Trail Journal (May 12, 2012): Explorer Canyon

Trail Journal – May 12, 2012

I’m in the midst of a nasty flu and I’m sweating, and extremely dehydrated. I ruptured a disk in my back three weeks ago. I miss my wife, she’s a thousand miles away. I’m in a psuedo-wilderness, camped in an alcove in the Escalante Arm of Lake Powell.

My Jewish companions are on lockdown, it’s the Sabbath. I feel the need to rest, but the opportunity to explore. I get in the powerboat and deliriously navigate to the end of the canyon, the whirr of the gas engine lulling me to doze while Abbey screams in my head about the disaster that has risen up the walls of Glen Canyon. I ignore the guilt, and floor the throttle.

After idling through a maze of flooded tamarisk, I beach the boat on a tiny sandbar and flop out, wavering like a drunk, struck by a combination of physical debilitation and desert heat. I look for my water bottle. I forgot it back at camp! How stupid. Certainly there’s a creek, or a spring, or something up here. I check satellite phone reception. Nothing. So I leave it in the boat. Dead weight.

I walk.

There’s only one direction to go. The end of the canyon.

I look to what I think might be a horizon (horizons don’t exist in this canyon, as I think on this later) and see heat waves. My mouth is dry from thirst and I spit out grains of sand delivered there by a hot wind. Whiptail lizards are darting here and there. They stand on their tiptoes, cock their heads, and (I think) they blink at me. I yearn to know what they are saying so I invoke mental license and hear them clearly: “dude, you gotta drink.”

That’s when I hear the trickle of the stream.

I wade down a steep slope of loose sand past the rarely blooming prickly pear and unmistakably aromatic juniper, tumble through broken talus, and ignore the game trails though the willows when I see the shimmer of the water surface. I remove all of my clothes, enter the deepest pool I can find (18 inches), lay on my back, plug my nose, and drink.

I think I fell asleep in the water after making my way to a shallow sandbar. I woke up to the tickling of minnows against the sides of my stomach. I had a clear head, but a mouth that tasted of algae and grit. My groin was exposed to dry air, and hot sun, an oversight for which I’d pay dearly for the next day.

I emerged from the cool water and searched for my clothes. Fifteen minutes passed before I found my second shoe.

I let out a belch that echoed off the canyon wall, reminding me that I was hydrated enough to continue. I nibble on a piece of sun-dried smallmouth bass from my snack stash, a tenkara catch from two days before. I walked up the creek towards the seep-stained walls of the amphitheater, and discover a bit of healing in having reached my destination.

Five hours later I return to camp.

“How was it?” they ask.

“I feel better”.

UL Improv

As you transform from a novice ultralight backpacker into a seasoned ultralight backpacker, you will find yourself saying this less:

“Oh no! I forgot ___________”

And saying this more:

“What gear and knowledge can I use to solve this problem?”

Most manufacturers of ultralight shelters love to put all sorts of contraptions on their shelters that inhibit ventilation and views, which I think are the two most important attributes of the basic tarp setup.

You name it, they’ve thought about how to destroy ventilation and views: doors, flaps, beaks, nests, awnings … the list goes on.

So before you moan in agony the next time a little snow starts blowing in your beakless tarp, consider instead what you might not be using that could serve … well enough.

For me recently (see photo above), a snowy night in a windy meadow meant that I had the opportunity to rig a bead curtain door thing to the front of my tarp. I lashed my free trekking pole near the top of the front ridge pole, and stuck the other end down on the ground angled down. I then tied my pack to the two poles, and added a spare inflation bag to the other side, anchored to the ground by a piece of extra guyline cord and a Snowclaw (not shown), secured by a stick shoved into the meadow grass roots.

I slept fine. Especially after I buried my head inside my windshirt body for full coverage, since I didn’t have a bivy sack.

Earplugs topped it off, then I wouldn’t have to awaken at the wind howling up in the tree tops right before it slammed into my tarp.

I know, it sounds dramatic, but it really isn’t. It’s just your basic ultralight ethos. Doing awesome things with what you have, so you can be graceful as you travel through wild places.

Zero Bars

Life lived simple
Dreamy and warranted
Jealous of people who blog about their one hundred things
But wondering how we might live without 60 second coffee brewed on a Jetboil
And still remain addicted to our iPhones and their gateway to a cluttered world.

Packing light
Driving to a trailhead
Hoping for something other than an internet connection
But secretly pleased to get one bar upon arrival.

Bear spray ready
Toxic insect repellent coating me
Food stored in a plastic barrel the government says is for me
Skin protected by questionable chemicals that block Vitamin D
Corn pasta recommended by an old pal who never did understand my dietary needs
Shoes, pack, shelter, clothes – all made of plastics and oil and wildlife refuges.

Wondering at this point if the internet wouldn’t be a better place to hang out
And a little irritated that I don’t have two bars by the time I reach the harebells.

Then, around the corner
Through the forest
I get a glimpse
And start the process
Ponderosas to whitebarks to larches
Larches to firs to willows to lupine
Lupine to tundra to talus:

And there they are, rising to impossible heights and it’s now

“Searching…”

and all is well again.

The Practical and Natural Simplicity of Backcountry Gear

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.

I've been working with a cottage manufacturer on a backpack that is exceptionally comfortable and adaptable across all load sizes and ranges. Here, I'm carrying it on an overnight trek in the White Cloud Peaks of Central Idaho this summer - a small load of less than 15 pounds. The same pack is used on my longer expeditions, like a glacier trek in the Canadian Rockies, where I carried nearly 40 pounds and a much bulkier volume of gear. The pack weighs about 2 lb, is designed to carry 45 lbs in comfort, has an internal frame, a rolltop closure, is made with a heavier version of Cuben Fiber, and has no external pockets built in. For more information about this pack, visit Hyperlite Mountain Gear and check out their "Porter" model.

— 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.

The Jetboil SOL Ti is the stove I've been wanting Jetboil to make since their introduction several years ago. The pot-stove-kit weighs 8.5 oz and I can enjoy hot meals and drinks every night and every morning for a week on a single 100g net weight canister. It boils 0.7 liters of water in 2-3 minutes in foul conditions while consuming less than 4g of fuel. Remarkable.

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.

The tenkara rod's simplicity lies in the fact that no reel, or fly line is required. The simplicity of tenkara fishing is based on its elimination of line management, resulting in focusing on manipulating the only part of the entire system that matters - the fly alone.

— 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.

The tarp camper enjoys a sense of natural simplicity that may only be bested by sleeping in a bivy sack under the open sky.

— 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).

Wood fire and wood stove cooking is not always practically simple, especially in exceedingly wet or foul conditions. In addition, if you lack firebuilding skills, it can be time consuming. However, for the patient and skilled, the rewards in terms of natural simplicity are strong. The aroma of a wood fire, and the sizzling of foods cooking on it, are valuable sensory experiences in the backcountry because they are so opposite of the sensory experiences we have in the civilized world.

— 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.

Two wood stoves that offer both practical and natural simplicity are the Backcountry Boiler (left) and the Bushbuddy Ultra (right). The edge goes to the Boiler for its ability to integrate both pot and stove into a single unit, and for its greater efficiency (less waste heat), leading to faster boil times, and allowances for poor quality fuels.

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.

Opportunity knocks.

— 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.

A 3.7-Ounce Ultralight Laptop Sleeve Case for Macbook Air 11

Perspective

This laptop sleeve case has one third the volume of what it replaces – a Domke F-803 satchel, which weighs 54 ounces with a shoulder strap and padded sleeve from a popular bagmaker in California.

This sleeve weighs 3.7 oz.

So while the Domke bag can store 3 times more stuff, it weighs 14.6 times as much.

Disclaimer

This is a short post that features a final product only – there are no patterns or instructions published here, because I haven’t had the opportunity to make them up (yet, perhaps!).

Therefore, I only hope that this inspires a few DIY readers to make their own ultralight laptop sleeve that doesn’t cost a fortune or weigh more than the computer that’s going into it. If you’ve tackled a project like this, I’d love to hear about it, please post!

Why I Did This

For years my laptop was housed in some type of third party laptop sleeve, and then dropped into a Filson briefcase. I enjoyed as much shoulder strain as a pro mall shopper on Black Friday.

As my laptops lightened up, so did my needs for a briefcase.

As of last year, I had commissioned my Domke F-803 reporter’s camera satchel from a camera bag to an MBA 11 case. However, it weighed, almost obscenely, more than three pounds (including the strap and a sleeve for my 11-inch MacBook Air). I say obscene because the weight of the briefcase was heavier than the contents.

This should sound familiar to those of you who are ultralight backpackers. Remember the days when we lightened our load so much that the weight of our backpack was more than the weight of the contents of the gear we packed into it?

While lightening my laptops, I also lightened my needs for “office tools, supplies, and accessories”. (I talk about those tools in more depth, and how I use them for running my company and personal life, in the Ultralight Gear for the Ultralight Life Letter.)

So in the process of lightening my briefcase contents, and radically changing how I work, I simplified the Domke F-803 into obsolescence.

After searching high and low for a Macbook Air sleeve that had pockets, was simple in design, and accepted a shoulder strap, I failed to find anything light, or anything that reflected what I most loved: the outdoors. Most of the quality cases out there were made out of boring black Cordura or ballistics nylon, expensive leather, or cotton canvas that screams “I’m not a photojournalist but I really want to look like one, so I have this neat canvas case”. Besides, they were all really heavy.

Then I realized: I had light fabrics, sewing skills, and I knew exactly what I wanted.

This laptop sleeve is the fruit of those efforts – enjoy.

Features

  • Sized to fit a Macbook Air 11
  • Tricot-lined open cell foam padding (1/4″)
  • Dimension-Polyant sailcloth fabrics
  • Two bellowed front pockets
  • One rear magazine sleeve pocket
  • D-rings for shoulder strap
  • Shockcord system for securing contents
  • Weight: 3.7 oz (sans shoulder strap)

Limitations

The purpose of this section is to prevent non-ultralight-backpackers from posting to the comments below with obvious criticisms, like:

  1. “Dude, it’s not waterproof! My MBA is gonna get fried in the SFO fog!” That’s right, mac fanboy – you’d do well to spend a little time in the ultralight backpacking community; just wrap your MBA in one of these as needed, if you have to live or travel in SFO or SEA.
  2. “A measly quarter inch of open cell foam? Bwahahaha! I can’t wait to see what happens when you drop your MBA and start cryin’ your eyes out while you pick up a thousand dollars worth of parts!” This question comes mainly from PC owners and those who use 4-season tents for summer hiking, and I’m not sure I can help you guys. For those of you that fear the wind, do what the cowboy does: “Hang on ta yer hat, pardner.”
  3. “There’s no pocket flaps, or velcro, or snaps, or clasps, or buckle closures, or…or…or…my stuff’s gonna fall out!” This bag cannot be used on the monkey bars. The ultralight shockcord actually goes a long way at securing contents (not tiny stuff, obviously, but those can be secured easily enough with some creativity (see the Letter). My goal was to keep this as simple as possible – and closures aren’t simple. I find most closures pretty irritating.
  4. “This is really cool. Where can I buy one?” This is a DIY project (for now, at least).

Photos

The front view shows the side-by-side bellowed pockets where I store accessories.
The rear view shows the nearly full-height slip pocket for magazines, etc.
The top view shows the main sleeve compartment (tricot-face foam-lined), and the opening to one of the side bellows pockets.

Learn More

If you subscribe to the letter, “Ultralight Gear for the Ultralight Life,” you can watch the video tour of my mobile office to see what’s in the bag.

More details about this case, what goes in it, and how I use the case, its contents, and mobile technology to run my business and personal life without the need for permanent physical home or professional offices, please consider subscribing to Ultralight Gear for the Ultralight Life. I will be featuring this topic specifically in the issue that will be sent to subscribers as of Saturday, May 7 at 9:00 AM U.S. Mountain Time. If you missed the deadline, and subscribe, please drop me a note and I’ll be happy to send this letter back issue to you.