Friday, February 2, 2018

To Quilt or Not to Quilt

To quilt or not to quilt? That is the question.

There's something new in the state of sleeping bags. It isn't a revolution. It's a revelation.

Quilts save weight, compared to sleeping bags, by eliminating insulation beneath the sleeper. It only gets compressed by your weight, anyway, rendering the insulating properties useless. Quilts pack smaller, open up fully into a blanket on warm nights, and their versatility means they work over a wider temperature range.

To make sleeping on an air mattress more like sleeping in bed under a duvet, manfacturers are introducing all kinds of closure innovations to wrap you up like a burrito at night. Some quilts use zippers; some use bottons and snaps; some use straps and pull cords.

The bottom line: quilts are a game changer for people like me who toss and turn at night. No more rolling off your sleeping pad. No more getting twisted up in the hood you cinched around your neck. If you are a side or stomach sleeper, are you willing to trade the cocoon-coziness and "draft security" of full enclosure for a roomier, more comfotable night's sleep?

Last year I reported my first summer quilt experiences with the Nemo Siren 30 and Western Mountaineering EverLite 40, both in the ultralight sleeping bag category. Both are built for warm weather or even tropical trips with nights, ideally, in the 60s. In a pinch, both bags should weather dips into the 40s, as long as you're wearing everything in your pack. I found the Siren warmer, quieter and more comfortable, even with its "bare back" design that requires you to slip your sleeping pad inside. The EverLite is more versatile. Its full length zipper lets you open the bag up for a great car quilt or travel duvet.

Three Season Use

Now for upgrading the three season bags in our household. Since Wee Sprite is suddenly taller than I am, it was time to retire her favorite REI kids' model. While at it, I reluctantly decided to part with my trustworthy Western Mountaineering 15 degree mummy bag. Still in great condition, I knew it would fetch a good price. But the zipper was on the wrong side, which had always bothered me, and the GoreTex Pro shell had always semeed a tad too stiff and noisy. I recycled both sleeping bags through Roanoke Mountain Adventures.

Folks at my local shop Back Country Ski & Sport (serving AT hikers in the Roanoke Valley since 1979) helped me choose another innovative model from Nemo to replace Sprite's sleeping bag.

Nemo's Jam 15
Nemo's Women's Jam 15 down sleeping bag,
only available in right zip right now. The
ingenious vertical zippers allow heat to vent
on warm nights through the baffles.
Not Mummy's Mummy

The Jam 15 has a lot going for it--including the same blanket fold feature I'd enjoyed with my Siren. It far outperforms any draft collar I've ever had to strangle myself with in order to keep cold air off my neck. Tuck it in around your shoulders on a cool night, push it out on a warm night--this single design feature almost makes you feel like you're sleeping in a bed.

For my new three season sleep system, I'll be experimenting with a very warm version of the Revelation 20 quilt that has taken thru hikers, touring cyclists and paddlers by storm. Enlightened Equipment of Minnesota sells the Revelation off the shelf in limited lengths, widths, colors and configurations. Their custom-made quilts offer a dazzling array of options.

My Revelation

In the life cycle of an adventurer, I've entered the Mature Phase. I sleep colder now. So I heeded user advice and ordered a quilt with a warmer comfort rating. EE's published ratings are for survival, not comfort, so went TWO steps warmer. This should compare favorably with my old WM alpine mummy bag. I chose a wide width (best for side sleepers) and a compromise shell weight between light and durable (20D ripstop fabric on the outside, 10D on the inside).

My virtual Revelation 0 quilt,
as pictured on the clever EE web site. 
Mind-boggling customization1
Here's my configuration.

A note about what I see as the major drawback of sleeping quilts vs. sleeping bags. Quilting means that you will be sleeping directly on your sleeping pad or air mattress. When's the last time you checked in the dictonary under Exped, Sea to Summit or Thermarest for "breathable" or even "comfortable against the skin"? Luckily, there's a solution to this problem. But it won't win you street cred with the ultralight brigade.

Ever since lighter down with greater loft became available, I've been using a sleeping bag liner as part of my sleep system. Not only is a liner softer next to the skin than any nylon shell, it keeps skin oils and moisture away from your expensive, fragile 800+ goose down. Now, with a sleeping quilt, your liner can be used for that cocoon-like feeling of enclosure on a cold night. On warm nights, slip your pad into the liner and it's almost like sleeping on a bed sheet.

So light weight is not the primary reason why I'll test drive a premium down quilt this year for three season use. It's comfort. And versatility. And adventure.

Is 2018 when you'll make the switch from sleeping bag to quilt? Let me know!

With this model, Enlightened Equipment makes a donation to Texas hurricane relief.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

RIP Fresh Mojito

The dearly departed Scarpa Mojito Fresh
Know what I miss? My Mojito Fresh 

Try to grab a pair if you can. There are still a few lurking around the internet. Scarpa made them in European half sizes that fit my feet like a glove.

Why discontinue them? My replacement pair, Mama Mojito, looks handsome in suede. Comfy but too damn hot in summer.

Goodbye, little Mojito. Come back soon.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

New Rule on Ultralight Tents

New rule: don't stuff your ultralight tents any more. You've got to fold 'em or roll 'em. 

I've come to this conclusion after a few seasons of endless tent repair on my BD Hilight, a single wall.

Dainty ultralights (made from fabrics lighter than 10 denier) have their appeal, but toughness isn't one of them. The micro holes seem to be caused by abrasion inside the pack. This is being confirmed all over the web by other ultralight tent testers. And it's something that none of us can fully prevent.

It spells good news, though, for pricey footprint sales. Buy one for all your ultralights, then wrap them up inside like burritos for travel. You've got a backup in your tent floor, after all, in case the footprint tears on a rock or a root.

Don't be wet. Just buy a footprint.

This season I'm comparing two double-wall 2P tents with double doors: the Copper Spur UL from Big Agnes and the Nemo Hornet. I'll let you know how it goes.

Monday, April 17, 2017

New Ultralight Summer Sleeping Bags

Global warming means I never know what season I'm in any more.

But I can say this for sure: summer is when you're only willing to carry a 500 gram sleeping bag.

This year I've been sleeping better with an ultralight wrapped around me. It's the down Siren from Nemo Equipment. It's as pretty as a backless dress and designed like one too.

At 530 grams of 850-fill power down, it's rated below freezing if you cinch it up completely. The bag has a wide temperature range if you drape it loosely like a duvet and layer up or down underneath.

I tested this versatility recently on the AT, on nights ushered in by warm winds, followed by cold storms that cleared 'round midnight. Near dawn, it started to rain again.

At bedtime I slipped my insulated Exped DownMat into the foot of the bag and drew in the drawstring beneath the sleeping pad to wrap it loosely around the sleeping pad. I snuggled into a Thermax liner and wiggled in, drawing my covers up loosely around my chest. During the night, there were always plenty of covers to burrow beneath.

The Siren is luxuriously quiet. Its wraparound design meant that I never once slid off the pad. The quilt concept offers near boudoir-quality freedom of movement. I drifted awake almost certain I was in a bed, not in a tent.

Western Mountaineering makes an even lighter summer quilt (411 grams), rated to 40F, that practically disappears in your pack or pannier bag and unzips fully for hostel use. It's not as pretty, not as soft and not as quiet as Nemo's Siren. What is? But the Western will be my low-elevation summer bedmate after May day.

Down insulation: still warmest for its weight.
Still the most packable. Still the most comfortable.
Pricey and high maintenance, but worth it.
I wish all manufacturers certified their down like Patagonia does....

Pet Peeve Since 2015

I know it's been a couple years since my last post (!) but...

When will trusty Nikwax redesign its bottle caps?

Base Wash holds up to competitors and Base Fresh is by far the best deoderizer in its class. I'm fussy about my laundry and I love this stuff.

But it's impossible to measure detergent from the cap, as directed, without residue leaking all over when you try to screw it back on the bottle.

Almost all Nikwax products suffer from this problem. Maybe you'll have better luck than I in convincing the company to rethink their package design. Or else stick to their sandal wash, where there's only scrubbing to do, no pouring.

Your travel mates will thank you.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

My AT hike turns 25!

Happy New Year!

The dawn of 2015 over Lake Saint Clair
in my home town of Grosse Pointe, Michigan.
More about this fantastic image and its creator, Mark Graf at,
here at (c) Mark Graf. Used by permission.

2015 will mark the 25th anniversary of my year on the Appalachian Trail.

On my birthday in late April of 1991, my dog Ben and I ate our last home-cooked breakfast, packed our gear at Locust Hill Farm in Leesburg, hitched a ride to Harper's Ferry from Burdette and Suzie Wright, checked in at the Appalachian Trail Conference HQ and set out heading south from the midpoint of the AT. The goal: to walk all 2,184 miles of the white blazed footpath in one season.

It had been a cold winter with big storms, and the ATC volunteers told me that the word from the near-starved northbound hikers was that lots of people had dropped out since taking their first steps on the AT at Springer Mountain, Georgia.

My first hump up the hill was hell in an overweighted pack, and all I remember about those first few days was a hundred blowdowns that it took hours to get under, over and around. The going was slow from the start. Fifteen miles and 6,000 feet of climbing was a big day for me back then under those 50 lb. pack weights. I don't think I met anyone in my first two weeks on the trail, similar to the tale told by The Kitchen Sink Couple. It rained 25 days in a row for the next 500 miles. Virginia was a slog. Even with Ben for company--always hilarious--I had trouble getting up and getting motivated in the morning. But I stuck to it.

Along the way, I met and read logbook entries of northbounders whom I keep track of and caught up with, later, at the base of their journey's end atop Mt. Katahdin in Baxter State Park, Maine.

I interviewed them for the film I was making, climbed Katahdin with them, then kept walking south.

Suzanne and trail dog Ben at Trail Days 1991.
Your hair grows two shades darker
under the big green canopy for months at a time.

By Thanksgiving, Ben and I had accomplished all but a few hundred miles of the AT. I got off the trail in Vermont, took a break, and completed the journey (re-covering much of the territory) in 1992.

Imagine my surprise on Christmas day when one of my thru-hiking pals, trail name weathercarrot, posted the 1992 documentary I made of that trek here on YouTube.

Most of the articulate, insightful people you meet and see in this video--like photographer Dave Fleischman and weathercarrot, whose stunning AT and PCT photography projects include this history of ALDHA, the Appalachian Long Distance Hikers Association and "yearbook" videos for thru-hikers that span every section of the Pacific Crest Trail--have since gone on to bigger and better long-distance hikes; long term commitments to selfless service as trail maintainers; and satisfying artistic careers as nature photographers. It is with real humility that I share their work and their stories with you now, because the amateurish quality of my own work (all still images!) will definitely strike you as low-tech.

Back in 1991, our heavy analog camera equipment probably took up two or three liters of space in our packs! And it weighted a ton. Our music players played cassette tapes. Short of a National Geographic production, there was no way to bring a film crew along on your thru hike. Still photography, sketches, words on paper, and the occasional voice recordings made when a sound recordist could meet us in a shelter near a trailhead...these things were all we had to make artistic sense of our adventures.

Thanks, weathercarrot, for the most thoughtful Christmas present ever. Without your patience and persistence, people would not be able to share our story.

Trail Days 1992 with Suzanne selling copies of Bill Irwin's "Blind Courage"
and STI tapes from her car in Damascus, VA. Photo: weathercarrot.

Sometime after Trail Days in 1992, my distributor's barn caught fire in Vermont, destroying every VHS copy I didn't have on hand. I never bothered to transfer the 3/4 inch master tape to DVD, because by then, the music rights had long run out under the terms of the very generous permissions I had been granted to produce the project as a not-for-profit work of art.

Trail Days 1992. Photo: weathercarrot.

A few years ago, I was contacted by some folks who wanted a copy for a hikers hostel in Pennsylvania. It was a flattering request, and today I am even more flattered to see that STICKING TO IT still seems to warm a few wild hearts.

I hope to have more for you from the AT class of '91 in the months to come. What did I read? you wonder. Possession by A.S. Byatt, word by gorgeous addictive word, using yesterday's devoured pages for today's loo paper as I went along. What did Ben eat? Mostly my supper, supplemented by the doggy GU of the day, liver powder in his water bowl, courtesy of an eccentric Virginia dogsledder (???) who ran a place called The Sled Dog Store, as I recall, which supplied us out of Roanoke. On the seven months that Ben and I slept together that year, he clearly became much more like a person (very courteously waiting before he ate the remains of my supper) and I think I became a bit more like a dog. Which I've never regretted for a moment. Amore!

I wish you a happy new year, with white blazes as far as you can see. Follow your bliss.

Trail Days 1991. Photo: weathercarrrot.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Post trip

Creative use of the hotel room balcony
After a few days powering down the spectacular Minong ridge on Isle Royale, I'm resting and refueling at Lake Bemidji, the headwaters of the Mississippi, grateful for everything in my pack (especially my trekking poles, critical on that quarter mile, one-plank "river crossing").

I hope the NPS will find time to recheck the mileage along that route. I met only eight people in three days along a thirty-plus mile footpath, all of them seasoned, and we all agreed that every mile felt like two--and very likely was closer to one and a half.

So much of the rocky, root-studded trail is hidden by armpit-high foliage this time of year that the hike turned into 38 miles of one deliberate step after another. The section where the ridge is exposed and slabby, between Little Todd Harbor junction and Lake Desor, would be unsafe (if even passible) when wet or foggy. Take heed and pack extra food for the rest day it would take to dry the rock or for the marine layer to lift.

Josh Knox and I admiring the view across Lake Superior to the Sleeping Giant

Don't forget to write up your trip report. After recording the weather, the route conditions, what was in flower and what was ripe enough to eat along the way (blueberries and raspberries were everywhere around me but alas, unripe), jot down what you needed (extra fuel and mosquito repellent!) and what you could have left behind (power brick for my iPhone). Take time to alert the rangers to any issues along your route. Your post trip checklist should also include a full day for laundry and air-drying a clean tent.

Don't let wet, dirty gear languish in hot cars where condensation can contribute to mold growth.

Once you get home, check to see if anything needs repair before shelving it.

See you out there next time. 

Signing off with the sunset view (minus the symphony of loon calls) of Todd Harbor, one of the loveliest nights I've spent in a tent in years. It's got everything a girl needs including a dock! 

Seaplane, anyone?

Group Site 1 at Todd Harbor has level tent platforms, a dock for your seaplane and your morning dip, a picnic table, this view at cocktail hour and a fire ring for tall tales, wolf songs and northern lights after dark.