup offers video and photos that are as good, for less weight and a lot less bulk. I’m carrying the entire setup (sans tripod) in a Simms Waist Dry Pack (usually worn at my front, slung over the shoulder straps of my pack for support), with a foam insert for protection. I throw in a polarizing filter and ND8 for each lens size as well, along with some cleaning supplies.
The NEX-7 is a bit of a compromise for an “outdoor camera”. Sure, it’s smaller and lighter (and the lenses are much smaller and lighter) than my old D7000 rig, but lack of weather protection continues to rear its ugly head, and I’m on my second body. In addition, serious overheating problems in direct summer sun prevent more than a few minutes of video at a time. Outdoor videography in hostile environs requires a more robust camera. The NEX-7 is not it. I’m crossing my fingers for Panasonic to deliver the rumored weatherproof GH3, but I’m not a huge fan of MFT for stills, so we’ll see. I haven’t sold my D7000 yet…and I may just go back to it.
Eric Ries coined the term “lean startup” in the context of entrepreneurship, but most folks think it’s about running a business with as little overhead as possible.
Nothing could be further from the truth, or more damaging to the entrepreneur that is assuming that zero overhead is the key to success.
It’s not in business, and it’s not in backpacking. We’ll get to trekking in a minute.
One of Eric’s great philosophies is that of doing rather than just planning.
At some point, you have to get to market with a product that doesn’t have to be perfect, because your customers may hate it anyways.
And, at some point, you have to take a walk.
The amount of time people spend spreadsheeting, buying gear, testing gear, returning gear, weighing gear, cutting tags off of gear, weighing gear again, finding the right stuff sacks for the gear, packing their gear, unpacking their gear, repacking their gear, and then repeating this whole process in preparation for a walk borders on insanity.
“But this is my thru-hike!”
“But I’m going to Alaska!”
Yeah, I know. Been there. I get it.
But at some point you have to be honest with yourself.
Maybe it’s a waste of time?
When I packed for a recent traverse across the Beartooths, I ordered a pack from Joe which arrived a few days before I left and thought, “huh, let’s give it a shot”. Then, without a spreadsheet, or plan, or a pack load test, or the right stuff sacks, I went through the shed and pulled out a bunch of gear I hadn’t used in a while, threw in a firestarting kit and a pot, and called it good.
Ten days later, after a snowy and wet August trek, I ended my hike remarkably happy.
Now, I have to admit – I wouldn’t take that exact kit again – I made notes and modifications and remembered the pain caused by some of the items – and made sure my next kit was much better optimized for the foul conditions of high mountains.
This is what Eric calls a “pivot”: act, assess, change, go. The pivot is the change-go piece.
Analytical backpackers might do better to spreadsheet less, walk more, and pivot.
Spreadsheeting is interesting, pivoting means you have some amount of intelligence, but trust me when I tell ya: walking is where it’s at.
Here’s my list of best pivots from 2011:
Closing the backpackinglight.com gear shop. This pivot left me facing our membership community again. What a joy! Working on new products for them behind the scenes has interjected new excitement into my daily work.
Working from a home office again. I love my view of the Bridger Mountains from my house, the smell of hot chili cooking in the slow cooker, the sound of Stephanie coaching the dog, and the scratching of Chase’s pencil as he does his homework.
Watching fewer fiction movies and more documentaries about social and environmental activism, humanitarian projects, etc. I like the feeling of being more connected to the planet.
Packing for all of my trips this year using a paper, rather than an electronic, gear list.
Everyone has different objectives when they visit a Wild Place.
Some go to escape, some go to return, some go to get exercise, some go to fish or photograph or climb or rest, and some go to play with gear.
I love playing with gear at home, in my backyard. I loathe having to mess with it when I’m in a Wild Place.
For me, visiting a Wild Place is about rest, recovery, detox, and the experience that is being delivered by the environment.
In almost every case, I don’t want my gear getting in the way.
When I am seeking an experience free from the clutter of fiddling with gear, I tend to lean towards gear that is simple to use, at the expense of adding a few ounces.
— Packs —
Carrying even 20 pounds of weight in a frameless pack gets old quick. My tolerance for bad pack design is extremely low, and while carrying heavier loads in frameless packs doesn’t hurt me, knowing that the pack is failing to function the way it’s supposed to is a nagging irritation. Maybe it’s my personality type (I’m a strong Myers-Briggs “J”), maybe it’s my engineering background, or maybe it’s a belief that most cottage packs seem rather carelessly designed.
Often, my trips involve carrying packrafting gear, fly fishing gear, photo/video gear, or climbing gear. As such, I prefer a more carefully designed pack that can distribute the load effectively while fitting properly, and maintaining the load mobility that I value in a frameless design.
However, there is something about carrying all that is required for survival and comfort in a tiny homemade sack slung over your shoulder like Huck Finn might have done. The simple benefits of this style are psychological, rather than practical, but still very real.
— Stoves —
There is no shortage of both homemade and commercially available solid fuel and alcohol stove systems that perform inefficiently, slowly, and with more complication than necessary.
These shortcomings are magnified in bad weather, especially wind.
When I want stove simplicity, I simply want a stove that works, boils fast, consumes miniscule amounts of fuel, and is simple to setup and put away, and can be used inattentively. I’m thus a huge fan of the Jetboil SOL Ti, which meets all of these criteria.
My other favorite way to cook is over fire – either over a wood stove, or over the fire directly. The Bushbuddy Ultra and the Backcountry Boiler are probably the only two wood burning stoves on the planet engineered with both performance and simplicity in mind.
— Mess Kits —
Ultralighters (including me) can get pretty fanatical about making sure their gear serves multiple uses. One classic example is the magic little titanium mug that serves as a cook pot, eating bowl, and drinking mug. I’m not convinced, however, that this is necessarily the simplest system for a mess/cook kit. My idea of simple(r) is being able to cook a volume of water in my pot (enough for a meal and a drink) and then distribute that hot water into a cozy-wrapped bowl to dehydrate dry food, and a small mug for drinking. If I’m really trying to save weight, the mug is the first to go, because I know I can always drink out of my pot.
The following video shows one example of a simple cooking system that can be adapted to both group and solo travel.
I can’t recommend enough the need for an eating vessel with no less than 3 cups of capacity for expedition use. Most ultralighter’s skimp on the volume of their eating bowl, and the result is food being spilled, small meals, and failure to adequately rehydrate them.
— Simple Fishing —
The day I discovered tenkara gear and fishing was the day I knew that for me at least, fly fishing would be changed forever. I’ve never, ever had that experience so fast with any other piece of gear.
Eliminating the reel and fly line means eliminating all that is expensive, complicated, and unnecessary for backcountry fly fishing, and stripping both the gear, and experience down to its essential components and actions.
— Shelters —
There is no shelter that is faster, or easier, to setup than a pyramid tarp. It offers full perimeter protection in stormy conditions and a space-to-weight ratio that makes spreading out, drying, and organizing gear more pleasant than when cramped into a tiny tent.
I believe that the pyramid is the most versatile of all types of ultralight shelters.
That said, there is an element of psychological simplicity in using a small, and simple, tarp – an element of simplicity that should not be understated, or undervalued.
There is something about sleeping under an open tarp that is immensely satisfying. Maybe it’s the views. Maybe it’s the exposure. Maybe it’s the risk of knowing that if mother nature breaks loose, you could be in a bit of trouble.
Maybe it’s just knowing that you have replaced your multi-tens-(or hundreds)-of-thousands-of-dollars-home with something that weighs half a pound.
— Two Types of Simplicity —
And so, there is more than one type of simplicity. I classify the two major types as “practical simplicity” and “natural simplicity”.
Pracitical simplicity is that type of simplicity where I crave not having to fool around with anything, and where everything is just plain easy and effective. Practical simplicity is all about the gear.
Practical simplicity is embodied by my internal frame pack, my gas stove, my tenkara rod, and my pyramid tarp.
And then there is natural simplicity – that type of simplicity where the process brings you more in touch with the natural world, thus becoming less about the gear and more about the experience. Natural simplicity has a strong aesthetic component.
Natural simplicity is embodied by sleeping under a tarp (not the tarp itself), and cooking on a wood stove (not the stove itself), and the tenkara style of fishing (not the rod itself).
— Blending Natural and Practical Simplicity —
Gear that is practically simple that also allows for natural simplicity to be realized is extremely rare.
For example, the tenkara rod embodies both practical and natural simplicity in a way that no other piece of backcountry gear can accomplish, and that’s why I think it’s truly a “home run” piece of gear, and perhaps the most extraordinary advance in backcountry gear in the past decade.
My second place vote would be Devin Montgomery’s Backcountry Boiler – a wood burning stove that turns a pint of cold water into boiled madness in a few minutes using grass, or pine needles, or your trash as fuel.
For gear to be heralded as having both practical and natural simplicity, it must:
1. Be light in weight;
2. Be efficient in performance;
3. Be easy to use;
4. Offer tactile benefits during use; and
5. Increase your connection to the natural environment.
6. Have a design that reflects aesthetic simplicity.
— A Call to the Cottage Industry —
Mass market manufacturers are incapable of designing and marketing gear that blends both practical and natural simplicity because the concept is too hard to educate people about. You simply cannot appreciate the value of it, until you (a) experience it; (b) practice it; and (c) refine it. Mass manufacturers don’t have the time. The sales season is only a few months long, after all – and with the need to make sure they are addressing the latest trends in colors and fabrics and features – who has time to educate consumers – or allow them to experience the benefits of simplicity?
And so, as usual, it seems like it’s up to the cottage industry.
That’s not a bad thing.
Except that few of them seem to be pursuing it.
Tenkara USA and Boilerwerks are hitting home runs, but are exceptions – companies that have extreme hyperfocus on what they are creating. The rest of the cottage industry seems to be limping along doing the same old things – that is – trying to be like mass manufacturers, or otherwise trying to compete on the basis of selling features rather than design or performance aesthetics.
— For Discussion —
1. What gear do you use that embodies your perception of simplicity?
2. Why don’t we see more “simple gear home runs” out of the cottage industry?
3. What simple gear do you want that doesn’t exist, that embodies both natural and practical attributes of simplicity?
— Ultralight Gear for the Ultralight Life —
I explore the concept of simplicity in more detail in my letter Ultralight Gear for the Ultralight Life, but don’t necessarily limit the applicability to backcountry gear, but expand the discussion to include gear, supplies, and processes that have the potential to impact your life as a whole on a daily basis.
I’ve done lots of different things in my career, but I’ve been teaching for a long time.
I was elected as a Patrol Leader, as a Boy Scout, more than 30 years ago. I remember taking the job very seriously – I was committed to making sure my patrol members knew how to tie the square knot, tautline hitch, and bowline, and that they knew how to do it faster than any other patrol in the troop.
When I was 17, I started working at Camp Parsons, where I taught pioneering skills, first aid, wilderness survival, and other Scout skills to younger scouts with a thirst for learning. I worked at CP until 1992 in various capacities, all of them involving some sort of teaching as a trekking and mountaineering guide, area director, and program director.
By the time I graduated with my M.S. at Wazzu, I had more teaching experience under my belt, from fundamentals of engineering to calculus to rock climbing to blackjack dealing. I loved it all, and was thrilled to see my students excel at what they were learning.
More time in the university system in Montana seeded my passion for teaching even more, giving me the opportunity to participate in the founding of both the Biofilm Institute, and Cytergy, two companies dedicated to developing online education for the medical science community. When I realized the potential to seed, and create community around information and education with the Internet, I founded Backpacking Light, and the rest is history I suppose.
My passion for education has not changed so much, even though who and how and what I’m teaching have evolved through the years.
You’ll have the opportunity to go through a lot of material. I think there are about 30 individual lessons in this course. The result of opening the floodgates during an intense training period will allow you to rethink how you look at ultralight backpacking, and perhaps most important, energize (motivate) you to take a big step towards growing your skills.
If you participate in the mentored or field course options, the benefits you get in #1 will be magnified. Through mentoring, we solve problems together in a private, one-on-one environment. Through a field course, we solve problems together in real time in real conditions with real people in a collaborative environment.
Courses like this always cause you to ask more questions, stretch your perception of what you are capable of, and challenge your existing preconceptions. These are three elements of personal growth that fuel real change.
What do I really get out of it?
You are helping me make a living at doing what I love to do. Of course, you’re helping anyone make a living wherever you spend your dollar, right? But have you wondered if you are fueling the passion of the kid who made your last hamburger at the drive in, or the clerk at the license & title desk at the courthouse, or some unknown shareholder of the bank to whom you pay your mortgage interest?
What I get out of this is a little bit different. I get the opportunity to serve you, and to know you. You give me an opportunity to make a commitment to your learning. I give you an opportunity to be teachable and to grow. My commitment to you is simple: let’s make this a win-win deal.
This course session is going to be an exceptional one if you go through either the mentoring option, or the field course option, with me.
The reason that the timing for a mentored option is going to be unique right now is that I’ve been exploring a number of new new skills and styles in the past few years and continuing into this summer, and I’m very eager to share with you what I’m learning.
The reason that the timing for a field course option is going to be unique right now is that I’ll be taking you into one of the most beautiful, and awe-inspiring locations in the world: high on a massive alpine plateau dotted with trout-filled lakes, jutted with dramatic granite peaks, and lined with soft-on-the-feet tundra. By the time we break out of the treeline, you’ll know that these types of vistas, and the opportunity to trek through such a beautiful location, just doesn’t come around very often.
In particular, I’m really excited to share with you what I’m learning about the Canadian Rockies, where I’ll be trekking in July in ultralight style, but with a pack that includes glacier trekking, fly fishing, and packrafting gear, too!
Ultralight Backpacking Boot Camp comes with my personal guarantee. If you finish the online course, went through the material, and think you totally wasted your time and money, I’ll refund your online course fee. I’m not interested in seeing you waste money – that’s something that completely negates my own principles of living an ultralight life (i.e., the principle of exercising monetary discipline).
Moreover, if you’re on the fence, don’t be afraid to ask me any questions. I’m happy to work through them with you via email, chat, Skype, or phone. Just drop me a line.
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