Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Tarp Tent Contrail

Throughout each backpacking year, I often switch between a tarp and fully enclosed shelter. I make this change depending on where I’m backpacking, the weather conditions, the temperature, and even who I’m hiking with as sometimes privacy is nice.

For quite awhile I had been eyeballing Henry Shires Tarp Tent Contrail ( It was extremely light at 24.5 ounces and quite honestly I thought it was a pretty fair price at $199 considering other tents on the market. Set up requires four stakes, one trekking pole, and with that it is possible to achieve 45” on headroom entrance, 84” of length, and 42/30 inches of width (it tapers towards the feet).

The Contrail represents Shire’s best selling tent which he attributes to the fact that it is extremely lightweight and a fully enclosed shelter for one person. I had held off buying it for about a year because I simply didn’t think it would be big enough for me at 6’6”. To be quite honest, I was waiting for Six Moon Designs to come out with their redesigned version of the two-person 16 ounce cuben fiber Refuge-X or even SMD’s new solo tent for taller hikers known as the “Vamp”. But, design and production were delayed and the previously scheduled release date of fall 2009 was tentatively pushed to spring/summer 2010. I had also been trying to figure out if Gossamer Gear’s The One would fit a person my size and the results weren’t promising enough to buy it. The only other shelter I was looking at was Gossamer Gear’s Squall Classic which was essentially a Tarp Tent/Gossamer Gear joint venture which resulted in a Tarp Tent made of spinnaker fabric that brought the weight down considerably. Unfortunately, it also brought the price up fairly substantially and I didn’t want to buy something that was so expensive which wasn’t guaranteed to work. In the end, it was worth it to me to give the Contrail a shot.

Worth mentioning is Shire’s continued excellent customer service and impressive quality. I’ve always appreciated his product because of his dedication and being quite humble about it. Simply, he is exactly what the lightweight backpacking cottage industry needs. Within just a couple days of ordering, the Contrail arrived and I remain pleased that Shire’s keeps a stock of his products to prevent customers from waiting for their gear to be made.

I immediately set the Contrail up in my basement to quickly assess whether it would fit someone my size. I used a couple of dumbbells to act as tie-outs which are uniquely designed to be completely and easily adjustable which makes it extremely easy to get a taut pitch. If it didn’t immediately fit me size, I was going to return it and Shire’s was plenty fine with that. After setting it up I was pleasantly surprised by the well engineered lines of the structure and the general appearance of quality. Without being overly descriptive, it is exactly what the name implies – a “tarp tent”. It is literally a tarp with a small amount of mosquito netting on the sides, front, and back for ventilation which is attached to a silnylon floor. It has a couple of pockets on the inside, a small vestibule on the outside, and a little flap by the footbox which can be opened or closed to achieve more ventilation or to seal it up in foul weather. Flatly, it is pretty ingenious.

To my surprise, I fit lengthwise and there was actually plenty of elbow room near the entrance. I could sit up at the front, albeit hunched over a bit, with minimal contact to the pitch of the ceiling. Being that this is a truly minimalist shelter, for what it represents, I honestly think would be a perfect shelter for an average-sized camper and a tolerable shelter for bigger folks. If there was a little more height at the front and foot end, I actually might think it was perfect. Pitching it on a level surface meant that all conditions were highly controlled. On a hill, I would likely find the length a bit tight if I slid during my sleep, but this could be mitigated by both finding good tent sites and adding some sealant to the floor to make it a little less slippery. Having done both, I haven’t had a problem yet with the length.

With that, I decided to add the Contrail to my backpacking shelter arsenal. I seam sealed it in the manner suggested by Shires, although it does look like Helen Keller and Stevie Wonder may have tag-teamed the effort. Over time I realized that the single trekking pole necessary to maintain the height at the front entrance could be pulled off to the side. My second trekking pole could be pulled off to the other side which would then create an unobstructed entrance with equal or greater stability and it would also ensure I didn’t accidentally role over my other trekking pole and break it or otherwise allow it to be available to critters who might choose to nibble on the salt in the handstraps.

Aside from the height, which may be fine for smaller people, I only have two complaints. I found that my quilt touched the ceiling at the footbox when I used a fully inflated sleeping pad like the NeoAir. By touching the ceiling, it meant that my quilt would get wet. Because the sleeping area is fairly small, my top entrance bivy wasn’t something I could realistically use as there was no way I could wiggle down into it, so my solution was to put my rain skirt over my feet and that worked fine. When I used my CCF pad and pack under my feet, which is what I use 99.9% of the time anyway, this was not an issue. If you look at Shires' newest offerings, he is now using a curved stay at the footbox of most of his latest tents and I read somewhere that this feature will be on all his new tents as it greatly opens space for minimal weight. Adding a feature like this to the Contrail would be a nice option, although I'm pretty sure a tent similar to the Contrail with this feature would be sold as another tent with other minor differences.

During one hellacious rain and wind storm while on the Appalachian Trail recently, the front vestibule did blow open. The front vestibule is designed to be off the ground several inches to aid in ventilation. With this gap, it is susceptible to strong winds. I sealed it again, which is nothing more than a strip of Velcro, and had no further problems. I should mention I remained completely dry in the rain and tough winds. The silnylon fabric is susceptible to mist and such, but it does not drip down.

On Shire’s website he lists the tent as having variable width and somewhat variable height at the footbox. Essentially, the variable width isn’t realistic as he is counting area which includes mosquito netting on the sides. Obviously anyone who wants to keep their tent in good shape isn’t going to lay on the mosquito netting for any length of time. Similarly, the floor is a genuine bathtub floor which means it does great in wet conditions and can’t really be folded down to expand the width being that it is sewn at the corners. Basically, it’s wishful thinking to say the width is adjustable because it really isn’t. The footbox height, on the other hand, is adjustable. The footbox sits on struts which can be raised or lowered depending on the users preference. After tinkering with it several times, I found a spot somewhere in the middle and just left it alone from there on out believing that additional adjustments just weren’t worth it after a long day hiking.

In the end, the Contrail is a wonder and lightweight 3-season full coverage tent. My only legitimate desire is that it were a little bigger overall, but then again at my size this tends to be my wish for just about everything. I highly recommend it to anyone looking for a quality piece of gear at a reasonable price.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Snow Camping at Big Meadows

After a 30 mile backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail with some friends last week, this weekend my wife and I camped at Big Meadows in Shenandoah National Park. Unlike out west or New England, Virginia doesn’t normally pick up snow until late December or January/February. As such, it was a complete surprise to both of us when the forecast mentioned there was definitely going to be precipitation which meant snow as Virginia was experiencing an unusual cold snap. The result was non-stop snow all weekend which resulted in about 6” and effectively shut down the roads on Skyline Drive. The snow and ice also scared away most people who had reservations during mid-October, the peak leaf-peeping season, which meant those who decided to brave the conditions had a wonderful time to see the park during a really great time with limited population. Worth mentioning is how well the Park Service did to treat and clear the roads later in the weekend as well as the great service provided by Aramark whose employees are familiar with finding a way to work even in difficult conditions.

The video shows a deer within a few feet of our tent which woke me up on Sunday morning. Outside of camera range were six others which surrounded our camp. This experience is part of the magic of Big Meadows as deer sightings within camp, and usually within a few feet of someone with a camera, are very typical. It’s a great place to go for anyone who wants to get closer to nature and a quick way to ensure children find immediate enjoyment. Other than deer, I’ve seen black beer, turkey, bobcat, coyotes, foxes, possum, rabbits, frogs, hawks, owls, and other wildlife just about every time I visit.

If you want a quick escape and one which is guaranteed to bring an immediate smile to your face, try Big Meadows. You’ll not only enjoy the wildlife, but you’ll learn about the history of the Park, the history of the Indians and mountain folk who were essentially kicked out when the land was dedicated as a National Park, the efforts of the Civilian Conservation Park who literally broke their backs to build the Park, and the unique nature of the meadow itself which boasts and endless supply of amazing plants and flowers which have a history of their own.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

ULA-Equipment Rain Skirt

One piece of gear that gave me some mental grief was rain gear. I simply couldn’t figure out what I wanted to carry which was lightweight and kept me dry. For a long time I wore Gore-Tex Paclite, which worked fine until I started sweating because it didn't breathe very well. Getting soaked from the inside is just about as bad as being soaked from the outside (although it was warmer...which is actually more important than anything else). Ultimately I didn't like carrying it because I rarely used it and continually thought it wasn’t worth the weight. I then switched to eVENT, which was wonderful, but again I didn’t like carrying the extra weight because it was an item I rarely used. DWR treated garments worked to some extent and were lighter, but often felt clammy or cool and eventually the DWR wore off. Finally I wised up and settled for a DriDuck/Frogg Togg outfit which worked fine as I had no intent on using it for bushwacking and it was both lightweight and highly breathable…not to mention inexpensive.

My choices in rain gear then pushed me in a direction I never thought I’d go – to wearing a skirt. I figured the lightest pair of rain pants was good enough, but the reality was that all rain pants are generally a pain to put on because it required that I take off my shoes. With the exception of those made with extremely breathable fabrics, most were usually hot, didn’t ventilate very well, and cost more than I’d like.

In the end, I settled on the Rain Wrap from ULA-Equipment ( Now I fully appreciate the fact that a man wearing a skirt comes with it a certain lack of machismo, but the reality is that I choose my backpacking gear by electing for function over fashion. The function of a rain skirt works well, but little did I know the skirt would be one of those multi-use pieces of gear which I simply can’t imagine not carrying at this point. The ULA-Equipment Rain Wrap has many imitators, but I like this version for several reasons. Aside from keeping my legs dry and offering good ventilation, the Rain Wrap can also be unfolded flat to be used as a ground cloth, sleeping system cover for drippy shelters, a modesty wrap when doing laundry and not having a spare piece of clothing, and even a sling. I could envision it as a temporary water container too and other things, but you get my point. It even has a key chain and a small pocket for it to pack into itself into a very small package.

A medium is 2.9oz and $25, a large is 3.2oz and $25, and an XL is 3.7oz and $28… less expensive and more functional than any rain pant that I’ve found.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

J Fit Weight Vest

I don’t hike nearly as much as I’d like principally because there are bills to be paid and mouths to feed. With that said, I often find myself not being in the physical condition I’d like to enable me to hike with ease. Usually somewhere around mile 10, my calves and quads start to burn and the bottom of my feet get fatigued. From that point on my level of enjoyment starts to decrease dramatically.

As much as I’d like to say the remedy for this is merely to hike more, the reality is that I simply don’t have the time right now. Therefore to build leg strength and endurance, my only choice is to exercise the necessary muscle groups when I have the time. Leg lifts, leg presses, dips, lunges, and calf raises are all part of my weight routine, but they haven’t given me as much result as I had hoped. Running, cycling, and elliptical cardio efforts have helped with endurance, but not much with leg strength.

To supplement my leg exercises, I decided to buy a weight vest. The first thing I noticed when looking around was how expensive the vests were and then how much more they were when shipping was included. Since weight generally determines the cost of shipping, this drove the prices up dramatically and made purchasing most vests unrealistic.

One vest I liked in particular was from J Fit. It was a 30 pound neoprene vest which seemed about right for the amount of weight I want my body to get used to carrying. It had padded shoulder straps, adjustable chest straps, and a pocket for a music device. It also came with a highly visible reflective tape which allowed the user to be more visible when wearing it outside. Although I didn’t like the increased “dork” factor, the reality is that reflective tape is a good idea being that if a car was bearing down on me, the weight of the vest itself would definitely slow my lackluster cat-like reflexes and thereby the shimmering of the vest itself may be the only thing saving me from becoming a permanent hood ornament.

Ultimately I found the J Fit vest for $57 and only $15 shipping. The seller used the new U.S. Postal Service boxes to his benefit as the slogan of “if it fits, it ships” meant that he could stuff 30+ pounds in a small box and ship it for a fraction of the cost other vendors were pushing. Granted, when I received the box it was completely demolished, but I got it safe and sound otherwise. I’ve worn it several times for everything from short-term hiking to 3+ mile runs and it works great for its intended purpose. Over time I hope it will help me become a better backpacker.