Sage Sunrise – The 2.5 lb Backcountry Camp (Sigma DP2)

Sage Camp Sunrise

Southwest Montana, Spring 2010 (Sigma DP2)

Another campsite photograph, this time taken with the Sigma DP2, with the sun in the photo and no corrective Photoshopping to deal with the ungainly, but nicely colorful, lens flare.

Mornings on sage flats are special in their own way because it’s the type of backcountry camping we get in Montana before the snow melts at the higher elevations. So, in addition to camping on them because we can, we camp on them because the sky is big, which means good views, and you can see for miles.

Shelter is the Stealth Nano tarp again – 5.0 oz. On this 20 degree morning, after a night of high winds, I was comfortable in a 6 oz breathable bivy sack and a 23 oz synthetic quilt, with a 3.5 oz torso sized foam pad. Add to this 0.5 oz of guylines and 2.0 oz of titanium stakes, and you have a go-just-about-anywhere-do-just-about-anything-in-North-America shelter/sleep system for two and a half pounds.

Not a bad way to cover most of where I go between Easter and Thanksgiving.

Packrafting Camp, Beartrap Wilderness (Fuji Velvia)

A Packrafter’s Camp

Beartrap Canyon Wilderness, Montana

Nikon FM3a, Nikkor AI-S 28/2.8, Fuji Velvia 50 (Shot at ISO 100 and Push-Processed)

I spent a few nights in the Beartrap Canyon Wilderness in April and I honestly can’t remember carrying my pack there. It’s like that, when it’s really light. Even with a large packraft, PFD, and paddle, and food, I wasn’t carrying more than about 23 pounds.

This is when Really Light Gear shines. Like the 5 ounce tarp shown in this photo, the Stealth Nano, which in spite of its lofty expense, has proven so popular that Backpacking Light is doing another production run of them after selling out in just a few weeks. I love this tarp, and it’s my favorite shelter. It was meant to be a “casual ultralight” shelter for short trips where I couldn’t trust the integrity of Cuben Fiber at this fabric weight. However, after enduring horrific winds while camped in the open sage of the Tobacco Root foothills in March, I’ve changed my tune back to what I’ve always believed:

Small tarps pitched to the ground, with good stakes, and extra guylines, can weather the worst storms as well as just about anything.

This of course is open to debate, as it always has been. Some issues are brought up here and I offer that link to you because small tarp campers like to use breathable bivy sacks as well, which I find invaluable in foul weather regardless of the size, or type, of tarp or floorless shelter you have. In fair weather, with no wind, or no bugs, or no snow, then you can leave the bivy at home and spend the weight of the bivy on sleeping bag insulation or a roomier shelter.

The campsite above is in an open meadow, because I like views more than I like weather protection, and I wanted to be able to wake up in the morning, peek out of my tarp, and see the sunlight creeping up on the hills behind me, because alpenglow has a therapeutic property that is hard to describe.

That therapy is the primary reason why my selection of a three-season shelter is governed by the views it provides, more than just about any other feature. I like taking naps in the afternoon under open skies but don’t like getting bit in the process by mosquitoes. On clear nights, I like to look out my shelter and see what’s around me. And, when in grizzly country, it just sort of feels better to know that I’m visible, and so is the bear.

I’ll talk more about views when my review of the Lightheart Solo tent is published this summer, and my Lightheart Duo review is published this fall, over at Backpacking Light. It offers the ability to have Three Hundred and Sixty Degree Views, like any double wall tent with a mesh body and removable fly, but with the Lightheart, it’s a lot easier to restore Stormworthiness (unfurl, then set two stakes: a 15 second operation) than most other tents.

Separation Anxiety

No Separation Anxiety (Tobacco Root Mountains)

Sigma DP2

Separation anxiety is what photographers get when they freak out about missing mm’s out of the focal range covered by the pounds of lenses they carry in their packs.

Lightweight backpackers suffer this too, but usually only when they sit in front of their computer, shopping online.

Shelters are the biggest culprit.

As of two years ago, I owned the following shelters:


  1. An ultralight solo tarp for ultralight solo trips.
  2. A little bit heavier solo tarp for when high winds ruined my ultralight solo tarp.
  3. A tiny pyramid tarp for nasty weather, traveling solo.
  4. A little bit bigger pyramid tarp, for when my dog, or son, comes along.
  5. A tarp tent, solo sized, for when there is lots of mosquitoes.
  6. A tarp tent, a little bit bigger, for when my son comes along and there are lots of mosquitoes.
  7. A single wall mountain tent, for high perches on cliffs during the winter.
  8. A single wall ultralight 4-pole tunnel tent for winter trekking in blizzard conditions.
  9. A double wall five bound “bomber” tent for winter trekking in really blizzardy conditions, and for windy conditions in the coulee breaks so I can sleep without choking on dust.
  10. A single wall floorless freestanding dome for sleeping on gravel bars when packrafting.
  11. A lightweight bivy sack for sleeping under a packraft, and on ridges.
  12. A heavier bivy sack with poles, which makes for neat camp photos in the mountains.

You see, I thought I had all my focal lengths covered.

And then it happened.

I went on a trip with my son, and dog, in buggy conditions, while camping on swampy tundra, with intermittent wind and thunderstorm gusts, and the possibility of heavy snow.

I had nothing for this mix of conditions. Like the photog carrying a 24mm prime and a 28-70 zoom, I found myself separated from the perfect shelter that left me yearning for mm’s 25, 26, and 27.

So I did what any self-respecting backpacker would do when he got home.

Started shopping.

And just before I clicked the PLACE ORDER button, I had an epiphany: this was ridiculous.

So I opened my browser window and signed into my eBay account.

Now, I’m down to three shelters that I actually use on a regular basis:

  1. A small bivy tent (my current favorite is the Nemo GoGo, at 1.9 lbs).
  2. A 5 oz. ultralight tarp (the Stealth Nano, in photo above in March 2010).
  3. An 18 oz. 2-man pyramid (a slightly scaled down version of the Mountain Laurel Designs SuperMid).

The beauty of this is that I no longer have to labor about shelter decisions when I plan gear for treks. The tarp stays in my pack, and that’s what I take.

If it’s really snowy or windy, or I’m taking a pal, then I’ll take the pyramid.

If I plan to camp in a High Place, then I’ll take the bivy.

Otherwise, it’s the tarp…

…or the pyramid…or bivy…or…

…maybe I just wait and see what’s new in 2011…


The Wilderness Day Planner

The Wilderness Day Planner
Uinta Mountains UT, August 2009

In 2003, Chase and I were about on the same plane with respect to our obsessive-compulsive tendencies about organization. Once, he lined up about 200 Matchbox cars in a big sweeping curve across the living room. When he left the room to go pee, I snuck into the middle of his catenary highway and made one minor adjustment to a car – I flipped it around. I knew he wouldn’t notice.

But when he returned, the bad vibe hit him like a wave of katabatic air, and he knew instantly that something was awry. It took him 6.4 seconds to scan the chain of cars and find the problem. “Dad, please don’t do that anymore, OK?”

Since 2003, however, we’ve diverged. He’s still very organized, but is a little too relaxed about it, and I’ve continued to refine my techniques.

It’s really hard for me not to crop the above photograph. Even this kid’s wilderness room is a mess. Out of the photo, is my side of the tarp. My clothes are folded neatly, thank you, and the rest of my gear is arranged in order of increasing distance from the head of my sleeping bag in response to the probability that I will use an item at any point in time, and rearranged in response to passing time to reflect my changing needs, which go in diurnal cycles. I could write a book about it, but it’s probably not necessary, as the whole thing can be described by a simple set of differential equations. I once even approximated the process with a Fourier Transform.


When I’m on a wilderness trip, it takes a few days before I break the habit of wondering if I have to check my email, voicemail, twitter, blog comments, forum replies, post office box, or windshield wiper when I wake up (I once scored a 25% off coupon from REI in 1987 under my windshield wiper, and I’ve been eager ever since).

It takes another few days to stop worrying about what might be going wrong at work, what piece of my house might be breaking, what gear sale I might be missing, what family member might have died, and how the remaining shreds of my retirement security I might have might be dwindling further.

This is why I like to be in the wilderness on long trips. It takes four days just to detox to the point where the wilderness can actually start to cleanse.

And, when that happens, my side of the tarp starts to look more like Chase’s, and I like it.

I always fool myself into thinking that I can snap my fingers, or say some sort of Wilderness Prayer, or choose my gear more carefully so that the transition is shortened.

But instead, I’ve learned that it just takes however much time it takes, and that patience, and waiting, is usually the best strategy.

For Chase, the transition happens fast. Ten minutes from the trailhead, he’s in, he’s in deep, and he ain’t looking back. It’s crazy – how does he do that?

Then I remembered when I used to be able to do that. It was before we learned how to worry about stuff we can’t control, and general awareness of how sucked into the Big World we are.


When I went to Alaska in 2006, I printed 22 maps covering 700 miles of trekking distance, with detailed resolution, precise grid lines, and optimized coloring done in Photoshop. A few days before I left, I meticulously impregnated each map with a home-brewed concoction to make them waterproof, because printing them on waterproof paper was … well … too easy, you know, something an amateur, or at least, somebody less obsessive-compulsive than I, would do.

Since then, I’ve gone mapless on a number of treks, or otherwise just hacked out quick maps on the fly. Once, I hand drew a map based on what I saw in Google Earth.

On our trek into the Uintas last summer, we printed only one tiny little map of a huge area on a piece of 5×7 photo paper, and shared it. We couldn’t see individual contour lines, read place names, and we didn’t really have a reliable method for estimating distances on the map. We cut off the margins so as not to leave room for silly things like to do lists and appointment schedules.


Part of simplifying, from a backpacker’s perspective, is taking less stuff (fewer things to track) and lighter stuff (easier things to carry) and simple stuff (easier things to use).

Perhaps, as important, we probably don’t hack off the margins as much as we should, or at least, let go of the structure of our lives that allows us (demands us) to be obsessive-compulsive about managing that structure…

Wild Places Here and Afar


The Brooks Range from the Western Arctic
Photo by Ryan Jordan, June 2006.


I really miss the Alaskan Arctic because it’s a Big Wild Place.

I don’t know that I’ve trekked anywhere else where I’ve discovered as much about who I am. Some of that was related to the challenges the Arctic delivered to me, but much of it was related to the magnitude of its sheer remoteness from the clutter of modern living in a first world country.

And so, although I haven’t been back since 2006, I still dream Arctic Dreams. Big ones. And I even have a pal who can live them for me!

I think one reason why I love trekking on plateaus surrounding the Yellowstone Caldera, and in the Absaroka Range, is that they remind me of the Arctic. They too, are Big Wild Places. The difference is that the Big Wild Places Down Here are surrounded by Stewards of Greed.

Fortunately, there are Wilderness Boundaries, and within them, something sacred and quiet.

The challenge is recreating that quiet within the constraints of where those of us other than Andrew Skurka live.

Perhaps I don’t see the fight for a wilderness boundary in the backcountry to be much different than the fight for a psychological wilderness boundary in the frontcountry, like the walls of my home, the people and companies that I write checks to, or even my internet router.

This is why in 2009, I gave up Facebook, my Blackberry, and freecycled our family’s second car, and why our family has been unchained from TV for several years. You’ll have to trust me when I tell you that each of these decisions has resulted in freedom, and a more quiet, wildernessy state of living.

But these were experiments – test cases if you will – and now it’s time to get serious.

Remember earlier in this post that while in the Arctic, I learned more about who I was? My hypothesis is that this introspection is translatable to daily living, via simplicity.


So 2010 will be our family’s Year of the Purge: Backpacking Light for modern living.

With the simple of goal of creating a Little Wild Place for everyday living. Not something that we need to “escape to” like the Big Wild Places of the Alaskan Arctic or the Northern Absarokas, but something we live, and work, within.

In other words, the norm…

…rather than the exception.