Sunday, September 28, 2008

Three Ridges, Nellysford VA (USA)





20 Sep 08


Three Ridges is one of Virginia's most popular backpacking circuits. Situated in Central Virginia, just 30 miles southwest of Charlottesville, the hike is 14.4 miles of pretty healthy hiking. There are several vistas, endless switchbacks, several very difficult crossings over piles of falling granite rocks, and it only gets harder witih a solid 2,240 feet of vertical gain. Parking was best to start at Reeds Gap as it is both more convenient and easier to find then the other parking alternative, and comfort can be found quickly on the Appalachian Trail (AT).


Hiking in late September and early October is my personal favorite time of year. With temperatures in the low 70's and nothing but blue skies, it did not disappoint.

Crabtree Falls, Nelson County VA (USA)















Although the week leading up to this short trip was filled with intentions to head to another more untrekked destination, my hamstrings, calves, and feet didn't quite recover from my exploits last weekend to the extent I felt was necessary to be a responsible solo backpacker. Instead of giving up and watching my already fat belly grow fatter, I decided to take a trip to Crabtree Falls in Nelson County, Virginia.
Crabtree Falls is arguably the most beautiful set of waterfalls in Virginia. Billed as the tallest waterfalls east of the Mississippi, Crabtree Falls is a must see for anyone who lives in the mid-Atlantic region. As someone frequently skeptical of the biased journalism which depicts hikes unfairly just to sell hiking books, I can say with conviction that this hike definitely lived up to the hype. The trail is fairly bland as it travels along the falls, but it just keeps getting higher and higher and it's nice to see each gentile bend the falls take on the way down. Because the trail is located fairly deep in the Central Virginia mountains in an area known both for the amazing rugged scenery and the few somewhat scary teeth lacking people who inhabit the area, it is a bit of a pain to find. The constant switchbacks on the roads leading to this destination will leave even the strongest head swishing around in discomfort.

The falls are believed to be named after William Crabtree, who settled in the area in 1777. The Tye River, at the bottom of the falls, is named for Allen Tye, who did extensive exploration in the local Blue Ridge Mountains. The hike is roughly 4.4 miles from the lower parking lot to the top. There is no question I find more silly when hiking a trek with the intention to get to the top of a waterfall then when a passerby says "how much longer". Well, being that rain falls from the sky, and waterfalls start when the rain hits the highest part of the ground (i.e. the summit), then it sure seems to me that the answer to this question could be more easily found by simply....looking up as the peak of the mountain will give a pretty good idea of "how much longer". If one still sees trail in front of them, they need to keep walking. I entertained myself when asked this question several times as I was on the way back down by a handful of folks who also braved the poor weather.

Unfortunately, despite my intent to find a good short day hike to accomodate my ailing body, I picked a hike which required good weather to fully appreciate. The day I hiked Crabtree Falls, Central Virginia was in the middle of being the recipient of approximately 3-4" of rain. As a result, the views of this amazing area were hidden under a cloud of rain and fog which only worsened with the higher I climbed. With that said, I vowed to myself to return again, perhaps in the fall, when the weather is a little more transparent so I can fully appreciate this amazing site.
video








Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Lightweight Rainwear





























Rainwear appropriate for lightweight backpacking has been an internal struggle with me for quite some time because rain is considered an event which can make or break a good hike and can make you miserable awfully quick. Rainwear can also take up valuable pack space and serve as nothing more than dead weight. At worst, it can be used as a pillow or as part of a layering system to keep warm if there is no rain. At best, it can keep you dry.

When evaluating any rain option, however, it is important to be realistic. First, how often are you going to be in the rain - seriously? Unless you're in very specific environments, the reality is probably very rarely. With that said, why carry something you'll very rarely use. For example, an emergency poncho is likely one of the lightest and most functional rain options available. At about $1.00 each, it is also the cheapest. It may be the perfect solution for you. I know other people who enjoy the circulation and unrestrictive movement of a kilt or skirt made by water shedding fabrics. Course, if you want something a little more durable, you'll want other alternatives.

Rainwear manufacturers choose a variety of materials for their rain gear. All are functional to some extent, but some are better than others. There is also a huge differences in breathability, durability, and cost. Breathability is second next to waterproofness, but without good ventilation and breathability, the user will get wet from their own body sweat which will be just as miserable. Pit zips, arm cuffs, and adjustments at the neck and waist are all helpful to mitigate body temperature. Of course, the user must actually uses these resources instead of merely assuming the fabric will handle it all.

Two of the least expensive rainwear products which are an upgrade from a plastic bag are offered by DriDucks (http://www.froggtoggs.com/store/choose.asp?ItemNum=DS1204&ItemType=%25) and O2 Rainwear (http://www.rainshield.com/p_multi.html). Both are lightweight, breathable, and inexpensive. They are made of a non-woven fabric which repels water. Although very lightweight, they are each very flimsy and prone to tears if contacted by trees and rocks. I liken the material to the towel dentists use under your chin while doing busy work. If you look, the towel is fuzzy on one size and rubbery on the other and any spray or dribble sits on the cloth.

On the complete opposite end of the spectrum is raingear made of eVENT fabrics. eVENT is very durable, lighter than the more popular Gore-Tex, and it breathes better than anything on the market, but it is also very expensive. Some good options include the Wild Things Alpinist (http://www.wildthingsgear.com/prod_hardshl.php), Rab Super Dru (http://www.rab.uk.com/products_waterproof_superdru.html), and Westcomb Specter LT (http://acmeclimbing.com/index.asp?PageAction=VIEWPROD&ProdID=1644). Integral Designs has a lock on the most number and lightest eVENT jackets, but sizing isn’t great. The Integral Designs eVENT jackets include the Cruiser Jacket, Thru-Hiker, and Rain Jacket (http://www.integraldesigns.com/product.cfm?id=24&CFID=628503&CFTOKEN=57533383&mainproducttypeid=1). I should mention the Integral Designs website is horrible, slow, and flat out irritating. I’ve also found customer service to be a little rude, although no one complains about their products. Users can't go wrong by going with any of these manufacturers, although sizing is difficult and UK options (Rab, Montane, Westcomb, etc.) tend to be a little more snug under the armpits than American clothing.

Some people choose to go with the ole trusty Gore-Tex fabric of which there are endless options. Unfortunately, Gore-Tex is known to be both expensive and lack breathability.

One option that has received high reviews is The North Face Diad (http://www.backcountry.com/store/TNF2776/The-North-Face-Diad-Jacket-Mens.html?CMP_ID=SH_NXT001&CMP_SKU=TNF2776&mv_pc=r147) which uses the proprietary fabric HyVent.
In any event, and much like with all backpacking related topics, the user must decide based on preference, environment, cost, and other concerns.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Lightweight Trekking Poles









Yes, those silly poles you likely think are totally unnecessary. Well, hike long distances or in poor footing for a short while and you’ll quickly see that these guys are worth their weight in gold. They also do double-duty as support for a tent or tarp, which allow you to leave tent poles at home, and also help clear debris out of the path or check the stability of the ground. In anything other than a flat easy footing trail, I bring my trekking poles.

Trekking poles are consistently manufactured out of a couple of things: aluminum, carbon fiber, and metal alloy. Durability is limited with either choice depending on the environment and care of the user.

Some trekking poles are fixed (one length) or are adjustable in one or two sections. Fixed poles tend to ensure there is no potential for joint lock slippage, but adjustable poles are easier to pack and also can be more easily used as support for a tent or tarp without needing a fancy knot or duct tape.

Trekking poles tend to range from around $100-$150 depending on frills (adjustability, shock absorbers, baskets, tips, wrist straps, etc.).

At present, my personal favorite is the Gossamer Gear Lightrek 4 (http://www.gossamergear.com/cgi-bin/gossamergear/Lightrek4_Trekking_Poles.html) which at 6.8 oz per pair. I’m a huge fan of how Glenn VanPeski runs his business and Grant has always been great to deal with. The poles represent a huge innovation and are literally the lightest adjustable poles on the market.

A good option for a fixed set of poles is the Backpacking Light Stix Carbon Fiber (http://www.backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/stix_carbon_fiber_trekking_poles_08.html) weighing in at 8.2 oz per pair.

An option for those who want spring or shocks in the poles is the REI Peak UL Carbon Shocklight (http://www.rei.com/product/750835) which weigh in at 13.5oz per pair. Please with bad knees will appreciate the extra cushion of these poles.

After very good manufacturers include Leki, Komperdell, and Black Diamond also are viable options

Monday, September 1, 2008

WELCOME TO MY BLOG!









Hi! Welcome to my BLOG! Please also visit my other webpage http://www.lightweightbackpacking.webs.com/ although it merely directs you here.


My trail name is Jolly Green Giant and I decided to start this blog to cover personal interests concerning lightweight backpacking. I am an American in my mid-30’s, married with two wonderful boys, and I currently reside in Virginia just a few minutes away from the foothills of the Appalachian Trail. Virginia is predominantly my home, although I have spent time out west and resided in Colorado for a few years too.


I've been a backpacker since early childhood when adventures with a pre-Scouting group called "Indian Guides" caught my interest. I then moved to Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts, and eventually into solo backpacking when I couldn't convince anyone else to hike with me. From an early age, I was hooked to the beauty and inspiration that only the wilderness could offer. In many ways, backpacking to me is a fundamental acknowledgement of the human spirit and a direct connection to God – something that has been seemingly lost in the industrialization of the world and the abundance of narcissism so rampant in our society. Funny how so many conveniences and gains in technology which were intended to make life more simple to allow us to focus on things that were truly important merely succeeded at trapping most of us in our concrete prisons or the confines of our own busy lives. Despite being more connected than ever through social networking sites, e-mails, cell phones, etc., a recent study identified that people now have far fewer close friends than ever and that people have a far more intrinsic and self-serving view of the world. In part, I believe it is because we've become a "virtual" society and actual person-to-person interaction has been replaced by emotional and self-focused correspondence or attention focused on out-spending our neighbors, or at the very least, matching them possession-for-possession (as if we'll have a trailer of all our stuff attached to our coffin when it is our time to check out). Backpacking, much like team sports or service in the military, has a tendency to nearly immediately generate long-lasting and deep personal bonds without all these possessions while memories of even short outings seem to last a lifetime. Anyone who has ever backpacked can likely tell you every wonderful and every rotten thing that ever happened to them while backpacking, not to mention all the friends they met along the way. Think about the rest of your life. Why is it backpacking enables such vivid and fond memories while fostering lifelong friendships without all the daily fluff we require in the rest of our lives? Similarly speaking, few can find more personal introspective moments then the time spent gazing out into the vastness of life unmanipulated and "un"-created by man. How often when you truly need time to think and make sound decisions do you merely take a simple walk, a walk to return your head and spirit to where you find the most inner peace? This is the same reason people backpack. It's a time to recenter, reprioritize, and remember.


In my young adulthood, my passion for backpacking slowly grew into frustration. I was in the best shape of my life and my perception of enjoyment in the wilderness meant carrying everything I could get my hands on from the local camping store. As a result, it wasn’t uncommon for me to hike with a 60 pound pack even for a simple overnight stay in a National Park. The burden on my back both broke me physically and mentally. I was miserable and yet I couldn’t perceive there being a better way to both be outdoors and find safety and comfort in my gear. For me to be happy, I needed to find a better way which also meant "a lighter way".

Fortunately, my spirit wasn’t completely broken and I committed myself to researching ways to enjoy backpacking without carrying everything I owned. Through my research, I learned that I wasn’t alone in my plight and discovered an entirely new philosophy outside of that which can be found at REI and in outdoor adventure magazines. It turned out that I, like many others, had been brainwashed by mainstream manufacturers and marketers into believing that I needed a vast amount of nearly indestructible gear to survive the treachery of the wilderness which otherwise simply wouldn't be possible without an abundance of gear which could survive a nuclear bomb. This concept was reinforced to me by nearly every advertisement in my favorite backpacking and outdoor magazines where the product displayed was always to fight off a raging firestorm of wind and rain or the unavoidable charge of a wild animal. Literally, everything was marketed to instill fear of either the weather, hostile terrain, or the unpredictability and ferociousness of animals. This concept spilled into camping stores worldwide and is the theme most prevalent today used to compel consumers to purchase gear whether they actually need it or not.


I began to think about this kind of marketing and came to the conclusion that I had never been swallowed up by the earth, swept away by a hurricane on a mountain top, or attacked by any animal. Could these things happen? Sure, but I figured if I exercised common sense that I was about as likely to win the lottery as otherwise these things would be in the news on a daily basis and no one would ever leave their homes out of fear of the environment.


From this point on, my intent was to put myself back at square one – to learn things based on science and legitimate “need” and not through the eyes of a gear manufacturer or some vest-wearing high school drop out at REI who was capable only of regurgitating claims from gear manufacturers interested principally in making money. Oddly enough, my first stop was my father and grandfather who both informed me that camping “in their day” meant simply carrying a bedroll and a fishing pole. They didn’t need an abundance of insulating garments because they would just start a fire when they got cold. They didn’t need food as their fishing rod (or rifle) would find them dinner. Crockery were branches and a shelter was the open sky, or at best, an old army poncho rigged as a tarp which also served as their rain gear when hiking. Water came from God and everyone was plenty fine with the quality. Oddly enough, they never mentioned any hardship whatsoever and claimed to be plenty comfortable. They could also remember every detail and the happiness was clearly observable on their faces as their eyes glazed over and their mouths couldn't stop from smiling. Despite hoping for a great story about being attacked by a grizzly, a rattlesnake, falling off a cliff, or being stuck in the middle of a hurricane - it never happened. They found happiness and comfort very simply and were arguably better men for it.


So was I ready to pull the bedspread off my bed, grab my fishing rod, and head into the wilderness? Well, not exactly. Although the concept was romanticized, I’m from a different generation with different comforts and quite honestly the world simply isn’t the same place that welcomed my grandfather or father. I also find that outdoor activities should be viewed differently by each individual making the effort. After all, it is the independent evaluation of each person to determine if they are comfortable and if they are having fun and what they need to meet these goals. Without which, then what's the point? This is one reason why when asked any question about gear, I generally try to stress the concept of "what works for me may not work for you" as each person needs to find their comfort zone. Similarly speaking, what might work for a young and perfectly healthy single person is a lot different than what would work for a person with some medical concerns, someone with less accomplished physical fitness, and someone with obligations to a spouse and family. If it takes a special pillow or special tent to find this degree of happiness, then so be it. But whatever the gear choice, I think a backpacker interested in having the best time possible would find that the lightest solution is often the best solution.
In addition to gear however, it was clear that "experience” and “knowledge” needed to be my guide more than anything because in the end it was this and this alone that I’d need to rely on in the backcountry. The knowledge of how to use my head was far more important than anything I carried, and for the items I did carry, I had better know how to use them. This theory has been proven many times by Search and Rescue personnel who find dead or hurt hikers carrying a department store full of gear in their packs who suffered more from their own ignorance than gear they didn't carry. I didn't plan on being another statistic and I needed to find my comfort zone.


I set out on my own journey to learn about fabric and technology that offered me the best chance of both safety and comfort. Initial education and inspiration came from many sources, to include Dr. Ryan Jordan’s book “Lightweight Backpacking and Camping”, Ray Jardine’s books “Beyond Backpacking” and “Trail Life”, and “Lighten Up” by and Don Ladigin and Mike Clelland. Toss into that the invaluable experiences from seasoned adventurers such as Andrew Skurka, Francis Skurka, and Justin Lichter, as well as the insight of weekend warriors and section hikers from websites such as backpackinglight.com and whiteblaze.com, in addition to the many backpacking-related blogs in cyberspace, and I learned a wealth of information.


I learned about the proven durability and weight savings of Dyneema-X and Cuben fiber fabric. I learned that a simple pack of silnylon can often be a smarter and more responsible choice than the 8 pound heavy cordura packs offered by mainstream vendors. I learned that a simple esbit or alcohol stove was a great alternative to white or compressed gas which was bulky, cumbersome, expensive, and potentially dangerous. I learned the simple comfort of a closed cell foam (CCF) sleeping pad which was a very inexpensive alternative to many other inflatable options. I learned that a simple DriDucks rain jacket was plenty sufficient for my rain gear needs and was much lighter and less expensive than other things on the market. I learned that using my head, being smart about site selection, eating specific foods, and layering was more important than nearly any single piece of gear. I learned that a pair of running shoes could yield an abundance of comfort and allowed me to hike for longer distances than any pair of heavy duty hiking boots which otherwise did nothing more than restrict movement, make me clumsy, and made my feet hurt in the past. I learned that I could leave my water filter at home and could safely use harmless chemical treatments without concern. I learned that a tarp is often a better choice than a tent and that small cottage industry companies such as ULA-Equipment, Mountain Laurel Designs, Six Moon Designs, Backpacking Light, Gossamer Gear, Titanium Goat, Trail Designs, Anti-Gravity Gear, Outdoor Equipment Supplier, Adventure Medical Kits, and many, many others could not only equip me with what I needed, but whose products were top notch, durable, affordable, and offered a significant weight savings. In essence, I learned from a grassroots level of what I needed, why I needed it, and how to use it. My research yielded new philosophies, new technologies, dual use equipment, and opened my eyes to the world of LIGHTWEIGHT BACKPACKING.


With that, my blog is dedicated to lightweight backpacking and the innovations and technology which serve to make the wilderness more accessible and more enjoyable to all of us - in LIGHTWEIGHT style. It is also my goal to share what I’ve learned to help guide others through a landscape scattered with marketing hype and lesser known merchandise which may otherwise never be known. I am no expert, but I like to think I'm an educated consumer and I've found that people who want to make good decisions are willing to take the time to research these issues just like I did. If my blog helps anyone in even the most minor way, it will be worth whatever time and effort I put into it.



I will also focus more attention on issues which relate to me personally as I have a handful of unique attributes that I've struggled with and hope to make information about these topics more readily available to others who may be in the same position. One of these issues include gear and techniques as related to the Appalachian Trail, my stomping ground. Another includes gear and techniques associated with big and tall people (I am 6'5" and 280 pounds). Anyone my size knows how hard it is to live in our "medium" world when clothing is tough to find, cars are often too small, airline seats are laughable, doorways are intimidating, and we can't help but stand out everywhere we go. In the backpacking world, especially lightweight backpacking, finding suitable gear that is long enough (jackets, pants, gloves, tents/tarps/sleeping bags/backpacks) or that can hold our weight (hammocks, chairs) is truly a struggle as few manufacturers are willing to put effort into a very small niche product suitable for us. My blog will also include information for people who aren't super-athletes and those who find themselves escaping to the wilderness only for brief periods often scheduled between the stresses of work and family obligations. My blog will also focus on the integrity and innovation of cottage industry manufacturers from the lightweight backpacking community and the bloggers who report on them which I will also publish and link on my own blog. Lastly, my blog will also include information relevant to Type 1 and Type 2 diabetics, my affliction. I have both which is an extreme rarity. Type 1 people represent 10% of diabetics and Type 2 represent 90% of diabetics. Having both means I represent less than 1% of the population. I was born with Type 1 which means my pancreas didn't produce adequate or any insulin since birth and therefore I couldn't properly use the sugar (energy) in my body. Science does not know why this occurs and something like a transplant has a low percentage of working because often it is something in the body of the diabetic that views the pancreas as an illness or enemy and fights it until it kills it much like it would a disease. The result was that I gained weight, my thyroid was damaged, and my blood-pressure and cholestrol went up (all requiring medication), although working out for three hours a day into my mid-20's enabled me to be a Division 1 athlete despite these hardships. As I progressed into my mid-20's, my body slowly started to fail more and more until one week I lost 2o pounds, my eyesight became terribly foggy, I became unable to function and I could very well have died without immediate treatment. At this stage, I then started taking heavy dosages of insulin which I injected myself with 4 or more times per day. Over the next couple years, I then also became a Type 2 diabetic because the insulin I had been injecting myself with for the last 10 years, something I needed to survive, forced excess sugars into my cells which then stored much of it as fat as the insulin only put it into the cells which needed it but otherwise did a poor job regulating the amount (this is the problem with modern diabetes treatment). The fatter I got, the more insulin I needed, and the more insulin I needed, the fatter I got. It is not as simple as just eating less as many diabetics can eat very little and still appear fat and gain weight (although eating less as a whole can help most people). The problem is the body of a diabetic simply cannot correctly use the sugar it receives, regardless of how little is eaten, and it then terrorizes the rest of the body which is desperately trying to work overtime to function properly. Because nearly all food is converted into sugar to be used as energy, this disease is deadly because it cannot be controlled. The food is either used as energy, like with a normal person, or it effectively becomes toxic, which is what happens with a diabetic. When most people hear "diabetes", they often envision people who can't stop eating and who become diabetic because they are essentially fat. In the case of Type 2 diabetics, this is often true, but what isn't realized is often people with Type 2 already have some kind of glycogen disorder and their brains are telling them that they must eat to gain energy. They eat, get fat(ter), and worsen their condition. Their cells develop fat around them and have an even harder time using the sugars they eat...which makes them eat even more. This disease, which is slowly degrading other organs that are struggling and working harder to correct for a failures in my body that I cannot fix,will most likely end my life in the long run and there is little I can do about it. Many people have similar hardships or worse. I often think that I'm somewhat fortunate in some twisted way. Few are perfect and it is my goal it make the most of the time I have, be it 40 years or 70. I've given readers of my blog this insight not to gain any kind of sympathy or to disclose information I otherwise keep very private in my personal life, but to have them self-reflect whether they are of perfectly healthy or not. In life, there is no do-over. If you have a dream, chase it. Be thankful for what you can do and exercise what you can do to its fullest.


As always, if there is anything I can offer to help those that choose to participate in this blog, or if there are those looking for a partner on an outing in the Virginia area, please let me know. I have no delusions nor desires that my blog be the be-all-end-all of all-things-lightweight, but I'd like to think it will be another educational tool for both me and others to share their experiences and learn from one another.


Best wishes, be smart, be safe, and happy hiking!



JOLLY GREEN GIANT