Friday, August 19, 2011

Stuck at Home: Planning, Inventory, Maintenance, and Packing

When I am not able to get away into the woods--due to say, having a 8.5 month pregnant wife! :)--there are still a lot of things I can do at home that are related to backpacking and camping, and that will improve my next experience.  The things I do at home before my next trip is usually the biggest reason if a trip is a success or a failure, fun or not, etc.

And if you are blessed/cursed to be the type of person that is nerdy and loves the many details, both big and small, of a given hobby, then like me you will actually enjoy the pre-adventure rituals.  I break them down into four stages, with each stage having its own dynamics.

1.  Planning.  Perhaps my favorite phase of the pre-adventure state!  This also has the most aspects, and because of this often takes up the most amount of time, money, and energy.

So I decide I want to go out into the woods and spend the night (or two, or however long I can get away with).  What is easy for me is picking a date, because I don't care about waiting for nice weather (I don't mind hiking/camping in the rain or snow), and and also because I don't mind going solo if my friends or family can't make it.  Then I pick a location I want to explore, check it out on Google maps, and perhaps go and buy a map (if I don't already have one) of the area.

Depending on how much time, money, and energy I might have during a given planning phase, the next thing I will do is consider the probable conditions and hazards before diving in to research different kinds of gear.  I have a pretty solid collection of gear of course, but as time goes on some gear needs to be replaced.  Sometimes gear is replaced because it is worn out, sometimes because I have found a better solution given the context of my needs and the trip in question.  As time goes on, technology never stops surprising me with its innovations, and backpacking and camping gear is no exception.

So I will check out new products, sometimes buy some brand new gear, often buy the same tried and true old gear.  As a full time student and father of one (soon to be two), funds are of course pretty tight, so I take this part of planning pretty seriously.  For example, for over a decade I have been using cheap yet effective hardware store bought plastic tarps to use as shelters.  In the past half year or so I have been researching other options, and to my surprise I find out about an amazing new material called Cuben fiber.  Now I am a pretty hardcore skeptic, but after reading many reviews and forum discussions from other nerds, I have to try it out for myself--especially after learning that it is much lighter and stronger than regular plastic tarps.

I now anxiously await a cuben fiber tarp (see above) along with some titanium stakes, which will probably replace my other tarps much of the time.  I look forward to testing it out!

So it helps to try and keep you finger on the pulse of not just backpacking/camping, but any hobby so that you can improve, modify, and overall evolve how you go about what you love to do. But of course this is not to say that older, tried and tested pieces of gear should all be thrown away.  Or that you have to replace all your gear, or even that it has to cost that much to make replacements.  The best thing to do is get as much information you can on a given piece of gear you are looking to improve, and then figure out if it is worth it to you and if you are able to go for it.

2.  Inventory.  Okay, so you know where you are going to go, what the conditions are going to be like, and you have a rough idea of what you are going to take.  Now is time to step things up and get organized.  The more organized you are, the better, and there are a lot of wonderful new tools available thanks again to technology and the internet.  

A website I also recently found out about is, and it makes the older pen-paper-calculator method of getting all your gear organized pretty obsolete.  There is a video on the site that explains how it works, but to see a sample of what you can do with it, here is a gear list I recently made after doing some modifications/improvements for fun: 

Once you can see a list of everything you plan on taking, you can then double check to make sure if the particular combination you put together is exactly what you need/want.  You may have forgotten something that you need to add, maybe you can get rid of something you don't think you will need anymore.  It is a good idea to just sit and reflect on your plans and your inventory to make sure as much as possible is accounted for so that you can have the best possible adventure possible.

3.  Maintenance.  Okay, this part of the process is perhaps not so fun sometimes--but it needs to be done.  Knives need sharpening/oiling, sleeping bags need cleaning/airing out, clothing/shoes/backpacks might need repairs, etc.  Not much to say here, you just have to go through your gear and make sure it is in good shape.

4.  Packing.  The last step that can (so long as you did a good job with planning and inventory) often only take several minutes right before you go on your adventure.  Make sure, however, that if you have a new backpack or new pieces of gear to try packing all your gear the night before to make sure everything fits and also try on your pack to make sure it is comfortable. 

When packing, also keep in mind that this process is a whole art and science as well.  It is like playing Tetris getting everything to fit properly, but you also want to have important things such as first aid easy to access.  Another thing that is good to have easy access is rain gear, should an unexpected downpour happen.

That's about it for now.  Once some new gear that is in the mail gets to me, I will post lots of pictures of a few different combinations of gear with my updated inventory.

As always, I welcome any questions, concerns, or feedback, and I hope this post was helpful :)

Saturday, August 6, 2011

When to go Lightweight, Ultralight, or Super-Ultralight?

This is going to be a rather wordy post, and is more directed at those that want to learn more about lightweight backpacking theory and implementation.  In the future, I am going to post lots of pictures of several of my updated backpack systems to give the readers a more concrete idea of what exactly it is I am writing about.  For now, the focus will be more abstract, and as such, I feel pictures may take away from this post.  If you are already schooled in lightweight backpacking or need to have pictures to read long blog posts, you may want to move on.

You have been warned, wall-o-text to follow!

If you have been following my blog, or if you are a backpacker, you already know about lightweight backpacking and what the different terms mean.  But for those that might not know, let me explain again.

The goal of the lightweight backpacker is to get under a certain weight in order to have less to carry while out hiking.  The weight guidelines are arbitrary of course, but a useful tool in achieving the goal of going lightweight.  Why go lightweight?  Hauling around a heavy load on your back is exhausting, and the energy you spend on this weight can take away from other goals and activities of the avid backpacker/camper.  For example, two people of the same physical condition, height, weight, etc. with two different backpacks will have a finite amount of kilometers they can hike, but the one with the lighter load will be able (all things being equal) to go further.

Now, perhaps walking a long distance through the woods it not a goal of yours (it is for me, I should add).  There are other things to consider.  What if you want to go swimming?  Or fishing?  Or harvest wild food like berries and mushrooms?  These are all things I enjoy, and these things take time and energy.  Even when I don't hike that far, I still want to have the time and energy to devote to fun things other than hiking and carrying a heavy pack.  Then there is the issue of wear and tear on your body.  The less you strain your joints, for example, with a heavy load, the better off your joints will be in the long term.

However if you are not hiking very far, and don't intend on doing devoting much time and energy to other things (perhaps you just want to set up camp, and sit comfortably by a fire, which is fine) then lightweight backpacking is not for you.  Just throw as much gear as you want in your car and in a huge backpack, and have fun at the edges of the woods.  You must accept the limitations inherent in this style of camping, however, and because the edges of the woods are easier to get to, don't be surprised when you find say, a loud group of drunken teenagers there too to keep you company.

But for those of us that want to go deeper into the woods, be able to see and do more, and avoid the crowds at the edges, then lightweight backpacking is a logical and very worthwhile endeavor.  Lightweight backpacking was pioneered and made more popular largely in the USA, so unfortunately for those of us that prefer the consistent and more logical metric system, the weight guidelines for the different types of lightweight backpacking are defined using pounds.  Lightweight (LW) is under 20lbs (about 9kg), Ultralight is under 10lbs (4.5kg), and Super-Ultralight is under 5lbs (2.27kg).  These weights refer to base weight, which means all gear without food, water, or fuel--those consumable items always change.

I feel like I have had to explain the above guidelines about a million times in the past year since I have been getting more and more into lightweight backpacking, which tells me that this sub-type of camping is still at least somewhat obscure and less accessible.  But don't let this, or the weight guidelines, intimidate you if you are new to camping/backpacking!  After reading up a few texts (like this one!), maybe watching a few videos, and doing a bit of research on gear, LW and even UL are relatively easy to get into and accomplish if you have an open mind.  SUL is more challenging, I must admit, so be prepared for a challenge there--you will have to give thought to every little gram, and it is only for the more devoted backpacker and not the novice camper.

I have to say that for me one of the biggest challenges was making the jump from traditional (over 20lbs) to LW.  I was so set in my ways after about a decade and a half of backpacking/camping, it was hard to change.  I love a good challenge, however, and as a skeptic, I also believe it is very important to question everything, even things you already think you have all figured out.  There is always room for improvement, and change can be a positive thing, provided that a change is not made in "bad faith", but let's not digress and get all existential.

Once I went LW, going UL was easy, fun, and made a huge overall improvement to my experience in the woods.  Another possible hindrance that ought to be noted is price.  It is true that quite a lot of specialized UL and SUL gear can come with a big price tag on it, but there are many good, cheap alternatives (some of which I have documented on my blog already, and there will be more to come), especially if you are inclined to DIY/MYOG projects.  Going SUL took more planning and thought, but it was also fun, and under certain circumstances also makes a significant improvement to time and energy spent outdoors.

All this begs the question I pose in the title of when to go under the weight guidelines in question.  A disclaimer before I attempt to answer said question: I give no objective, 100% accurate formula on how to figure out what system of backpacking is right for all situations and all people.  This is obviously a very subjective thing we are dealing with, with virtually an infinite number of variables.  All I can give you are answers based on my experiences, and hopefully they will be helpful to you.

I started to get into lightweight backpacking last year, and out of around 20 camping trips I took, I would say half of them were LW and perhaps a few were UL.  I have gone camping 14 times this year, and the majority of them have been UL.  For me, UL is my go-to system of choice, with LW and SUL being good options should less likely variables present themselves.  Due to being a full-time university student, a new father, and other family obligations, I am only able to go on 1-3 day trips.  Shorter trips usually facilitate a more lightweight set of gear.  Yet even among lightweight backpackers that are able to go on longer, more involved hikes that take weeks or even months and cover hundreds or even thousands of kilometers, there is a debate as to which method is best.  What is not as hot a topic, however, is that SUL requires more knowledge and experience from the backpacker, and SUL remains on the fringes of the community (though it is quite a significant fringe group).

For me, a big factor in determining how light to go is the temperature and weather outside.  In the winter and late fall/early spring when it can be quite cold, I go generally go LW, as things that keep you warmer tend to weigh more.  Thicker sleeping bags, sleeping mats, and clothing need to be added to keep warm.  This added weight also has and effect on what kind of backpack to take, because generally the lower weight a backpack is, the less volume and weight allowance it has.  So heavier and bulkier gear means a heavier/bigger backpack.

That being said, there are people that are able to go UL in colder temperatures, but I have yet to read a trip report of anyone going SUL in colder temperatures (I am sure that some crazy person out there has done it, though).

Then there is rain.  If there is a high chance of rain, rain gear is a good thing to have.  There are some lighter options of rain gear than others, but in the end it will still put a dent in your weight allowance even if it is a fancy poncho/tarp or the most high-tech and expensive rain jacket on the market.  If you are going on a longer trip, then you simply have to bring rain gear, because we can only predict the weather so far in advance, and even still weather reports are wrong about tomorrow's weather.

So an ideal situation to go SUL is in warm weather with little to no chance of rain.  If you live in a warmer, dryer place, then it will perhaps be easier to go SUL.  Don't let rain stress you too much--all my gear set ups, be it LW, UL, or SUL, always have some kind of rain gear.  So no matter how low you go with weight there are solutions for dealing with rain, and you may be surprised how effective a cheap plastic poncho is at only around 50g.

Another factor is what you want to do outdoors.  If you only want to hike/explore, then going UL or SUL is more for you.  If you want to do things other than hike, however, then you will probably want to take more things with you.  Say you want to go fishing, that will also put a dent in your weight totals, even with the most basic of fishing gear.  Or like several friends of mine that have gone camping with me, perhaps you are into photography, and this can put a pretty sizable chunk of weight into your bag.  

Depending on how devoted you are to these other hobbies that you want to include in your camping trip, this can really effect your total weight.  My friend Johan, for example, is very into photography, and always takes his big camera and lenses with him.  This costs him about 1.5kg he told me.  Obviously Johan is then limited to going LW most of the time, though I have seen him go UL at times.

One thing that I really like about going lightweight that should be mentioned is that it promotes creativity.  You look at your gear in a whole new way and think of more than one use for each piece of gear to get the most out of less.  My underwear becomes my swimwear too, my pot a sink to wash up in, socks can become gloves or pot holders while cooking, and on and on.  You become better at improvising and problem solving as an added benefit of becoming a lightweight backpacker.

Last, safety and comfort should also be taken into consideration.  Of course safety comes first, but keep in mind that comfort can promote safety.  Being warmer while you sleep at night is comfortable, sure, but more importantly keeps you from dying of hypothermia.  Getting a good night's sleep is cozy, but also allows you to be well rested to hike the next day, and more alert in the event of an emergency.  So if you need to have a pillow to sleep well, take it--and remember there are lightweight options for pillows.  I made my own very comfy little pillow that only weighs 47g.

If you are going into a very remote area with civilization far away, and doing more adventure style backpacking, the lightweight police are not going to arrest you for taking a few extra pieces of gear "just in case".  Yet there are some people out there with enough experience and training that are able to go UL or even SUL way out in the middle of nowhere, but odds are you are not one of these people, so don't sacrifice a piece of gear that might be the difference between life or death depending on where you are going, for how long, and how much survival training you have under your belt.  Some people can get away with walking into the woods with just a knife and the clothing on their back for a month, but most people can't.  Know your own limitations and plan accordingly.

I hope this gives some kind of guide towards these three lightweight paths.  I am not going to be able to cover all the aspects of why and how to choose each path, but this ought to give a rough idea on what goes into my decision making process when I go backpacking.  It has a lot to do with what the conditions are outside, how far I am hiking, how long I will be going, what I want to do while I am out there, and that I am safe and comfortable.  

What is perhaps most important is the connected issues of safety and comfort, which will vary from person to person depending on a variety of factors.  What is safe and comfortable for me may not be for another person, and there are people with even more advanced skill sets of backpacking and/or survival that I may not be safe or comfortable if I packed like they do.  

In short, most of the time this is how my choices look like:

LW - Winter/late fall/early spring, if traveling through more isolated/challenging areas, my own personal safety and comfort are an issue, doing a lot of fishing (large fishing kit)

UL - My go-to style of backpacking most of the time, doing some fishing (basic fishing kit)

SUL - Summer, traveling through familiar terrain, no fishing

An example of one of my UL gear lists can be found here on my blog, and my first official SUL gear list and trip I documented in great detail if you have not read these posts yet and are interested to know more about how I roll.  Just check out the archives, and I hope this big, long-winded post was useful for you!

Sunday, July 31, 2011

First Official Super Ultralight (SUL) Backpacking Trip

The short of it, is that my first (intentional) backpacking trip with a base weight (not counting food, water, fuel) of under 5lbs/2.27kg worked out better than I thought, even with plenty of rain.  I had fun, was very comfortable, did not sacrifice safety, and no issues/failures with any of my gear choices.

I look forward to doing more SUL trips in the future, but as I will explain in another post dealing with when to go LW (lightweight, under 20lbs/9kg), UL (ultralight, under 10lbs/4.5kg), or SUL--I think there are only certain circumstances that one ought to go SUL, and this may be rather limited depending on who you are and where you camp.

Here is a breakdown of the gear I put together:

My backpack and the gear inside.  The pack is just a simple cloth schoolbag that I stole from my wife after she got a newer, nicer bag.  There is a total volume for water of 1.5 liters, the knife/sheath is a Mora Bushcraft Forest, the small blue bag is my very light and very cheap rain poncho.  The individual kits I will also break down.

Here is my personal survival/comfort kit.  Left to right starting on top: small plastic baggie, toilet paper, bug repellent, biodegradable soap, small candle, whistle, LED flashlight, spare batteries, paper, pen with duct tape wrapped on the top, plastic string, firesteel, lip balm, toothpaste, toothbrush.  Under everything is a small towel.

First aid kit.  Starting on the left: gauze pads, gauze roll, waterproof tape, latex gloves, alcohol pads, mini Bic lighter, sugar pack, tic/splinter tweezers, 1 dose Dayquil, 3 doses Tylenol, mini sewing kit, assorted band-aids, 2 blister pads.

On top is my shelter kit, which is just plastic rope, garbage bag ground cover, and clear plastic sheeting (hobo tent).  On the bottom is my mess kit: Snowpeak Titanium 700 pot, plastic mug, sponge, plastic spoon, plastic bag.  Note the bright color of the plastic bag, this was intentional in case I need something to signal or mark a location.  I always have at least one such items in my gear just in case. 

Sleep kit: sleeping bag (under everything), synthetic vest, beanie, space blanket, socks, plastic bag to keep everything dry.

Now on to food and drink.  The trip was almost exactly 24 hours and three meals plus three snacks were packed, along with a tea kit.  Not pictured is one meal which was eaten in transit before we made camp, which were some nice meat pies.

Tea kit.  This should all be fairly obvious other than the tin foil lid for my pot (this is included in my base weight, but it was easier to pack it in my tea kit), and the green cube is organic chicken bouillon.

Food bag: lunch (meat pies, not pictured), dinner (dehydrated meal), breakfast (oatmeal), snacks, and gum.

Backpack 340g
Water bottles 42g
Knife/sheath 143g
Rain poncho 50g
Personal survival/comfort kit 276g
First aid kit 99g
Shelter kit 284g
Mess kit 132g
Sleep kit 790g
Tin foil 5g
Food stuff sack 20g

Total base weight 2181g or 4.8lbs

Tea kit 90g
Food 747g
Water 1500g

Total backpack weight 4518g or 9.94lbs

Three friends of mine went with me on the trip: Mac, Mr. Beardy, and Johan (who is also the awesome photographer on many of my trips, thanks again brother).  We hiked slightly over 20km or around 12.5 miles, not including several excursions we did to hunt for wild mushrooms, blueberries, and also down to a lake to swim. 

Below are some more great photos from Johan.  If you want to check out more of Johan's work, his website is

On the lumber road on our way to the campsite.  Mr. Beardy and Mac opted to go lightweight, as you can see.  Also note the baggie of wild mushrooms. 

Setting up the hobo tent.  I opted for the classic rope between two trees after finding a great spot.  Also note lots of nice, soft, clean moss all around.

Used rocks as anchors, which is pretty easy to find in most woods. 

Getting the rope tied tight can be tricky, but after you learn a few good knots and rope tricks, it's easy.

Putting down the ground cover.  Lucky for me, it didn't rain until later on. 

The completed shelter.  Took about 10-15 minutes, including the search for rocks, and I didn't rush at all. 

Here I am asleep at around 5am just after sunrise.  You can see I used my rain poncho as a front door to keep rain from blowing/splashing in, and it worked quiet well.  I was very dry, comfortable, and had enough room to sit up inside and be fully covered.  It started to lightly rain in the evening during dinner, rained on and off into the night, but by the time I got inside my shelter to sleep it was raining pretty steady and continued through the night.

It took some planning, it's summertime, and I went to an area that I am very familiar with (which is why the compass and map stayed at home), it should be noted.  I am very happy with the way everything went.  I honestly didn't have any issues, nor do I think I would have changed anything.  I guess if I were to be more nit-picky, I guess I could have added another pair of socks.  Hiking through damp woods does get your feet wet, and wearing the same pair of socks for 24 hours gets a bit stinky.  But I was able to dry my socks on our campfire, and I don't care about being stinky very much.  I think I might be able to add a pair of socks to this system anyhow and still have it be officially SUL anyhow.

Would I or could I do SUL all the time?  Of course not, but that is another story, and will be the focus of another post.  But for anyone that is a backpacker/camper with some experience under their belts, I highly recommend trying out a minimalist/SUL system.  It has quite a lot of pros if you are doing a good amount of hiking, and not as many cons as you might think.  Options will be limited on what you are able to do, sure.  You can still have access to fun stuff that costs you no weight at all, like wild food gathering and swimming, and of course sitting around a campfire with your friends.  You can even sit around a campfire in light rain and eat breakfast with a man with am impressive beard:

Never let weight or rain stop you from having a good time! :)

UPDATE 30/01/13: 
I have since written a lengthy reflection inspired by the popularity of this post and SUL in general, which includes my 2013 SUL season gear list.  

If you are interested you can read it here, and thanks everyone for reading my humble little blog :)

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Finally, Pictures of Sunny Spain

I promised more pictures in a trip report I recently wrote, and here they are.  I'm going to keep this post short and sweet with words, as this is just a companion to the other post in question.  Enjoy the pictures, and read the whole story if you haven't already.  My foot is back to normal, by the way, and was fine last week on my first SUL overnight--which I was very thankful for, as I walked a little over 20km or 12.5 miles.

Big thanks to my friend Manolo for the pictures and for taking me on this great trip!

 Wild mountain goat.

 Sunset as we made it to the top of the mountain.

 Sunrise the next day.

 The view we left behind.

 The view we hiked through.

 Wild, wild donkeys.

 Coming down the mountain towards a lonely beach.


 I wish would could have made camp here another night.

On top of the next mountain, on the roof of the old pirate lookout tower.

Can't wait to go back.

Went pretty minimalist on this trip, probably was SUL.  All I had in my pack besides food (amazing empanadas!) and water weight was a thin beach mattress, garbage bag, basic first aid kit, Swiss Army Knife (Nomad model), rain poncho, sweater, mini LED flashlight, two 1.5l water bottles, and that's about it.  Another great thing about camping in Spain the summer is you don't need a sleeping bag and usually don't need a shelter either.

Can't wait to go back!

Thursday, July 28, 2011

A Quick Update

Been a while since I posted, this is mostly due to being on paternity leave and taking care of my son.  I am also waiting on photos from a few friends of mine to accompany a few posts I have in mind.  This weekend should have all the photos and will get to work on writing.  One post will go into detail on a Super-Ultralight (SUL) overnight trip I took.  For those of you that don't know, SUL is backpacking with a base weight (all gear plus backpack, without food, water, and other consumables) of less than 5lbs or about 2280g.  

This was my first trip where I intentionally packed SUL--in the past I have taken less than 5lbs, but a lot of those trips were just recklessness of youth, i.e. only taking a small blanket and a can of beans.  My recent overnight backpacking trip in Spain was probably SUL, but I did not bother to weigh everything or make a gear list as it was a last minute trip.

Speaking of that Spain trip, I will also post more pictures of that trip as soon as I get them back from my friend Manolo that went with me.  What a beautiful spot I was lucky enough to experience, and I can't wait to see the pictures.

In the future I also plan on writing a post explaining the factors that I consider when I chose to backpack SUL, UL, or light weight.  I doubt I will ever go back to traditional backpacking, which is a base weight over 20lbs or about 9kg.

Okay, that's it for now, more on the way soon.  In the meantime, here are a few random pictures (big thanks to Johan for these and all his wonderful photography when we go out together) from this past year:

Thursday, July 14, 2011

My Favorite DIY/MYOG Camping Shelter

Want to learn how to make a cheap, easy, effective, and ultralight shelter to sleep in out in the woods?  Of course you do.  I like to call it my Deluxe Hobo Tent.

By cheap, I mean less than 5 bucks.  By easy, I mean it should take you around 30 minutes to make and about 15 minutes to set up at your campsite.  By effective, I mean it is completely waterproof (and easy to repair should there be any holes or damage), keeps wind off you, and provides excellent heat insulation.  And by ultralight, I mean the whole shelter, including string to pitch it, two doors, and the ziplock bag it can be stuffed into... weighs a mere 434g.  Here is a picture of it in use several months ago, and how it looks all packed up (note the box of matches for scale):

I have made and slept in quite a lot of improvised shelters in my day.  I have made them out of entirely natural materials (e.g. debris hut), have also experimented with lots of different kinds of tarps and even garbage bags and plastic sheeting, and have combined both natural and synthetic together.  For the better part of a solid decade, when I went camping, it nearly always meant that I would be sleeping in an improvised shelter.  It was not until last year that I finally got a high quality ultralight tent, a Big Agnes Fly Creek UL1, and I am very happy with it.  As much as I like my fancy tent, however, there are still times when I will opt to take a tarp instead.

Tarps are nearly always lighter weight than tents, and often cheaper, especially if you go for your standard hardware store plastic tarp, which was my primary base material for shelters.  While these tarps are cheap and pretty tough, they are bulky and can weigh between 400-800 grams depending on how large they are and if you trim them down or not.  My UL tent is 1035 grams, is not very bulky, and has the added bonus of excellent bug netting that keeps even annoying and tiny midges/no-see-ems out.  So after I got my tent, I had little incentive to go back to tarps, until I began to revisit an idea I had when I was younger.

In my youth I messed around with big, black garbage bags a lot.  Used them as ground covers, used them to improve improvised shelters built out of natural materials (makes a great waterproof roof!), and even used them as improvised rain ponchos.  I made a good prototype shelter out of garbage bags and a space blanket several months ago, tested it out in the woods, and it worked pretty well.  But then I did some more research on the subject, and found out about an amazing phenomenon that takes place when you combine clear plastic with space blanket.  To my surprise, they made a similar shelter on the TV show Dual Survivor (no, I don't watch the show, just found the clip on youtube), and this clip does a good job summarizing what happens with this shelter combined with a nearby fire:

So it took a while, but I finally found a hardware store that sells rolls of clear plastic sheeting.  And for only about 150 SEK I got a 20m roll of it to play around with.  With it I made two shelters, one for summer and one for use year-round.  The one for year-round use is the one I detailed above.  The summer one (Hobo Tarp) is the same thing but minus the space blanket and doors, and at 250g you will be hard pressed to get much lighter than that as far as DIY shelters go.  But the utility of the summer shelter is somewhat more limited, so I will focus on the super shelter.

To make it is absurdly easy.  The roll I bought is 2m across, so all I had to do was cut a 2.5 meter long strip of it, then tape piece of space blanket on one side of it.  The side without space blanket faces the campfire when you set it up in the field.  Next to make the doors, all you need to do is get a garbage bag and cut it two equal halves, and then tape pieces of space blanket to the inside of them.  Throw in some string or rope, and you have yourself a good place to sleep for a night out in the woods.

There are a few key details that make setting it up easier.  One is with the doors.  To make it easier to attach the doors (you can also just tie the garbage bag to itself, but this can damage it and does not hold as well), tape a loop of string in two corners of each door.  This will allow you to tie it to the top of the shelter with ease.  Either use another piece of string to tie the loops together, or hook the loops onto knobs in the shelter (more on this later).

Next is where you set the shelter up.  The best case is usually when you find two trees that are growing about 3-4m away from each other.  Then you can just tie a string/rope between the two trees.  If you find a really nice spot, but say the trees are too far apart, then you can find a sturdy stick about 1.5m long and make a big stake.  To make a stake, simply take a knife or ax and carve one side into a sharp point, then drive it into the ground until it is securely in place.  Then you can tie your ridge line between the stake and the tree.  

Ah, but what if there is no trees around or the ground is too firm to drive a stake into it? No worries!  Just take 6 sturdy sticks that are all a little over a meter long, and make two tripods with the help of some string or some long pieces of root or vine.  Then find a longer stick (this can be the tricky part) that is a little longer than 2.5m to use as your ridge pole to put the shelter over.  This is actually what I opted to do in the picture above so that I could be close to the fire pit.  

After you get the shelter up, all you have to do is find some rocks or logs to anchor the shelter down.  If it is windy, you may have to use more, but I find that four or five good sized rocks or logs on each side works fine.  Also note that you don't want to pitch the shelter too high or you won't be able to set any anchors down on it.

While I was out camping and tested the Deluxe Hobo Tent, I was having such a good time with friends and such, I neglected to take very many pictures of the shelter.  So recently my good friend Johan came over and we got to talking about it, and for fun took it out to my backyard to set up, as he had not seen it before.  I was glad I did, because it gave me the chance to take some better pictures of it, plus I had since improved on the doors, which were just pieces of space blanket before.  It's also much easier to have someone around that is good with a camera to take pics for you.  Thanks Johan!

Here I am inside the shelter.  I am about 183cm and 83kg, and the 2m x 2.5m size gives me lots of space plus room for my gear too. The door was put on kind of lazy, in the field of course I would tie it on tighter on top and anchor it down.

Side views.  I am able to sit up inside of the shelter, which is nice, especially when you have to wake up in the morning and get ready.  I also tie my flashlight to the ridge line on the inside so I can see at night.

Here is what the door looks like, plus me keeping it real with the old hardcore punk t-shirt, and a close up view of one way to tie the door on to the shelter.  

I spoke earlier about attaching the doors to a knob in the shelter, here is an example from another shelter I made (using standard hardware tarp, trimmed down, and spent the night in it during a snowy night in early March):

All you have to do is put a small rock, or in this case, a small pine cone inside the shelter and then tie a string around it.  Works great to attach doors, or to keep the shelter fully anchored to the line, like say it is quite windy.

Well, that about does it on how to make one of the best shelters for camping, in my humble opinion.  There are of course many modifications and variations on this design.  One could for example tie a big bug net on the ridge line then put the shelter on top, if there are lots of bugs out.  For the cost and for how good the Deluxe Hobo Tent is at keeping you warm and dry, it's hard to beat.

Update 24/08/2013 - I wrote a lengthy update on this subject based on the popularity of this post.  You can read it here, and thanks to everyone that reads my blog.  I hope you enjoy it and that it helps people out :)

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

In Defense of Boots

This post is a good follow-up to the last one about location, as where you are at can have a lot to do with how you dress.  One very important article of clothing, especially if you are going to be hiking long distances out in nature, are shoes.  For obvious reasons, you don't want to have flip-flops on if you are going on a winter hike in the Alps.  Nor would having a pair of fur boots on while you are hiking in the summertime through Death Valley.  

As I have noted in other posts, I often go deep into the woods, where there are no roads or even trails, other than the occasional, faint, animal path.  Here in Sweden (and other woodsy places), sometimes there are big patches of nice, soft moss to walk through--but other times there are long stretches of pretty rough terrain, like jagged rocks and fallen trees.  Often lots of nasty surprises are difficult or impossible to see coming, like a bed of sharp stones hidden under moss or a pointed stick waiting under leaves and brush.  

My choice of off-the-beaten-path style of camping/hiking does come at a price, but I am more than happy to pay it with the end result of experiencing more unspoiled woods.  Included in this price is not only that I nearly always have a map and compass with me, but also to put up with rougher terrain.  What is in contact the most with rough terrain, and also has to deal with the weight of my body and gear, are my feet of course.  So after having sore feet and stepping on a fair share of sharp rocks and pointy sticks, I learned to have proper footwear, and in this case I speak naturally about boots.

Here are my two favorite pairs, which as you can see, have had quite a lot of use:

On the left are a newer version of standard issue military boots for warm weather, and on the right are vintage (and authentic I might add) standard issue military boots during the Vietnam War, often called Jungle Boots.  Despite both being for warm weather, they are still pretty warm as far as shoes go, and I wear both in the spring and fall as well.  Many ultra-light hikers/campers would never be caught dead in these boots...I think each boot weighs over a pound each.  But then again, many ultra-light hikers stick to established hiking trails and roads, which don't have as many of the hazards I mentioned earlier.  Something happened recently which made me appreciate hardy shoes like boots for hiking out in the wild, and substantiate my argument in favor of wearing boots on rugged hikes like the ones I usually go on.

I just got back from a wonderful vacation in Spain.  Great company, great food, great wine, great weather, all around good times.  In planning and packing for the trip, I didn't think I would be doing any hiking at all, let alone trek through mountains or go camping and such.  My plans, and everyone I was with (mostly family) confirmed that we would be spending most of our time at the beach.  You know.  Swimming, sunbathing, and lots of nice, soft sand to walk and lay on.  So I only packed one pair of flip-flops and one pair of comfy sneakers (Vans slip-ons).

Little did I know that a friend of mine from the town I would be staying at had a surprise for me.  He, like all my close family and friends, know I am absolutely crazy about the outdoors.  So he surprised me with a great plan to go hiking then camp out in some nearby cliffs and hills that overlook the sea.  Of course I can't pass up on this, and in no time I am able to improvise a set of gear--a garbage bag as a ground cover, a roll-up beach mattress as my sleeping mat, and with temperatures of 35 during the day and 20-25 at night there was no need for a blanket or sleeping bag, just a thin sweater I brought with me for the airport/airplane.

I bet you can guess where this is going, huh?  Long story short, it was an amazing experience that I don't regret at all and we had a fantastic time.  We slept in an old, stone watchtower that was primarily used to spot pirates I was told.  We enjoyed some of the most beautiful views that I have ever seen--and I have seen quite a lot of beautiful views--with neon blue yet crystal clear water, sea caves, crashing waves, isolated beaches...and of course the cliffs and hills.  Yes the kilometer after kilometer of rocky paths, jagged cliffs, rugged stone hills, and every now and then a tiny patch of sandy beach as we followed the coastline.

I don't have the pictures from our hike just yet--my friend acted as the photographer and he is going to send them to me soon.  But I did take some pictures in the town we were staying at.  Here is one with my son and I, and note the rocky shore behind us and the cliff in the distance:

Now mind you I am a very careful hiker, and don't even remember when it happened or how, but sometime on our first stretch of hiking out to our campsite my foot began to really hurt.  I had enough to distract me from the pain, as I just detailed, so I knuckled down and kept on hiking.  We hiked about 12km and I felt every step of it.  After I got back I went to the doctor to check out my foot, which was still in pain a week after the camping trip, and the doctor confirmed what I already guessed: a stress fracture.  I got x-rays to find out the extent of damage, but it not that big a deal.  I can still walk, but with a slight limp.

Boy did I miss my boots while I was out roughing it with my thin little sneakers climbing up prickly boulders under the hot Spanish sun.

So it goes to show that there is a shoe for every occasion, and some are better than others given certain variables.  For most hikers/campers, you can get away with sneakers on cleared trails, and actually I agree with the idea in theory of having light weight shoes if you are only sticking to easier terrain.  But for other more challenging terrain, a nice pair of boots is a good thing to have, and they should not be dismissed by hikers/campers that seek to experience the tougher (perhaps more beautiful?) paths less traveled.  If there is a path at all, that is.

Even with an annoying minor injury, it was still worth it.  More pictures to come soon!

Saturday, June 25, 2011

My Summer Overnight Gear List

I have made many gear lists in the past few years.  I find it really helps to organize your gear, encourages you to evaluate each choice of gear critically (i.e. weight and utility), and discourages you from forgetting anything important.  I recently sat down and made an updated version of my summertime gear list.  This gear list is under 10lbs, which is generally considered to be ultralight.  I will soon be going on vacation to Spain with my family, but when I get back I can't wait to test it out.  I also plan on testing out a super-ultralight (base weight of gear under 5lbs) set of gear, something I have never done before, just to see how it goes.

Here she blows:

Cesar’s Overnight Gear List Summer 2011

Weight (g)

Golite Jam

Sleep system
Synthetic warm weather sleeping bag, polyester sweater, beanie, socks

Big Agnes FCUL1

Ground cover

Personal survival kit
Crank flashlight, string, whistle, firesteel, space blanket, candle, pen, paper, duct tape

First aid kit
Gauze roll, gauze pad, safety pins, 3 doses Tylenol, band-aids, butterfly strips, tape, latex gloves, alcohol pads, tweezers, sewing kit, mini-Bic lighter, tissues

Mess kit
Titanium pot (700ml), tin foil lid, plastic mug, plastic spoon, sponge

Mora Bushcraft Forest

Water bottles (2)
1.5 liters total volume


Garbage bag


Rain Poncho

This stays in the car if there is little/no chance of rain

Hygiene kit
Towel, biodegradable soap, toothbrush, toothpaste, lip balm

4158 grams
9.15 pounds

Food bag
3 meals, 2 snacks

Boil more to sanitize if needed

6223 grams
13.70 pounds

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Importance of Location

In general, there are some pragmatic options to keep in mind when you pick a campsite, but of course there is a subjective element at play with every camper having certain preferences about where they choose to make camp.  So rather than just list off some static examples of what makes a "good" campsite (water source, solid ground, nice views, etc.), I thought it would be more useful and interesting to examine some real campsites from a few trips I recently went on.

I have been camping and exploring a very remote part of Sweden near the boarder of Norway for several years now.  I have really fallen in love with a huge patch of challenging, raw, beautiful, isolated woods.  Much of this patch is even doesn't even have any trails or roads, but on occasion there are some old logging paths and dirt backroads that are helpful in navigation and cutting through or around more unpleasant patches, like swamp and impassible cliffs.  I named this whole area the Bråten (Swedish for rubble or ruins) woods, after discovering a ruined old cottage out there on my first camping trip there.

Last month I spent a few nights in Bråten woods with some bushcraft buddies I met through a website, and this past weekend I spent the whole weekend there as well, but this time with members of the camping club I founded and run called GUCK.  Both trips were amazing fun and I was lucky to be around such excellent company!  On both trips I was reminded just how important the aspect of location can be when choosing a campsite.  But before getting into the details, let's enjoy some pictures!  The first three pictures are more relevant to the topic at hand (more on that soon) and the last four I just thought were cool:

 May trip, Johan and I checking out the lake near our first campsite.

May trip, 2nd night with our Bushcraft buddies. Left to right is Ruben, Johan, Jon, me, and Chris.  Thanks again to Chris for posting these pictures.

June trip, a view from across the lake of our campsite on our 2nd night out.  A large bog is hidden around the bend of the penninsula.

June trip, the view from our first campsite.

June trip, the view from one of the hills we climbed up on our way to our 2nd campsite.

June trip, climbing around the cliffs that surrounded the lake near our 2nd campsite.

The GUCK crew taking a break in the middle of nowhere.  Left to right, Lena, Jenny, Lovisa, Mr. Beardy's legs and arm, and me.  I only look so serious because it's tricky to take a good picture on your own.

Location can make a big difference on your general comfort level while camping, and certain details are often neglected or forgotten.  In my case on these two trips, I understood the risks involved in the locations that were picked, but took my chances to observe what would happen.  

On the first night of my May trip, there were clear skys so Johan and I chose to sleep out in the open with no shelter, but lots of cover from the woods (trees, brush, etc.).  The cover and vegitation soaked up and prevented any condensation, and we woke up dry as a bone.  We also slept only 20-25 meters from a lake (1st picture above), but were not given any problems from bugs.  

We then meet up with the other guys on the 2nd night, and all agreed that the weather still looked good with little chance of rain, so we opted again to sleep out in the open.  This time, however, we slept in a clearing (2nd picture).  When we woke up, all our gear and sleeping bags were soaked with condensation, but at least we still had no issues with bugs.  Lucky for us, the sun came up and we were able to hang our sleeping bags and such, and everything dried up in not too long.

On the June trip, the first night the group decided to sleep in an abandoned house I had stumbled upon that was in habitable condition.  This choice had a lot to do with the fact that it was raining all day.  It was a bit of a gamble, as who knows what animals might be using the house, or what leaks there might be, but it worked out great.  It was very cozy and everyone slept well.

The 2nd night of this trip we would spend next to a lake, only this lake I had not been to before, so we would have to scout for a good spot for a campsite once we got there.  After a long and tough hike through rough terrain, we get to the lake and it is amazing.  We see a large penninsula on the other side of the lake and agree to make camp there.  We did notice a bog on the other side of the penninsula, which would pose a bigger bug issue, but we had bug spray with us and also figured that we could have a fire going to help keep them away.  We set up camp after a nice swim just 10-15 meters away from the lake.

We soon found to our shock just how bad of a bug situation we would have to deal with.  The bug spray simply didn't work against the millions and millions of biting midges that were waiting for us.  We got a fire going, and that didn't help either unless you stood direcly in the smoke of the fire, which is no fun getting all that smoke in your eyes.  Then before we can even talk about moving spots, it starts to rain, so too tired to care, we kept our campsite but hid in our tents from both rain and getting eaten alive.

The point is, try and take as much into account when picking your campsite, and be ready to deal with any down-sides that might come with any given site.  Also keep in mind that two campsites might look very much alike, but camping at each might be very different experiences--often for less than obvious factors--or reasons out of your control.  For example, sleeping near a lake.  

Some lakes don't have much or any bog/swamp, and thus have less stagnant water, which amounts to less mosquitoes and biting midgs (e.g. May trip 1st night vs. June trip 2nd night).  Clearings are great for watching the stars at night, but expect to be wet in the morning after sleeping in the middle of a clearing without any cover.  Having water close by makes life easier, being able to drink the water (sanitize if needed), and in the case of larger bodies of water, one can also swim and/or wash clothing.  So access to water may trump dealing with bugs.

There are many other factors and aspects of locations you choose to camp, but the ones examined here are often the more central or important ones to take into consideration.  Being wet and covered in bug bites is bound to put nearly everyone in a bad mood, so if you are able and willing, try and account for these details.  

Yet at the same time, don't get too discouraged if you find yourself having to deal with rough conditions at your chosen campsite (especially the deeper in the woods you go); part of the fun is the challenge of dealing with rough conditions and in the end making things as comfortable and cozy as possible.  If anything, it makes your return home seem all the more luxurious.  Camping can really highlight how much we take simple pleasures for granted, like clean tap water at hand at all times, shelter from the wind and rain, warm food easy to produce, etc.

These two trips were amazing and everyone had a great time, in spite of some of the more difficult aspects of the locations my groups and I had to deal with.  Well...11 camping trips so far this year, and my hunger to get back out into the woods remains the same.