Blake's random ramblings and adventures

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New gear! Patagonia houdini jacket

Wind jackets. Nowadays, wind jackets arent like the crinkly heavy and bulky things they used to be in the 90’s. Materials have lightened up big time. This jacket is brand new to me, and after having some time to test it out, I can say unequivocally it will be joining me on most trips from now on.

Weighing in at just over 3oz, this is hands down lighter and smaller packing than my rain jacket. The design is incredibly simple- just a small zipper in the front, a draw cord at the waist and back of the hood, a small chest pocket, and the sleeves are half elastic.

There is a small pull cord on the main zipper for easier grasping. Here you see the only pocket, in the chest. This doubles as a stuff sack.

It packs down pretty small! From now on if I go on a day hike with little chance of precipitation, this will be carried in place of my rain coat. Supposedly it will repel light drizzle, but will soak through in extended rain. I haven’t had a chance to test it yet so can’t confirm.

I tested it out on a nice day by the beach. Being late April we obviously weren’t going in bathing suits. Sun was shining, but it was windy enough that just wearing a t-shirt was cold. I was extremely impressed with how much of a difference in warmth the houdini made. Its perfect for situations where you would probably be warm if it wasn’t for the breeze.

The other place it was tested was a quick solo overnighter in Harriman state park. Here I’m listening to an audio book while watching the sun set from the top of a mountain. Really windy. Due to the lighter material, the hood will flap around quite a bit. If your back is to the wind, it’s not a problem, however even with the hood cinched it will blow down when facing the wind. That night temps begam to dip rapidly towards the upper 30’s, this jacket is definitely not cold weather worthy. Throwing on my down jacket between the houdini and my base layer was enough to keep me warm, and I do believe this jacket helped trap some of the insulation of my down coat.

You can see here the sleeves are only half elastic, I assume to save weight, but it works just fine. I had no issues with the sleeves covering my hands.

So its safe to say I’m sold on the idea of a wind shirt. While its not waterproof enough to take the place of a rain jacket, it breathes far better and in conditions that are windy but dry, it just makes more sense to hike in a wind shirt instead of a rain shell. For less than 3 and a half ounces, it is well worth its weight.


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Leave No Trace

Ok no gear review here, just a little rant on the state of outdoors. This weekend was the first real nice day we have had in a while, so I headed up to Harriman state park for a quick over nighter. 8 miles in, temps in the 70’s and sunny. Dropped to 30’s and rainy over night, then cloudy in upper 30’s/low 40’s for the hike out.

A few observations on the trail. Arrival at the trail head found me with almost no place to park. Its good, I guess, to see more people going outside. This post is about responsibility. Less than 5 mins there and I witnessed a group of older hikers belittling some guy for asking where the trail head was. Granted, guy had no equipment- not even a water bottle, and admitted to having no map. If you’ve never been to Harriman, there are tons of trails, criss crossing and intersecting like spider webs. This gives you tons of options for different loops, but can be confusing. Without a map, or without some basic emergency gear, this is irresponsible.

Complaint #2. Now admittedly, I am not necessarily someone who has the fondest respect of “rules and laws”. However in the back country, many rules are there for a reason. Camping regulations in Harriman State Park say that all camping is to be done within the vicinity of shelters. There’s a reason for this. When you pitch a tent, trample the ground, build a fire ring, you affect the eco system. You create an impact. By keeping camping to a designated area, you minimize that impact to a smaller area and help keep nature more natural. The picture above is 4 tents set up at a non-designated site. There was a bunch of kids there, I assume a boyscout troop. This is irresponsible of the troop leaders to teach kids to violate these guidelines.

3rd gripe of the day: PACK OUT YOUR DAMN TOILET PAPER!!! I swear next person I catch just leaving tp on the trail I’m gonna make them eat it. I couldn’t believe how much toilet paper was just left right on trail. Like girls don’t even bother to step off trail to pee, they just do it right on trail and leave the paper there. Its easy- bring a separate zip lock bag, put all used TP in it, and throw it away at the trail head. Many trail heads have garbage cans. When I got to camp- by the shelter, as you’re supposed to- I found tent city. Tents everywhere spread out all over. Someone had a tent pitched inside the shelter. If you do that, you’re an asshole. Shelters are supposed to be shared amongst people, and you can fit 8 people in one. I don’t want to sleep by strangers, so I bring a tent. So I find a somewhat secluded little notch with a fire ring, and a spot obvious where tents have been before. Pitch my tent here, to keep the impact of camping to a specific area. While walking around to find a spot to hang my bear bag, I find a pile of human excrement, with wads of TP on top of it. NASTY!!! Bring a trowel and dig a hole! You people out here doing this stuff is why I come to the woods in the first place.

I see the impact of humanity on the earth-power plants, garbage dumps, litter, yelling at each other on free ways, war, pollution, etc… and I can’t take it sometimes. So I head to the woods to find something wild and natural for a fee days. Instead I find smaller versions of humanity’s same lack of respect for the environment. If this continues, we won’t have places free of human impact. So lets revisit leave no trace rules:

Plan Ahead and Prepare

  • Know the regulations and special concerns for the area you’ll visit.
  • Prepare for extreme weather, hazards, and emergencies.
  • Schedule your trip to avoid times of high use.
  • Visit in small groups when possible. Consider splitting larger groups into smaller groups.
  • Repackage food to minimize waste.
  • Use a map and compass to eliminate the use of marking paint, rock cairns or flagging.

Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces

  • Durable surfaces include established trails and campsites, rock, gravel, dry grasses or snow.
  • Protect riparian areas by camping at least 200 feet from lakes and streams.
  • Good campsites are found, not made. Altering a site is not necessary.
    • In popular areas:
      • Concentrate use on existing trails and campsites.
      • Walk single file in the middle of the trail, even when wet or muddy.
      • Keep campsites small. Focus activity in areas where vegetation is absent.
      • In pristine areas:
      • Disperse use to prevent the creation of campsites and trails.
      • Avoid places where impacts are just beginning.

Dispose of Waste Properly

  • Pack it in, pack it out. Inspect your campsite and rest areas for trash or spilled foods. Pack out all trash, leftover food and litter.
  • Deposit solid human waste in catholes dug 6 to 8 inches deep, at least 200 feet from water, camp and trails. Cover and disguise the cathole when finished.
  • Pack out toilet paper and hygiene products.
  • To wash yourself or your dishes, carry water 200 feet away from streams or lakes and use small amounts of biodegradable soap. Scatter strained dishwater.

Leave What You Find

  • Preserve the past: examine, but do not touch cultural or historic structures and artifacts.
  • Leave rocks, plants and other natural objects as you find them.
  • Avoid introducing or transporting non-native species.
  • Do not build structures, furniture, or dig trenches.

Minimize Campfire Impacts

  • Campfires can cause lasting impacts to the environment. Use a lightweight stove for cooking and enjoy a candle lantern for light.
  • Where fires are permitted, use established fire rings, fire pans, or mound fires.
  • Keep fires small. Only use sticks from the ground that can be broken by hand.
  • Burn all wood and coals to ash, put out campfires completely, then scatter cool ashes.

Respect Wildlife

  • Observe wildlife from a distance. Do not follow or approach them.
  • Never feed animals. Feeding wildlife damages their health, alters natural behaviors, and exposes them to predators and other dangers.
  • Protect wildlife and your food by storing rations and trash securely.
  • Control pets at all times, or leave them at home.
  • Avoid wildlife during sensitive times: mating, nesting, raising young, or winter.

Be Considerate of Other Visitors

  • Respect other visitors and protect the quality of their experience.
  • Be courteous. Yield to other users on the trail.
  • Step to the downhill side of the trail when encountering pack stock.
  • Take breaks and camp away from trails and other visitors.
  • Let nature’s sounds prevail. Avoid loud voices and noises.
  • .

This is right off’s website. Learn these rules and follow them. Our natural world is depending on us.

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Getting started in backpacking

So you’re ready to spend a night out in the woods. You’ve decided you want to brave deadly venemous snakes around every corner, and are prepared to face the bears and wolves prying to get inside your tent. Good!

Backpacking is awesome. It kinda sucks sometimes, but thats also why its awesome. Maybe you’re a day hiker who knows what its like to have sore feet but several miles more to walk. Or you may just want to travel farther and see more when you go out. Maybe you’re a car camper who wants to feel like they’re roughing it more, or is sick of crowded camp grounds. Maybe you just want to escape the hustle and bustle of crazy modern civilization and get back in touch with your true animal nature.

Whatever your reason, awesome. The more people falling in love with our natural environment, the more people there will be who see the importance of protecting it. No matter your goal, having the right gear is crucial. This article should give you a good idea on exactly what you need. Gear lists can be tailored to the individuals preferences and comfort zones, but this is a good place to start. I’ll go over other choices and modifications as well. I see so many new backpackers just bringing way too much stuff. I made the same mistakes early on, lack of experience tells you to bring more “just in case”. The downside is suffering on trail under a 60lb pack.

While the pile of stuff can look like a lot to remember heading out, the easiest way to understand it is by breaking everything down into systems or components. This way you can add or subtract from each one to suit your own comforts or goals.

The first system is your sleep system. You will need either a tent or a tarp to shield you from the elements. A sleeping pad insulates you from the cold ground, and your sleeping bag keeps you warm. Inflatible pillows weigh so little and do so much to increase sleeping comfort I see little reason not to bring this.

System 2 is food and water. You need a bag to carry food, and rope to hang it. I like a waterproof stuff sack to stop my food from getting soggy if it rains. Hanging your bag is a must in the back country. If a bear gets your food, it will become a problem bear and may be put down.

You need a pot to cook with. All I ever do is boil water. You don’t need a frying pan, unless cooking a gourmet meal, and not hiking very far is a priority. I use a snow peak trek 900 with an MSR micro rocket. An eating utensil is also needed, but alas, when taking this photo I just lost my spork for the 5th time.

You definitely need a way to purify water. You can use tabs, pump filters, or another means. I use a Sawyer squeeze. Better flow rate than the mini and less weight than a pump filter.

System 3 I call tools and repairs. Map and compass for navigating. Don’t go out without these. GPS devices are also good, but can fail. The trowel is for digging cat holes. Carry a cutting instrument. I like a smaller fixed blade. If you wanna go lighter, carry a pocket knife.

A headlamp is easier to use around camp than a handheld flashlight, but bring something to see in the dark with. Bring spare batteries. I carry a small roll of duct tape in case something needs a repair. Also carry a way to start a fire.

#4 is your toiletries kit. Toilet paper, toothpaste/toothbrush, sun screen, bug spray, hand sanitizer, and a small first aid kit are the minimum you should bring.

I also like to bring some wipes. Its a nice way to freshen up before climbing into my tent, and gives mr some semblance of cleanliness. I know people who bring no rinse shampoos or wilderness wipes to be more clean. If I’m going on a longer trip, or plan to cook something in my pot, I bring some bio degradable soap. I will also use soap to wash my hands and face at night. And as towlie always says, “Don’t forget to bring a towel!”

Hand sanitizer is an easy way to kill germs and prevent illnesses. Use it before you eat anything, and after going to the bathroom. Also, bring a separate zip lock bag for packing out TP. Its gross to see wads of toilet paper just sitting on the trail. Practice LNT, pack it out.

Some people may think they need a full blown, hospital grade first aid kit. Thats probably unnecessary, but definitely bring some gauze, a few bandages and some simple drugs. I make sure I have ibuprofen for pains, an anti-histamine to deal with any allergic reactions fron plants or insects, and an anti diarrheal in case of contaminated water.

Bring sunscreen. I’ve been sun burned on overcast and chilly days. Bug spray depends in the season.

Last is your clothing system. I bring a set of wool long johns for sleeping in. Alwayd have a dry sleep outfit. Spare underwear and socks for camp, hat and gloves if its chilly. A light down jacket will keep you warm, and rain jacket and pants for bad weather. Some people bring a spare shirt, socks, and underwear for every day they’re on the trail. I find this unnecessary weight. One outfit to hike in, one outfit to sleep in, something to keep me warm and something to keep me dry. If its colder I will add an extra fleece that will probably be worn while hiking.

If you stick to that system above, you will be warm and safe in any 3 season conditions you will run into, and will have a light enough pack to enjoy your journey. If you are new, I suggest starting with these systems, and then add or subtract items with experience. I don’t mind carrying an extra 1.4lbs to have a chair now a days. At minimum I bring a sit pad. Just know the mantra of backpacking- more weight on your back = better camp, worse hike. Less weight on your back = better hike, worse camp. Decide what you want to achieve and the experience you want, then shift your gear to fit your goals.

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Sea to Summit ultralight insulated sleeping pad review

Definitely the best part of tax season is buying new stuff. This is my so far experience with my new pad, the sea to summit ultralight insulated sleeping pad.

Specs for this version as follows:

  • Dimensions 78x25x2
  • Weight 1lb 4.9oz
  • R value 3.3

There’s so much to think about when getting something as important as a pad. A good night’s sleep can make the difference between an awesome trip and a miserable one. The other huge contender for me was the thermarest neo air xlite. After a few nights on this pad, my opinion is that what you give up in weight and a few degrees warmth with the sts ultralight, you gain in comfort.

The pad packs down to a typical size for a sleeping pad. While not as light as the thermarest xlite, its still 4oz lighter than my previous pad, so chalk that up to a win in the weight department.

The valve is interesting. Same valve as on my sea to summit aero pillow, bit the design is far more noticeably beneficial on the pad. First, it takes exactly 10 breaths for me to fill it completely. Compare that to the 30 breaths it took to fill my thermarest neoair trekker.

By pushing that tiny button, you can then let just a little air out until you find the desired firmness. Most interesting, when its time to pack, the air is released in about 1 second. Very time saving if you want to hit the trail sooner.

Here’s me feeling more comfortable than I ever have sleeping in a tent with this pad. The quilted style baffles are just really comfortable. Sea to summit also makes a comfort light and a comfort plus pad which are supposedly even more comfy. They also weigh more, which is why I chose this. Hits the perfect sweet spot.

My 2 complaints: 1, it could be a little warmer. On my first night it Shenandoah, it dropped to about 30 degrees. I woke up in the middle of the night feeling like there was an icy hand grabbing my butt from underneath and sucking all the warmth out of me. Just that one part of me. I grabbed my thermarest z seat and put it under the cold spot amd I was fine the rest of the time, but if its anywhere near the 30 degree mark again, I would probably bring a foam pad to supplement. For the majority of 3 season camping it should be fine though.

My second gripe is with the baffles. They are dirt magnets. Not even 3 hours of having it inflated, every hole had dirt in it. The pad on the left here was totally fine. Its very difficult to get the dirt out as well, you have to go in each hole individually and wipe it out. For me its a minor issue, I am camping in the woods and sleeping on the ground. As long as I’m comfortable I don’t care about a little dirt, but if you are a neat freak it may be something to consider.

Anyway thats it. I’m looking forward to spending some time on this pad and getting a deeper opinion.

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Sierra Designs Flash 2 FL

New season, new tent!

Backpacking gear is a never ending evolution. Constantly looking at new products, buying them, testing them, selling them, buying more, all in a never ending quest for the ellusive “perfect” gear. Well this year, my research led me to this interesting tent. I got to try it out for the first time camping in Big Meadows im Shenandoah National Park.

So first, a few things that led me to this decision. My first backpacking tent was a mountain hardware drifter 3. I still love that tent. It has ample room for 2 people, plenty of head room, highly storm worthy and very affordable. Unfortunately, its bulky and weighs around 6lbs.

Getting into solo backpacking, I ended up with a tarptent contrail. This tent is mega light. You don’t even know you’re carrying it. It does a great job of keeping bugs away, and can handle moderate weather in warmer conditions.

I found it unreliable and uncomfortable a few times. Raining, low temperatures do not work with single wall sil-nylon. On a late October trip on the Black Forest Trail, I had to drop the foot box low and seal the front door due to rain. This limits ventilation, which created a TON of condensation. Continued rainfall knocked drops off the inside of the tent, splashing my face. Imagine trying to sleep, but every 5 minutes someone sprits ice cold water on you. Not fun. This also made my down sleeping bag totally soaked.

I had borrowed my Dad’s Zpacks triplex tent on a couple trips.

Sleeping in this tent, I am fairly confident the duplex is my dream tent. Its also a wee bit out of my budget. So the Flash 2 it is!

The Flash 2 is a hybrid single/double wall tent. This intrigued me. It also lacks traditional vestibules, instead incorporating “gear closets” to store stuff out of the rain. The 3rd feature to really dazzle me is the awnings over the doors.

We slept in the flash 2 for 2 nights. One night we got freezing rain, amd the other just rain. The tarp pictured was due to car camping, so i only really tested the awning on one side, but I can say it works as advertised.

The door has a zippered mesh panel that rolls down. This can result in dirt being picked up and brought into the tent if not careful. The mesh panel has a solid flap behind which can be zipped to block sideways rain and wind. If rainfall is mild or only coming straight down, you can leave up just the mesh for views.

My major goal for a tent was comfort without getting too heavy. Many 2 person tents have a taper, starting at 50-55 inches and tapering to aound 42″-46″. Sleeping pads come in 20″ standard width or 25″ wide width. It was important that the tent I got was at least 50″ the whole way. Above are 2 wide sleeping pads, a thermarest neoair trekker and a sea to summit ultralight insulated. They fit, but it was tight. Between the door and the mesh is a panel of single wall tent. In the cold and wet temps, this did produce some condensation, which my sleeping bag did get a bit damp from rubbing against. If I was using this tent solo it would be a non-issue. Still, nowhere near as bad as my contrail was. I’m to a point now I believe if its in the 30’s and raining its just gonna happen. Suck it up or buy a bivy. There is also a 3 person version of this tent which would considerably increase room, but 4lbs is my limit for what I want to carry.

Here is the gear closet from the inside. It is big enough to fit shoes and a pack in, but there is a downside. The awning over the door will keep rain out of the tent if you are watching the scenery, but it will not protect gear. So you sit in the tent, take off your shoes, then pass them through this mesh door. I could not figure out how to do this without spilling dirt and mud over all my sleep stuff. The closet is staked out and does not have a way of accessing it from outside. So while I kinda like the feature, it suffers from its own design. Perhaps Sierra Designs can find a way to position the storage space so it can be accessed from outside the tent.

The entire roof is double wall design, but permanently attached. This means stuff doesn’t get wet setting up in the rain. There are also loops inside which could be used to run line to hang clothes to dry. I put a lantern on one and it was the perfect lighting.

The pole design was mildly complicated at first, but once you get it its easy to understand. What else is there to say about it? Like all gear, it has pluses and minuses, but overall I’m looking forward to spending more time in it. The major thing I can see me wanting to change in the future is weight. 4lbs isn’t terrible, but there’s a lot of tents for less out there. Right now though, I’m willing to pack more pounds for increased comfort.

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Helinox Ground chair review

Carry a chair while backpacking??? While super ultralight purists may scoff at the idea, I have decided for the 2018 3 season, I am going to pack this chair on every trip I take. Come 2019, I may ditch it, but I’m at least going to give it a shot.

The Helinox ground chair weighs in at 1lb 6 oz. And has a weight limit of 265lbs. I recently brought it along camping in Shenendoah National Park. While I didn’t do any backpacking, I used it extensively while camping at Big Meadows.

As you can see by me sitting here in deep thought, it sits pretty low to the ground. This can make it mildly challenging getting in and out of, but hey. In backpacking, everything you do is a slightly less comfortable and convenient way of doing this you would do at home. By dropping into a deep squat, I wad able to sit without rolling back. Getting up, I slightly rock back then use momentum to stand up.

The back support was what I was really after. Having 2 dessicated discs in my lower back, sometimes the strain of sitting on a rock or log is unbearable to me. This chair is surprisingly comfortable. I found it far more comfy to sit on than sitting at the picnic table.

It was also surprisingly durable. I never once felt like it would break on me, and I weigh around 220lbs right now.

One downside I discovered is its lack of insulation. It got down into the 30’s at night, and the slightest breeze would freeze your rear end. Maybe having a little reflective material on the seat could help, although for warmer trips its a non issue.

Perhaps end of season I will do a follow up review, but first impressions look good.

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The evolution of a good night’s sleep- pillow talk.

My favorite part of the day while backpacking is those first early morning moments. The darkness has just broken, the birds are chirping, there’s a cool mist in the air. You climb out of your tent, pour some water into your pot to heat for coffee, and just sit and enjoy. You don’t really get to experience that moment on a day hike.

One of my biggest challenges while backpacking has been getting a good night’s rest. Let’s face it- sleeping on the ground is just not as comfortable as an actual bed, with your plush pillows, cool sheets and warm blankets. I find the goal instead is to get comfortable enough that you can actually get some sleep, so you wake up feeling rested and recovered for the next day’s hike. I know there are many people out there who would scoff at the idea of a pillow for backpacking, but I am not one of those people. A good pillow is an important part of waking up rested.

This is a simple down jacket. My first few trips, I went with the school of thought that says, just sleep on your clothes! I don’t know who these people are that do this, but they are hard as nails. For me this sucked. Nothing makes you want to bail out of a trip early like sleeping a grand total of 2 hours after hiking 8 miles. So if you can be comfortable sleeping under any circumstances, and you would rather save the weight, have at it.

After a few trips, I realized how much I was going to need to do something if I wanted to sleep better. At 9oz for a size medium and right around $25, this seemed to be what I was after. It rolls up to 1/3 its original size. My first trip with it, and immediately slept better than with a rolled up jacket. Not great, but better. While it was more comfortable than clothing, it can feel slightly lumpy. Also, keeping it rolled up causes it to lose some of its loft, leaving it less comfortable than it felt at home. So the search continues…

Behold, the sea to summit aeros pillow! This was a huge step up from the thermarest compressible. At $43, it was also a step in cost. Weighing it at a mere 3.1oz, I see no reason to to carry this everywhere. You can adjust comfort by inflating or deflating more or less. The material is soft and comfortable, and the neck contour keeps it in all the right places. I have thoroughly enjoyed this pillow and its made backcountry sleeping much more enjoyable.

This season I am going to test the trekology ultralight pillow. The material isn’t as soft as the sea to summit, but its the cheapest of all, and lightest! $15 for only 2.75oz is amazing. It is also much larger than the aeros, and preliminary testing is that its slightly more comfortable. I may post a review after I have a chance to spend a few nights.

Here’s packed sizes. If space is a concern, the thermarest compressible may fail utterly. It is big and bulky, no denying that, personally I am finding the inflatables much more comfortable.

I don’t know if the perfect pillow exists, but I am always open to keep testing!