Saturday, May 25, 2013

2013 Trail Days

Last week my wife and I made our annual 5-hour pilgrimage to Trail Day in Damascus Virginia.  Reflecting on nearly 10 years worth of experience making this pilgrimage, I always find it funny that one of two weather conditions are guaranteed (1) hot and humid, or (2) rainy and muggy.  This year, prompted by the fact that my wife got a new bike, we brought our bicycles as we had decided we’d deal with the conditions regardless.  We envisioned riding up and down the Virginia Creeper Trail, being able to navigate the town a little easier and otherwise having a far more mobile experience than we did in past years.  Oddly enough, the weather was rainy and relatively comfortable and I quickly learned that as a gearhead I really couldn’t stay away from the vendor tables long enough to deal with my bike which quickly found itself propped up against trashcans and fence posts.

The crowds this year were fewer than I had seen in the past, something I’d call a trend unfortunately.  Virginia-based Mountain Laurel Designs was a no-show which is very unfortunate for one of the very few hiking events let alone right in their backyard.  Ron Bell, owner of MLD, simply said he had too much work and would rather spend time responding more quickly to orders than gaining a few more.  I guess it’s a good problem to have, but I would hope he could have sparred a few hours as his team responded to orders.  I say this reflecting on Ron Moak, owner of Six Moon Designs, who annually makes the drive from Oregon.  I guess he sees the benefit of a few orders and mingling with the hiking community which I respect immensely. 
SMD continues to offer top notch gear and current prices are really enticing.  For anyone looking for a light two-person tent, check out their Lunar Duo which is 30% off this Memorial Day and is a steal at $142 versus $203.  If I didn’t already have one, I’d buy another in a second.  Ron was also driving his new smaller RV/Van in which he built out the interior himself.  I must say, I was jealous and impressed.  Earlier in the morning I got a kick out of listening to Ron talk with Gen Shimizu, owner of Yama Mountain Gear, another Virginia-based company with good stuff, but designs just aren’t that unique or big enough for someone my size for me to really pay them a lot of attention even though I would politely say his stuff is top-notch.  During the conversation Ron was telling Gen how to get out of the sewing business and start mass marketing his stuff.  Gen, whom I’ve met in the past and wanted to sell kits initially and not sew anything, likely wanted nothing more than to figure out how to sustain a business without being involved in the day-to-day sewing operations which I'm guessing is a road Ron has traveled several times.   

Mike St. Pierre from HyperLite Mountain Gear also made the drive from Maine.  For anyone who follows HMG, they pretty much jumped into the lightweight scene without all the drawbacks of a small company trying to market small items and going through the pains of growing the business.  Mike had investors which is a very different business model than other cottage businesses and is extremely evident based on his amount of very solid and widespread marketing.  You’ll see HMG nearly everywhere, and if you miss everywhere, you won’t miss their motorhome.  If my perspective means anything, it is all a bit overwhelming.  I’ve made a handful of purchases from HMG, returned most, and fondled quite a bit of HMG gear.  HMG is nice stuff, but I just can’t figure out where it fits in my gear closet.  ZPacks and Gossamer Gear are lighter; Gossamer Gear, Six Moon Designs and Mountain Laurel desires offer slightly heavier products which are more bulletproof and I find them to be more comfortable to carry.
For the first time in many years, Joe Valesko, owner of ZPacks, was at Trail Days with another staff member.  He had a very small booth swallowed up by HMG’s area.  Joe seemed very out of place because his gear is so far on one end of the spectrum that no one else really compares.  I got a kick out of all the novices passing by and trying to have conversations with him.  Overhearing him respond to questions like “what is cuben fiber” from people who looked like they had shares in Patagonia I’m guessing got on his nerves about the 10th time they were asked.  Still, Joe was very personable and he had the posture of “not only do I make my gear, but I live the backpacking lifestyle”.  There was a lot of experience standing under his little tent and I appreciated it.  In talking with him, I could tell Joe is swamped with business and the drive to Virginia was likely a burden to him.  I asked him about a couple custom modifications, and while he said he would do them, he told me that he’s getting very behind continuing to do custom work and would like to focus on both a new tent and new pack design he had been contemplating.  That’s intriguing considering how many times he’s put forth something on the market that no one else had done previously.
I had a good conversation with Judy Gross, owner of Lightheart Gear.  Her business is steadily growing and she opened up another business doing custom sewing, both her passion and her background.  She told me she’d love to unload “the tent business” and focus on sewing custom projects in small volumes.  Course, she’d still want to make her tents.

Each of these lightweight manufacturers are top-notch and I wouldn’t hesitate from buying from any of them.

A new company called Bedrock Sandals is marketing lightweight sandals (essentially glorified flip-flops).  Initially I walked by them as I’ve seen this attempt before, but BS actually took the effort a step further.  First, they initiated their business on Kickstarter, then invested in a 6mm flexible Vibram soles, soles which are much thinner and likely more functional than I’ve seen before.  There is also a lifetime warranty on them from defects and they’ll give you 50% off another order if you wear them out.  The result is a very lightweight and highly functional sandal.  While I don’t bring camp shoes, I have been known to bring water shoes to cross water hazards and truth be told…they could be upgraded.  About the only thing that irritated me was the price - $54.  That just seems too steep for me.  Shipping is an additional $5.25.  So if you’re doing the math, that’s $60 for literally the most thin and featureless sandals you can purchase…and don’t forget $2.95 in taxes bringing your purchase to $61.95!  Course…I do own a lot of titanium and cuben…
The push of hammocking manufacturers over the last 3 years and their increasing footprint was definitely toned down this year which I suspect was singularly because their businesses are becoming far more successful.  Jacks R Better, Hennessey Hammocks and Eagles Nest Outfitters were the only staples as the rest stayed home.  DutchWareGear went from sharing a small tarp area with Ultimate Hammock Book author Derek Hansen to having his own larger area which not only showcased his growing business but also drew attention to his newly designed website.
Some of the outdoor magazines I read offered free samples for a product called Ready Fuel who had a booth at Trail Days.  I received a free sample, but hadn’t used it.  I picked up another sample and ultimately purchased some of the product after talking with the owners.  Essentially Ready Fuel is a gel-like substance originally developed for the U.S. military to use with MRE's.  It is clear they really don’t know what to do with it as they were trying hard to sell the fuel with a haphazardly made aluminum stand singularly made to fit a canteen cup which is largely irrelevant to the backpacker community.  Nonetheless, the product is compelling.  It is lightweight, easy to measure, packs small, burns into nothingness, won’t evaporate-freeze-or-melt, byproducts are carbon dioxide, water and sand, it is non-combustible, non-explosive, travel friendly, water-soluble, burns up to 10,000 feet, smokeless and odorless, and is fairly inexpensive.  Once sample packet can boil 4 cups of water (1 gallon) in 20 minutes.  While the sample packets (which are also sold) must be ripped to open, they do sell a larger volume bladder with a screw-on top which is the version I purchased.  The sample versions are 1.25 oz and burn for a remarkable 20 minutes.  It has a guaranteed 30-year shelf life and as soon as I get a chance you can assume I’ll be testing the product.  For some good deals, go to and use code “UTILITY125” to get the product nearly 50% off.  Go to and enter the code “readyfuel” for 30% off your purchase.

My wife and I had plans at a resort about 3 hours north to celebrate our anniversary, so we left shortly before 1pm.  While checking my phone a couple hours later, I learned of a tragic accident that happened during the annual Trail Days Hiker Parade where successful past and present Appalachian Trail hikers walk down the main street as crowds clap and throw water balloons or use squirt guns.  It is all meant in good fun and an event everyone looks forward too.  Unfortunately, an elderly hiker who attended the event decided to get behind the wheel of his Cadillac during the parade and suffered a medical event causing him to lose control and plow through the crowds of hikers.  Initial reports were that 50-60 people were injured and up to 6 had to be airlifted out.  Only later was it learned that the driver died and the injuries sustained by hikers were far less in number and severity than initially reported.  Hopefully those who were impacted were able to finish their once-in-a-lifetime journey.  Prayers for all involved.

I must admit, overall I wasfairly disappointed with Trail Days this year, and if I’m being honest, the event has lost a bit of its luster than in years past.  This year was very ho-hum in that I felt like I had seen it all before and more of it.  With the real exception of ZPacks, only because Joe hadn’t been there recently, Ready Fuel, and Bedrock Sandals, there wasn’t a ton of reasons for me to go and I may think twice next year unless the lightweight industry comes up with some new innovation which has otherwise been stagnant for the last several years.

My apologies for lack of quality pictures this year.  My iPhone pretended to take pictures only to learn that there was an issue with the zoom which negated quite a few otherwise good opportunities to better tell the story of Trail Days.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

$9.92 Wal-Mart Wide-Brimmed Hat

Introduction to lightweight backpacking is often an eye-opening experience. I recall my own transformation which was through reading and study versus mentorship as the “movement” was in its infancy at that time. I remember the feeling that a burden had been lifted and replaced with a hopeful zeal filling my spirit ready to try new techniques and gear.

Nowadays, information on lightweight backpacking can be found fairly easily through books, videos and seemingly endless opportunities on the internet. What I figured out quickly, and succumb to equally quickly, was that pushing the limits of light and ultralight backpacking could quickly get expensive. In fact, I’d argue that many backpackers who go through the transformation from a traditional backpacker to a lightweight backpacker can visibly see their progress based on credit card statements. Prior to or when learning, REI and other brick and mortar stores fill the statement. While and after learning, cottage stores found mostly online fill the statement and spending limits have increased.
It is with this appreciation of my own spending habits that I am particularly excited when I find a functional bargain at a local Walmart.

I had been looking for a wide brimmed summer hat for quite some time. I have a Tilley, and the reality is that it is somewhat heavy and doesn’t breath as well as I’d like. I have an Outdoor Research Gore-Tex broad-brimmed hat, and it breathes so poorly that I barely use it even in winter. Styling of other options wasn’t desirable to me. Otherwise, my hat choices typically fall between a simple nylon baseball cap (which dries quickly, but doesn’t breathe well) and a Headsweats-style baseball cap which has been my go-to for quite a while. Any baseball cap-style hat generally does an adequate job, however in exposed areas, it doesn’t cover the neck area. This means I need to supplement my hat with a bandana or small towel. This is an entirely find solution and a visible reminder of how backpacking gear choices should focus on gear that has more than one function. But still, a wide brimmed and breathable hat is often more practical in some environtments and for some people than a baseball cap with limited coverage.

At my local Walmart, I found a wide-brimmed polyester hat with a mesh top, adjustable chin strap with toggle and neck drape. One element I really liked is the fact that there was a small pocket with a Velcro closure within the brim to fold up the neck drape when it wasn’t desired.  Having worn it for a short time now, I really appreciate how breathable it is too. The cost…$9.92. To my scrutiny, the quality was hardly different than some of the extremely expensive hats on the market (Tilly, Sunday Afternoon, Outdoor Research, REI, etc.). While I may or may not wear it on every outing as I’ll be the first to admit that sombrero-hats have the potential to look silly, the price and design is such that I’m honestly pretty excited to own it.

I looked on Walmart’s website for a link for the purposes of this blog and couldn’t find one. So the best I can do is to provide readers with information from the tag and photos. There are three tags on the hat. The first says “Tuck-Away Neck Drape”. The second says “Protect Your Skin. Wear Your Hat.” The third, the actual Walmart tag, reads, “Paddler With Vent”, “UM13202”, with a UPC of (8)874393164(1).

Sunday, May 5, 2013


During the first week of December, on a Thursday evening at approximately 7pm, I was exercising in my basement when my wife entered the room to hand me the phone. On the phone was a senior Vice President from my company whom I had known my entire career, but had little interaction with him as his division did not overlap with my business unit. In a three minute phone call he said, “I don’t know what you do, but my division is $6 million in the red”. He then informed me that he had just terminated my boss, one of 5 other Vice-President’s, and a handful of others (none of whom, like myself, understood him to be able to terminate any of us). Without hesitation he said words I’ve never heard in my life – “I’m laying you off”. I did my best to explain what I did and to remind him that my business unit had no affiliation with his division. I told him I had been with the company for over 12 years, longer than 95% of the company, and that my business unit was rated by outside U.S. Government assessors to be in the top 6% in the world. I informed him that what I did for an overhead business unit saved hundreds of thousands of dollars throughout the company each year and my value had only increased during my tensure.  My salary alone was paid for from a simple policy manual I had written and related training as it related to insurance savings.  As I took a breath to do my best to struggle to lay the groundwork to remain employed in a position for which I both enjoyed and thrived, he quickly cut me off and ended the call.

In the last 6 months since then, I spent countless nights reflecting on the fact that I was fired, for the first time in my life, by someone who was not my boss and had no idea what I did, after hours, over the phone, in three minutes, despite 12 years of exemplary service. I may be many things, but I’ve never been anything but usually the hardest worker in the room. I take pride in everything I do for my employer and always viewed myself as having the mentality of the World War II’s generation where I was grateful for my employment, honored them by sacrificing myself and did whatever I could to offer the best work product as efficiently and cost effectively as I could. Yet there I sat, unemployed, because none of that mattered.

I looked for work religiously for 4 months. I work in a very unique field, so I knew finding employment was going to be challenging at the on-set. What I didn’t realize is how deeply the effect of the results from the U.S. Presidential election in November and shameful decision to sequester all U.S. Government agencies would have on my job search. In this time, I didn’t meet a single hiring manager who wasn’t impacted from both of these events and easily voiced disdain over the leadership of the country. Over the course of 4 months, I applied for roughly 500 jobs. Of those, only 10 weren’t cancelled or put on hold because of the sequestration. Of the 10, I was interviewed for 7 positions. Of the 7, I was offered 4 positions and avoided 3 after learning that the  position was not a good opportunity.

In the end, I found new employment and so far I’m quite content with my new employer. Unfortunately, my new employer is 130 miles from my home. Until my house sells, I’ve been living out of a suitcase 5 days per week while my wife and two children try to keep things as close to normal as possible which seems relatively absurd being that my interaction with them is now limited to weekends or brief conversations over e-mail and video chat. It is heartbreaking to say the least, but I’m hoping this short-term struggle will turn into long-term happiness.

I never paid much attention to those who were unemployed until I was personally impacted. I think it is fair to say that many likely don’t appreciate certain topics until it impacts them. On September 11th 2001, I was scheduled to be in the Pentagon at 9am for a meeting. The evening before, the person I was supposed to meet called to tell me he had an unexpected flight the following morning and we were able to hash out our concerns over the phone. Whether I escaped the tragedy that occurred on that day or not, I was deeply impacted by the events. My next door neighbors worked at the Pentagon and shared stories of pulling bodies out. My girlfriend’s coworker was on Flight 93 which crashed in Pennsylvania and his last words to his wife over his cell phone were the immortal, “Let’s roll”, a common phrase he used with his children which his wife interpreted to be the moment that he and the passengers decided to rebel against the terrorists. I remember living right next to Dulles airport and the eeriness of no flights in the air for several days except for military fighter jets. I remember family and friends breathless and unable to comprehend the events, only to feel emboldened when I’d see an American-made truck driving down the road with an oversized American flag rigged to stand proudly and confidently in the whipping winds. This was an event that impacted me personally and just about everyone I knew in some way.  The impacts have never left the area even though many other parts of the nation and the world are able to quickly get back to their busy lives.  In the last two weeks, I find myself wondering if the people of Boston have a renewed appreciation for the War on Terror following the cowardly, feckless and anti-human actions of two youth who perverted and misunderstood their own religion to justify the maiming, injury and death of innocent and loved people from all walks of life.  Yet even as personally as I feel about these events, I likely completely under appreciate the same sense of insecurity and hardship that those in Israel and other similar areas experience on a daily basis.

While it is unfair to relate terrorism to unemployment, it is with a similar lens I now look at unemployment, meaning I look at it very personally. Now news stories and political decisions impacting jobs mean something to me. Those people waiting in line at the Employment Commission are people with families and lives. They and I are the same. The people I see standing outside my local Walmart with a dirty backpack and a sign saying “Will work for food” are people who could very well have been me and are people I now stop for to hand over groceries or money.  Layoff's, even with my new company, are met with deep concerns for people I don't even know and I find myself looking deeply into their faces to find some hope that they'll make it.

In the 4 months it took me to find a job, I reflected on life quite a bit. While I never was foolish enough to believe I was entitled to anything and always believed it was by the grace of God alone that I had any joy or peace whatsoever, it was clear that I didn’t appreciate the depths of the reality that truly no one was ever required to offer me a job again and there were no guarantees whatsoever that another paycheck was going to be deposited. The fact that I was a hard worker, educated, skilled, competent, and a “good human” meant very little to the wind in the trees which seemed to have about as much impact on me getting a job as did the majority of positions for which I applied.
It was in that reserved hopelessness that my mind wandered. What if I didn’t get another job? What resources could I tap to try to sustain? How long would my 401k last? Could I sell my house, and if not, what would the impact be if we had no choice but to walk? Should I buy an RV? Should I try to find work in a dangerous position just to be employed?  Should I look for work away from my family and what kind of impact would it have on them?  Do I need to purchase a generator or items where I could try to live in the woods? What about health care and education for my children? What about…life?

The overwhelming reality that I needed a job and an income were merciless. At no time ever in my life did I come to the conclusion that my future, and that of my family, may very well literally be in my own hands and in the resources I had amassed in front of me. When knee-deep in this affliction of despair, and truly having limited options, I felt I had no choice but to start learning and appreciating how to live SIMPLY and DELIBERATELY both now and for the foreseeable future.

My mom has been living by herself for nearly two decades and she and I have constant tension over how she spends her retirement savings. She lives in a 3-bedroom house packed full of furniture with cabinets literally bursting with things associated with a large family or someone who receives an endless string of visitors. She has neither.  My mom constantly tells me she needs "X” which only later I learn is because “X” is something one of her neighbors or friends implied to her was something necessary in life (or more accurately, a sign of status). She has spent countless money on "X" only for it to sit in some corner to collect dust, or in her mind, to be a trophy identifying her as "normal" and "just like everyone else". 

The constant comparison to others is a shockingly destructive element of the American way of life which is likely responsible for more financial woes, wars, political disagreements, medical ailments and the spewing of hate and discontent all because we genuinely believe having “X” will make us happy. Since my soapbox is already stacked quite high, I’ll avoid being more direct merely to say money is the root of all evil, so I’ll more simply say “unjustifiable and unnecessary greed is a tremendous source of discontentment”. When I was considering how little I would accept in a new position to enable my family to live life, it was a silly mental exercise of finally acknowledging how much money I waste and how I shamefully fail at managing my own money to the same degree as those in our society who we mentally or physically cast away into the dark corners of our conscious and cities.

So what does any of this have to do with lightweight backpacking? Well, arguably there was likely some cathartic venting of personal value, but perhaps the unsolicited advice I’m offering is to implore you to take a hard look at both your “life backpack” and your “actual backpack”. Live SIMPLY and DELIBERATELY. If you “need” something, then buy it, carry it and take care of it – just make sure you aren’t accidentally reading your “want” barometer.  Also, your generosity to others is a direct reflection of who you are and the hopeful expectations of how others should treat you in the event that you are in need.  In the event that one day you are in need, I trust you will seek the same hope you provided to others and hope is a good thing to have whether you have everything or nothing.

And the photos in this blog? Well, when there is a legitimate possibility that one may have no choice but to live in the woods if all else fails, one had better learn bushcrafting skills.  My backyard now looks like a pioneer camp from the 1800's and I feel I have added another arrow to my quiver of lightweight backpacking skills. And so my education in life continues, just this time without needing much more than nature (although an axe, knife, small handsaw and some snares are plenty helpful).