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The Heaviest Ultralight Expedition Ever

Posted by on 08 Sep 2011 | Tagged as: gear, trip preparation, wilderness kids

Alaska Peninsula – 2001

Northwest Arctic – 2010

In the beginning, we dived into lightweight backpacking with more guts than knowledge. We took off across the Alaska wilderness with a homemade fleece sleeping bag that was both too cold and too heavy, a too-small ‘space blanket’ tarp that leaked in spite of its weight, little Sevylor packrafts that popped at the slightest provocation… We were kind of lightweight, and kind of uncomfortable.

Alaska Peninsula – 2001

Unimak Island – 2008

In the decade since then, we’ve traded out everything in that original gear kit, creating a setup vastly more functional and comfortable, with hardly any change in weight. We carry sleeping pads. A real packraft. A pyramid shelter. A nice sleeping quilt. Lighter shoes. Better insulation. We swapped out our short-lived Gore-Tex for more durable but equally light and breathable Dermazax. And we’re still often sad when it wears out too quickly.

Our new gear combined with new skills and knowledge that let us push limits we couldn’t even imagine when we first started trekking.

And then there’s the camera(s)

We first took pictures on an old point-and-shoot with a few rolls of film. Then a disposable. Then a digital point and shoot. On each expedition we took a few more pictures. On each expedition, they got a little better.

Camera gear – 2007

We began to share these expeditions with others – first by typing up my journal entries along with a few pictures and maps on our old AKTrekking website. A few people visited. Then a few more. We kept walking, looking, photographing, writing, and learning.

Soon, what had started as a hobby overtook our lives and work, becoming our mission – becoming Ground Truth Trekking.

By the time we began our year-long journey to the Aleutians, the point-and-shoot had been replaced by a digital SLR with two lenses. Each time we hit a town, I carved out a few hours of time between frantic packing and planning and eating to type out a blog post on a borrowed computer, trying to share what we saw and learned.

Then we had kids. Wearing a toddler for a 300-mile journey in the Northwest Arctic our speed dropped from nearly 20 miles a day to just 10. Now with Lituya’s arrival bringing us up to 45 lbs of children, any notions of light, fast A to B travel disappeared, at least for awhile.


2010 – Erin stretched her coat around Katmai, her pregnant belly, and her front pouch.

Life on Ice is the adventure that sprung from these limitations. It’s a journey to explore in detail, with base-camping and toddler-paced walking, keeping everything just light enough that we can uproot and move the camp across the glacier – around 65 miles through the course of the journey. But a new style of expedition brings about a whole new crop of needs we’ve never had to think about before. Without the ability to reach new towns every week or so, we’d need to set up remote food caches. We’d need a solar charger to recharge camera batteries. I didn’t feel comfortable being out with small children without a form of communication, so we’d need some kind of satellite device in addition to the EPIRB. After the great reaction we’ve gotten to our first movie (due out on DVD soon! Really!), we figured a bit more video gear would be a good idea. Hig’s gotten into timelapse photography… And the technology just kept adding up, in a great pile of incompatible proprietary batteries, chargers, memory cards, and cables.

Reaching Out

If we’re bringing everything else, why not bring the internet? Heck, the 10 foot diameter tent with a woodstove in the middle is hardly different than a 24 foot diameter yurt with a woodstove in the middle. It’d be just like home! Except for the necessity to carry it around every week or two across remote wilderness terrain. It seemed we were planning the heaviest ultralight expedition ever, and the stress of figuring out all the technology was worrying me even more than finishing up the rain gear.

2011 – Camped out behind the yurt testing the Titanium Goat tent and stove

The goal was to share what we learned on Malaspina with the rest of you in real time. Which seemed like a good idea, until I found myself in a frantic flurry of Googling, holding a SPOT Connect and an iPad, failing to make them work at all, and learning that even if they did work Hig had mis-interpreted the advertising and they wouldn’t be capable of what we wanted in the first place. Today the iPad and SPOT went back in the mail – at least we can return them for a full refund.

I was tempted to do the same with the rest of the tangle of batteries and cords – to ditch all the gadgets and technological crutches in one fell swoop. But I do actually love to take pictures. And I want to be able to call the pilot if we need him. Piece by piece, the rational arguments for including each piece of technology end up winning out over the emotional appeal of a sweeping gesture.

Now we have a new plan. We’ll rent an Irridium 9555 sat phone. Through some laborious typing on the phone’s keypad we can send up to 1000 character messages to an email address, to David Coil, who will kindly paste them into Twitter/Facebook (once a day or so?), keeping us in the modern age after all, for better or worse. When our visitors show up (we’ll hopefully have 4), we will send them off with handwritten notes for this blog – old-school messages to transcribe for a digital world.

Many years of hiking journals on Rite-in-the-Rain paper

Old Tech

All this techno-planning is either a modern luxury, or a modern curse. But the tradition of expedition stories predates Facebook by a good number of centuries.

With two months worth of Rite-In-The-Rain paper, my expedition journal weighs over 12 ounces for this trip, with a couple mechanical pencils thrown in for good measure. As a writer, these pages are a comforting constant – perhaps the only thing we’ve carried, unchanged, for our entire decade worth of expeditions. I write by headlamp, while everyone else is asleep, often with cold cramped hands and an exhausted body. It’s an nonnegotiable ritual. Every night, no matter what the day brings, I fill a few pages. Great stacks of these journals pile up in a box on my shelf, pulled out for material for my books and other writing. The paper may be higher tech than it used to be, but in spirit, it’s not much different than the journals of explorers from centuries past. Whatever I can or can’t Tweet from the middle of the wilderness, I’ll bring these pages back with me.

By the Numbers

So for the record, here’s the technology we are planning to bring. Of course, this could still change…

Item Weight
Canon Digital Rebel 600D (T3i) 1 lb 4 oz (570 g)
Canon EF-S 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM 13.6 oz (386 g)
Canon 70-200mm f/4L USM 1 lb 9 oz (705 g)
Canon EF 50mm f/2.5 Compact Macro 9.9 oz (280 g)
Pentax Optio W90 (for timelapse) 5.78 oz (164 g)
GoPro HD Helmet Hero 5.9 oz (167 g)
Garmin Oregon 450 GPS 6.8 oz (192.7 g)
Irridium 9555 sat phone 9.4 oz
Electro Bear Guard UltraLite (Energizer, two 80′ wires, ground rod) 1 lb 2 oz
Brunton Solaris 26 solar panel 1 lb 12 oz
Olympus LS-11 US linear PCM recorder (audio) 6 oz
2 headlamps (undecided on type) about 6 oz
EPIRB (McMurdo Fast Find 210 Personal Locator Beacon with GPS) about 5.3 oz
200 GB of SD memory cards 1 oz
LP-E8 Battery charger with 12 V DC input An oz?
W90 Battery Charger An oz?
AA charger with USB output and 12V DC input A couple oz?
8 AA rechargeable batteries 8 oz
6 AAA rechargeable batteries (for headlamps) about 4 oz?
4 AA Li-ion batteries for backup about 2 oz?
Three W90 Batteries About 2 oz?
Two Canon LP-E8 batteries An oz each?
12 V cigarette lighter adapter cord (female) An oz?
12 V cigarette lighter adapter cord (male) An oz?
USB cord (for charging GoPro helmet cam) Less than an oz.
TOTAL 11 lbs 9 oz

For a less organized but more complete view of our planning, feel free to check out our Life on Ice Google Spreadsheet.


Planning the Improbable

Posted by on 19 May 2011 | Tagged as: gear, trip preparation, wilderness kids

With an old bike wheel and some alder branches, Hig tests out a possible way to cart kids and stuff for two months of Life on Ice

Last week’s sunny days had me hurrying to get the garden in. This week, we spent our mornings poking under kelp fronds and turning over rocks in the super-low tides, using our toddler as a good excuse to explore like kids ourselves. In between, I’ve been hurrying to finish bits and pieces of paid computer work. But something is looming…

Our next big expedition – Life On Ice – is 4 months away. Which seems like a long ways off. Until it doesn’t.

Until I realize that to feed the family for two months, I’m going to need to prepare and pack somewhere close to 350 pounds of food. Until I realize that all our gear from the Chukchi coast is worn out and leaking – and all four of us need clothing that will stand up to the fall rainstorms on Alaska’s Lost Coast. Until I realize that somehow we’re going to have to pick up two kids, some food, and a basecamp’s worth of stuff and physically carry it all across the gravel-strewn ice. Until I realize that this is a different kind of trip than any we’ve done before, with an even larger family.

Mostly, we’re cooking healthier options. But chocolate brownies will be a special treat in the middle of nowhere.

We’re going to the edge of the Malaspina Glacier, the largest lowland glacier in North America. We’re going because climate change makes this coast one of the most dramatic and quickly-changing places we’ve ever seen. We’re going because it’s an amazing place, with twisted forests growing on the ice and supercooled springs in the alder, between a storm-tossed coast and towering peaks. We’re going because we hope to paint a visceral picture of the rapid climate change we often overlook – in a place so dramatic we can’t possibly overlook it. And we’re going, at least in part, because it’s difficult. Because it’s an adventure.

We’ve spent years working on winnowing our gear down to be minimal and light. But this time we need more. Not just more food, more clothing, and more diapers, but totally new pieces of gear we’ve never tried, and some we haven’t yet invented.

On this expedition we’re embracing the oxymoron of a portable base camp. Titanium Goat is sponsoring us an awesome-looking tent that we’ll be able to heat up and dry out in (around 6 pounds including the woodstove). Given the weather we expect, I suspect this will make the difference between a great adventure and some very whiny children. Alpacka Raft has given us an extra long packraft that we can cram all four of us into. Because we’ll be camping in one place for an extended chunk of time, we’ll bring a small electric fence for bears. Because we’ll want to do lots of photography and make updates from the field, we’ll have a bunch of electronics with us. Because we won’t be anywhere near a town the entire time, we’ll need to recharge batteries and wash diaper covers in the field. We’ll need to set up a series of food caches before we start, and we have to calculate right from the beginning – no gorging ourselves in town, buying more, or giving away extra mashed potatoes to our hosts.

Will this really work to cart a family basecamp’s worth of gear?

We plan to be human-powered for the whole two months. So those 3 basecamps? Only home for 3/4 of the time. The other two weeks will be spent as nomads, somehow figuring out how to move the camp and our family 25 or 45 miles between them.

Could we use a unicycle wheel, some alder branches and a packraft to make a cart that we could pull over rock-strewn glacier ice?

I don’t know. But we’re working on it.

If it didn’t seem a little bit impossible, it wouldn’t be a good adventure.


How To: Backpacking and Trekking with Toddler

Posted by on 02 Nov 2010 | Tagged as: gear, trip preparation, wilderness kids

Picking blueberries with mom

Is it crazy to take an infant or a toddler on a wilderness backpacking expedition? Per mile, it’s definitely more work than the adults-only version. Per day, it’s actually more relaxed. Outdoor adventure is magical at any age – it’s even better when you’re still young enough to get carried from place to place! With a little preparation, this holds true even for extended journeys through storms, bugs, bushwhacking, and all the other hassles and hazards of the wilderness.

On request, I thought I’d do a post that covered a bit more of the “how-to” of trekking and backpacking with a toddler – at least what we’ve figured out so far. Gear listed is what we took on our most recent month-long expedition to the arctic with our 18 month old son. Infant gear isn’t covered in detail here, but we found traveling with an infant to be much the same as with a toddler, only simpler.

Reducing your gear weight, always a good idea, becomes even more important when you’re trying to fit more people’s stuff in a smaller space, and carrying a kid to boot. We carry around 30 pounds of gear (not counting food, water, or clothing that’s being worn) for the 3 of us – 5 pounds for the person carrying the kid, and 25 pounds in the other adult’s pack. Food and water can easily bring that total up to 60 pounds on a week-long leg. For winter (and when baby #2 shows up), we’ll need more. If you’re hiking in a less inclement environment or are less of a photo geek, you’ll need less. Our gear list includes a number of things (water bottles, cameras, etc…) that don’t change much with a kid along, and aren’t specifically listed below.

I’m listing all weights for total family gear rather than individual packweights, since carrying the kid pretty much requires that the gear will be split unevenly.


Hig’s overloaded pack

Packing

How to Use It

I’ll start with packing, since this is the crux of going out with a baby or toddler. How on earth do you carry everything and carry the kid as well? I carry him on my back, while Hig carries the bulk of the gear in one large pack. We prefer frameless packs, even for fairly heavy loads. They take more care to pack well, but are lighter. In order to try and fit a little bit more stuff, we each have front pouches that clipped onto the pack straps (for Hig) and clipped onto the loops sewn onto the baby-carrying wrap (for me).

Kivalina children playing with the wrap

A wrap is basically a long rectangular piece of cloth that can be wrapped in various ways to hold a baby. It has the advantage of being very simple, very light, and keeping the weight of the kid close to the parent’s body. Many of the available versions are made of heavy cotton that would be awful when wet. So we made one ourselves out of very very light cotton fabric, similar to cotton gauze. Of all the many ways to carry a kid with a wrap, I used a “rucksack tied in front” carry. This ends up resembling a backpack with shoulder straps and a tie around the waist or under the ribs. We attached a series of small string loops to the part of the wrap that usually ended up on my shoulders, so I could clip on the front pouch to carry more gear.


Tying the wrap, tossing mom's hat

Now what to do to make sure everyone stays happy and we actually get where we’re going? At 18 months old, we found that while Katmai was awake, a schedule of 1-2 hrs of walking followed by an hour or so of playtime worked best (if he was napping on my back, we just kept walking). We did coax him along further if it wasn’t an appropriate stopping spot, or the weather was terrible. We were usually out for 12 hrs per day from camp to camp, but only actually traveling about half that time.

Keeping him entertained while on my back involved lots of talking to him about what we were seeing. He loved pointing out trash on the beach, we looked for birds and mushrooms, and we played a lot of the “I see” game, where he listed everything he could see. It also helped him to have a small car (hot wheels size) he could hold onto and vroom on my shoulder. I carried a sippy cup and some pilot bread crackers in my front pouch, so I could give him water or a snack without stopping. When he got sick of the scenery, we often sung “Old MacDonald” to him.

Problems

A soft carrier like a wrap doesn’t have any inherent storage capacity, so all the other gear has to be carried in a separate pouch or in the other parent’s pack. A wrap has a bit of a learning curve to figure out how to wear it comfortably.


Willows rebound as Erin strides through them.

Alternatives

When Katmai was a baby, we carried him on the front (also in a wrap), allowing both adults to carry packs. When I wasn’t 6 months pregnant, I was also able to carry a significant amount of gear in a oversized fanny pack (lumbar pack) that sat beneath Katmai on my back. Many people use baby backpacks, which have the advantage that they have some space to carry stuff as well as the kid. But they’re huge, bulky, and heavy (usually at least 5lbs, compared to 1lb for a wrap). They don’t hold the kid close to your body, which makes it much harder to maneuver through brush without whacking them, and means that the weight is not carried as well. There are other kinds of carriers that hold the kid close, such as mei-tai and Ergo-type carriers. These might have a shorter learning curve than a wrap, but often are made out of heavy cotton that would tend to get soaked easily. Another option is to use the Eskimo style method of just wearing the kid under your coat – no carrier required. I saw people doing this all over the arctic, and it would work great in cold weather, but I’ve yet to figure it out myself!



"No wipe on butt!"

Diapers

  • 4 g-diapers cloth outsides: 7.5oz
  • 8 g-diapers plastic liners: 3oz
  • 4 or 5 g-diapers compostable inserts per day: 4.5oz/day, 2lbs/week
  • 20 small cloth wipes: 1.5oz
  • Total for one week = 2lb, 11.5oz

How to Use It

We actually use gDiapers all the time at home as well, but they’re a perfect solution for backpacking. Basically, the idea is that you have a hybrid system, where the outside of the diaper is reusable cloth, but the inner part is a compostable paper pad. So rather than carrying out dirty diapers, you can simply burn the dirty pads in a campfire, or compost them in a hole like you would do for adult waste. The cloth outsides rarely get dirty. The plastic liners frequently get dirty, but are very easy to rinse, even in the field. We did a little bit of handwashing of the cloth and plastic parts in the field with a little bit of biodegradable soap we brought along, but mostly were able to make it to town (every week or so) to do laundry there.

Problems

The cloth outsides are heavy cotton, and not quick drying. So when they do need to be washed (not often), or when the kid sits in a stream (hopefully not often), they take a while to dry.

Alternatives

Disposable diapers are simpler, but would all have to be hauled out. Cloth diapers could be reused, but would all need to be handwashed, and would take a long time to dry.


Katmai riding under the coat in the chill fog near the Noatak River

Clothing

  • Adult setup: one-piece fleece suit homemade: 1lb 2oz, synthetic T-shirt: 4.5oz, synthetic poofy top: 11oz, rain coat (modified to wear over kid): 14oz, rain pants: 10oz, hat and gloves: 7oz, 2 pairs socks: 6oz, trail-running shoes: 1lb 14oz.
  • Total for one adult = 6lb, 4.5oz
  • Toddler setup: one-piece fleece suit 11.5oz, long-sleeve synthetic T-shirt: 2.5oz, fleece pants and sweatshirt: 8.5oz, synthetic poofy vest: 5oz, rain coat and pants: 9oz, water-resistant sun hat: 1.5oz, 3 pairs wool socks: 4oz, homemade neoprene booties: 4.5oz.
  • Total for toddler = 2lb, 14.5oz
  • Total for family = 15lb, 7.5oz (including both worn and packed clothing)

How to Use It

Our clothing setup is primarily designed to deal well with cold and wet weather. Therefore, we use fleece (which drains quickly and stays warm when wet) as the first layer of insulation for both adults and kids. A synthetic puffy top adds additional lightweight warmth for the cold, and breathable raingear keeps most of the water out. We don’t bring any changes of clothing for the adults, other than a dry pair of socks to sleep in. It minimizes weight, and when we’re cold, we wear everything. We did bring two full fleece sets for the toddler (one sweatshirt and pants, one one-piece suit) as well as extra socks, since he’s much more likely to sit in a stream than an adult, and won’t be kept warm by walking. His fleece suit was big enough to go over the top of his other clothes, and the raingear was big enough to go over the top of that, so we could bundle him up in everything if necessary.

Mild weather setup

The toddler’s fleece suit had pockets to fold over his hands, which we used in maximum cold. He had a thin long-sleeved shirt that could keep the sun off him in warmer weather, as well as a wide-brimmed hat (which also kept most of the bugs off). We use sneaker-style non-waterproof shoes for adults, but brought waterproof ones for the kid (he’s not walking enough to keep his feet warm). All the rubber boots we found were too heavy and clunky for a small toddler, so Hig constructed a homemade version out of neoprene.

I’m a small to medium woman, but use a men’s large raincoat when backpacking with a toddler. A slit cut in the back allows his head (and arms if he insists) to poke through, and allows me to put him under the coat in inclement weather.


Dressed for cold and rain

Problems

Our fleece layer for adults was a one-piece fleece suit, which is weight efficient, but ended up being too awkward to change into and out of with a kid on my back. Cutting a slit in the back of my raincoat meant that more water leaked in, whether or not the kid was underneath it. Standard commercial waterproof/breathable raingear always has a short lifespan, and leaks are inevitable. Katmai’s neoprene booties are not commercially available.

Alternatives

Standard rubber boots could work for a toddler old enough to fit into them, and no boots at all are needed for a non-walking baby. Gloves would be good for a toddler old enough to wear them, to aid in playing at cold stops. In warmer weather, shorts might be necessary.



Sleeping Gear (co-sleeping)

  • Bag: homemade synthetic half bag with mosquito netting fringe: 1lb 13.5oz
  • Pads: two 3/4 length thermarest ultralight pads: 13oz each
  • Quilt: homemade down quilt: 1lb, 8oz
  • Total = 5lbs

How to Use It

We use one big family sleeping bag for all three of us, with the parents on the outside and the kid in the middle. In inclement weather, the kid stays the warmest of anyone. Our bag is a home-modified half-bag, meaning that it has normal sleeping bag insulation on the top (synthetic), but only a thin nylon sheet on the bottom, making it much lighter than a full bag of the same size. The thermarest sleeping pads provide the bottom insulation. The toddler doesn’t get his own sleeping pad at this point – he’s light enough not to need one – but we pile extra gear for him to sleep on under the bag between the adult pads. On the top edge of the sleeping bag, we’ve stitched a fringe of mosquito netting to protect us all from the bugs. In weather conditions that are marginal for the weight of our synthetic bag, we bring a lightweight down quilt (much smaller than the bag) and use it inside the main bag for a little extra insulation boost.

Problems

With three people in a bag wiggling around, air gaps between us were somewhat inevitable – making the bag less warm than it is for two people snuggling close. Katmai often crawled partway or completely out of the bag in his sleep, and objected to the mosquito netting unless we put it over him after he fell asleep. There’s no commercial bag that fits three – you have to make or modify your own. And of course, putting a toddler to sleep can be a problem wherever you are! We tried to maintain some consistency between the home and backpacking bedtime routine.

Alternatives

Especially if you’re not used to sleeping together, separate bags might be easier, either for the kid or for all three people. It would prevent squishing, and allow people to move around freely. It would almost certainly be a heavier solution, however. With a bug-proof shelter, the mosquito netting on the bag wouldn’t be necessary.


Pyramid shelter on the arctic coast

Shelter

How to Use It

Our shelter is an 8 foot by 8 foot pyramid, and made of a single layer of silnylon. This is incredibly light for the space, and easily provides room for all 3 of us plus gear, plus a little room for Katmai to play inside. But it requires a bit more thought to use than a heavier tent. No poles are included, but it requires a center pole for setup, so we use the raft paddle (a long stick or tied together trekking poles also work). The corners and sides have strings that must be staked out – we use rocks and sticks as stakes. It doesn’t have a floor, so we use the packraft as a groundcloth on wet ground. Without a floor, it does not completely seal from insects, so we put mosquito netting on our sleeping bag.

Problems

A pyramid shelter is super convenient for packrafters, because you’re always carrying a long pole and a waterproof groundcloth already. Without that, it’s a little less convenient. The single-wall design makes it more susceptible to letting some water in in severe storms. And bugs will get in, so a separate bug solution is required.

Alternatives

For weight and space, it’s hard to beat a pyramid shelter. But there are more and more lightweight tents coming out all the time. Backpacking Light is a good place to look for reviews and info about lightweight hiking gear.


Katmai warms his hands by the cookfire

Food/Cooking/Water:

  • Food per day: 5lbs (2 adults + 1 toddler, including a pregnant mom)
  • Cookpot: 7oz
  • Steripen water purifier: 4oz
  • Total for one week = 35lb

How to Use It

The 5lbs of food per person per day was more than we needed. On an earlier trip we brought 4lbs per day, which wasn’t quite enough. Toddlers need around 1200 calories/day according to the info I read, around half of a normal adult intake (a backpacking adult will eat more), even though they seem very small. Our food is usually a mix of dry stuff to cook over the fire, and snacks. Snacks included chocolate, cookies, dried fruit, chips, pilot bread crackers, peanut butter, cheese, and smoked salmon. We found that to really get much food into our toddler, the cooked meals were the best. Oats with berries (picked fresh on the tundra) was the biggest hit, closely followed by minute rice with dried veggies, butter, and cheese. We also carried spaghetti, dried instant beans, instant mashed potatoes, and spices. While our kid is certainly old enough to feed himself, we fed him quite a bit on the trip trying to minimize waste, mess, and burned mouths. Even so, without clothing changes, his clothes could get messy at mealtimes – feeding him in raingear helped a lot (we could sponge it off easily).

Our 18 month old was still nursing on our most recent trip, but getting very little milk due to my pregnancy. On earlier expeditions, mother’s milk was a much larger percentage of his diet.

We’re more cavalier about water treatment for adults, but with a kid along, we treated all our water with a steripen purifier, which uses UV light to sterilize water in a nalgene (or other wide mouth) bottle. It’s the lightest non-chemical option we’ve found, and seems to work well. To allow him to drink while we’re walking, we brought a sippy cup as well as our normal waterbottles.

Problems

When aiming for a diet high in calories but low in weight, we find some amount of junk food is inevitable. We just decided to let the kid eat more junk than usual, though we did still limit him. We’ve had 2 copies of the steripen – one worked well, and one had some sort of manufacturing flaw that made it finicky. Good to test it before the trip.

Alternatives

In a place where fires are not allowed or not practical, some sort of cookstove might be necessary. A separate bowl and spoon for the kid might be nice, but would also be messier.


Katmai wants to paddle

Packrafting

How to Use It

The double-duck packraft is designed for two people, and it can fit all 3 of us as well as a week or so of gear. We sit face to face in the raft, with one adult holding the kid, and the other adult paddling. The pack is strapped onto the back of the boat (behind the paddler). We usually put some of our gear beneath the inflatable seats to lift us up higher, which makes more leg room in the boat. Though single-person packrafts are capable of running heavy whitewater, the family system is suitable only for fairly mellow conditions. Given that we’re only running in mellow conditions, we skip the life vest for adults, and only bring one for the toddler.

Keeping a toddler entertained in the boat (and not wriggling over the side) was often a challenge, and having one parent dedicated to keeping hold of him was critical. He really really wanted to paddle the boat himself, and go visit every beach, so distractions were key. Playing with a small toy car, playing with the zipper on my coat, or eating snacks all worked well, as well as the same sort of looking at and talking about our surroundings we did while walking.

Problems

Compared to the one-person Alpacka packrafts, the two person version was slower to paddle and more prone to letting waves over the side. It would probably be difficult to all fit in one raft for extended periods of time if the two adults were particularly large, or if the kid was older than a toddler.

Alternatives

You can go somewhere where a raft isn’t necessary (harder in AK). With a younger baby, a parent can wear them while paddling a single person packraft. That’s also only good for mellow water, since swimming while wearing a kid is quite difficult. We’re still brainstorming ideas for packrafting with two kids – check back next summer for that!

New rafts, new clothes, ready to roll!

Posted by on 05 Jun 2007 | Tagged as: gear, trip preparation, video




All dressed up and ready to go

New packrafts and drysuits came in the mail from Alpacka! today. Now I’m ready to take off! (minus all the junk in my house and tasks still on the whiteboard – the whiteboard is the very last thing we’re giving away)


Video – Urban Deconstruction
I decided it’d be fun to do an intro video that showed our neighborhood (being demolished and reconstructed). So I thought I’d try clipping some video bits together and add narration. Sounds easy? Apparently not. I went through about 4 different programs and temporarily broke Hig’s computer, before finding out that the default already-installed Windows Movie Maker (which crashed on Hig’s computer), worked fine on my own. The resulting < 2 min video is not at all worth that trouble, but you can watch it anyway.

Backpacking Light
Our expedition page is up at Backpacking Light now! Check out the podcast, where we talk about the trip mission, and intro article I wrote. And keep coming back to check for more podcasts and updates along the way.

Thesis Tangles
On a less happy note, Hig’s committee is giving him lots of last minute grief about the text of his thesis. I keep telling him he’d be better off ditching science altogether to do something more fun, flexible, and useful (like work on Ground Truth Trekking with me), but so far, he’s not listening. Wish him luck in the sprint to get all the edits in and jump the hoops. Otherwise, I guess he’ll be finishing the writing in 9 months, after False Pass.

This is probably the last pre-trip post I’ll write. Countdown at 3 days, 14 hours, 25 minutes and 19 seconds!


Backpacking video camera

Posted by on 23 May 2007 | Tagged as: gear, trip preparation, video




Tiny camcorder – Panasonic SDR-S10

Because more electronics are always better when backpacking 4000 miles…

We couldn’t resist the opportunity to play with video on this expedition – and therefore we have a new little camcorder which records to SD cards. The Panasonic SDR-S10. Supposedly both shock and water resistant, which should come in quite handy for the rather rugged use we intend to put it through. More toys! In our defense – this one only weighs 7 oz (compared to our 5+ pounds of still camera gear).

It’s not a feature movie quality camera, but we’re much more accomplished still photographers than videographers anyway. This should be fun for You Tube. I’m not sure how often we’ll have enough bandwidth to upload video on the way, but there should be at least some (with more on the web when we return).

Below is a short test video – ignore the dusty lens (we’ll clean it).


Chaos, and New Toys

Posted by on 16 May 2007 | Tagged as: gear, trip preparation




House of Chaos

All is chaos here. And I have a new camera to document it. There are piles to give away, piles of gear to sort, and just plain piles. To be sure to get all mail-order gear we need (mostly electronics) by June 9th, we’ve been on an online spending spree. With the result that I’ve been tracking about 5 packages at once, one full of expensive camera gear.

FedEx refused to find my house three times in a row despite having the correct address – I’ve got their customer service menu memorized. But today, finally, the camera was here!! And I only had to call FedEx 5 times!




Our camera gear

Camera
I’m very excited to have new camera toys. Current setup = Canon digital rebel Xti, EF 24-105mm IS L lens, and EFS 10-22mm. And a gorillapod (trying to get away with the medium size), assorted batteries, memory cards, charger, and card reader… All together a little over 5 pounds (2.25kg). It’s a good thing I like photography. In an attempt to cut down on the memory card stack, at least, I’ve ordered some new 8gb cards.

And with my pretty new camera toys, I’ve been taking pictures of the rest of my new toys… The wide angle lens is particularly fun for these indoor photos – easily showing my terribly disorganized house, the entire sleeping bag, my feet…





Summer bag

Summer bag

Luckily, unlike the camera gear, our new summer bag/quilt came out very light. We made it out of 2 layers of Climashield XP, and Momentum fabric (with a sheet of standard nylon on the bottom – it’s not insulated on the bottom). It weighs barely more than a pound and a half, coming out to less than 13oz for each of us.



Skis and Boots

Skis
Second Ascent was very nice to pull skis out of the back room for me, despite it being long past skiing season. I struggled with what to get, and thought about the Karhu Karvers, but ended up deciding to go with this more standard backcountry set up – I’ll have a lot of skiing on rivers, lakes, and swamps, and I want to glide. This setup should work much better than what I had on the Skilak Skiing Shakedown. And I got many odd looks getting on the bus on a beautifully sunny May afternoon with skis and ski poles.





Montrail shoes

And Montrail shoes. Hig and I are usually the type to own only one pair of shoes at a time – usually worn out from at least one major expedition, and worn every day. Now suddenly we have all sorts of shoes! Or at least we have a large number of pairs of Montrail Vitesse and Hardrock shoes. Check out our page on Montrail’s athletes and events page. I was reading the other day about backpackers with growing feet on the backpacking light forums, and was pleased to see we’re not the only ones. Perhaps for the next expedition we will have to up the size of the shoes again – one way our load gets heavier…

Bushbuddy, Grants, and Map Obsessions

Posted by on 04 May 2007 | Tagged as: gear, sponsors and media, trip preparation





Lens we’re getting…


Money
Top news today: We got a Shipton-Tilman Grant from Goretex! Looks like it’s time to finally go and order the new camera lens we’ve been eyeing (Canon 24-105 IS f4/L) – it’ll get most of the range we want, at good quality with IS, plus be way lighter than our current lens setup. I’m excited about the IS – should help a lot for photos in the raft and in the dimly lit rainforest.







Bushbuddy Stove


Bushbuddy

We also got a present in the mail from Backpacking Light – the Bushbuddy Ultra Stove. This is a beautiful little piece of equipment. At 5.1 ounces (145 grams), it’s about as light as our steel can version, but much better designed, with an air preheating chamber, a pot stand that collapses in for storage, and other cool features. So far, it’s been tested in the extreme conditions of our front porch, but I’m excited to try it in real life.

It’s beautiful spring weather here in Seattle, but with departure barely more than a month away, we’re pretty much stuck inside at our laptops for now. No more shakedowns. Any gear we haven’t tested yet will be tested on the real thing.







Licking the last crumbs of food


Map Obsessions

I was updating the website some yesterday… (putting up a press release, some photos, and other things). And I thought I should figure out a more accurate route schedule. This led to me spending most of the day poring over maps and Google Earth images of coastal British Columbia, drawing detailed route lines that we’re surely not going to follow.






Echo Bay, B.C.
Is there really food here?


And what unnerves me, far more than any difficulties of terrain, or water crossings, are the towns.
In the past we’ve made up food boxes ahead of time, and mailed them all to towns and villages. This time, that’s completely impractical. So we’re going with the “buy food locally” approach.

This leads to me staring at low-res Google earth files, squinting at blurry topography. The internet tells me “Other amenities available at Echo Bay include a Post Office, Grocery Store and Arts and Crafts stores”. I see a white smudge. When we wander in this July from the middle of nowhere, licking the last crumbs from our food bags, I sure hope that’s true…







Rugged mountains
by North Pacific Seaplanes.com


But mostly I’m staring at the maps because I love maps. I can spend hours and hours planning routes, imagining what it’s like to be in all these places. I’ve recently discovered a cool thing on the web called Panoramio. Turning on their layer in Google Earth lets you see photos taken at different locations. Info is sparse for most of where we’re going, but there are some interesting pieces – like this aerial photo of some of the granite ridges and lakes on the northern B.C. coast.

Gear again! (new acquisitions, and our heaviest things…)

Posted by on 19 Apr 2007 | Tagged as: gear, trip preparation





Grandmother’s ski boots

We leave here on June 9. At that point, the gear we’ve figured out will be the entire sum of our earthly possessions for the next 9 or 10 months. And it’ll have to get us through some very harsh terrain in some very harsh climates, far far away from the nearest REI….
Kind family members will be mailing some things to us (replacing worn out gear, and warmer stuff/skis for winter). But we have to figure all of it out right now. So we’re understandably a little obsessed with gear.

Those ski boots I was complaining about from our shakedown hike? My mother just reminded me that those were my grandmother’s. They’re older than I am. They were never meant for anything but trails. And they never fit me in the first place.
Time for something more like what Hig’s got (Karhu Convert II). Heavy, but much more useful.




MLD pyramid in our front yard

New acquisitions
We just got our pyramid shelter and eVENT rain mitts from Mountain Laurel Designs (one of our sponsors). The shelter weighs about a pound, and the rain mitts barely even register on my scale. We’ve gone with a flat silnylon tarp in the past, but a flat tarp is more fiddly to set up. This pyramid style is made of light spinnaker fabric, is roomy, and fast to set up with our paddles as poles. I’m excited to use it somewhere other than my front yard…






Montrail Hardrocks

Montrail just agreed to sponsor our expedition with some shoes! I’m very excited, since Montrails are our favorite backcountry hiking shoes – I’ve worn and worn out many pairs of the Montrail Vitesse over the years. We can’t decide whether we like the Vitesse or Hardrock better, so will be trying some of each.


What does our gear have to stand up to?






Water (Oceans and Rivers)





Heavy brush







And yet more water (Frozen)





Water (From the Sky)



The upshot is that everything will be beat up in alder thickets, soaked in every possible way, and needs to hold up for 9 months (or as long as is feasible). And since we’re carrying it for 4000 miles, weight is at a premium.

Summer/Fall gear
I’ll leave winter gear for later, largely because we haven’t actually got all our skiing stuff yet. The four biggest weight categories for our gear are Rafting (about 7lbs each), Clothing (5.5 lbs), Electronics/Communication (3lbs), and Shelter/Sleeping (2.5lbs)

Rafting: Packrafts are the most crucial piece of gear for our trip, allowing us to cross fjords, paddle to islands, get around calving glaciers, and cross or float major rivers. Without them, this route would be completely impossible. However, an Alpacka Raft with a spray deck weighs almost 5 pounds, and the kayak paddle adds another 2 – so they are the heaviest part of our gear.




Hig in drysuit

Clothing: Our primary clothing will be the drysuit and the powerstretch fleece suit. We wear the drysuit alone if it’s not cold, and add the fleece when it is cold. Very simple. I don’t believe in base layers. And we find that you really don’t need all that many configuration options to deal with different temperatures. Even though the fleece is heavier than most insulation (almost a pound and a half for a full body suit), it deals with water light years better. Even after extensive soaking, powerstretch fleece only holds about 2x its weight in water, and drains it really quickly.

We’ll make some concession to the fact that we’re starting about 12 degrees latitude south of our usual stomping grounds, and probably carry a light T-shirt and shorts for the very beginning of the hike. And then of course we have socks (Teko), gloves (hardware store), rain mitts (Mountain Laurel Designs), and hood (us).

At some point in the fall or winter, when it gets cold enough, we’ll add the Cocoon synthetic-insulated clothing from Bozeman Mtn Works.

And of course, the Montrail Hardrock/Vitesse shoes.



Canon Digital Rebel w/telephoto lens

Electronics/Communication: To fulfill the environmental mission of the trip, we must do a lot of recording. Photography and writing have been very important parts of our trips for years. And on this journey, we will be taking photographs for our sponsors and collaborators as well as ourselves – and I’m writing a book. So no skimping allowed. We carry a digital SLR (Canon digital Rebel – likely upgrading to the Xti version), and are planning to get a 24-105mm lens for it. This is in fact an improvement over what we’ve done in the past, with separate telephoto, macro, and wide-angle lenses. I’ll miss the flexibility, but not the 8lbs of camera gear!

We’ll also be bringing a GPS – one that can take memory cards. Not because we need one for navigation, but because we’ll be using it to locate photos. This way, when we get back, you’ll be able to see all our pictures on maps and Google Earth.

Then, as if this wasn’t enough we’re also planning to get a small digital camcorder (maybe the Panasonic SDR-S10?), becase we’d like to play around with video, and might bring our tiny (2oz) digital voice recorder.



Rite-in-the-rain

Luckily writing notes are easy. I always bring a simple Rite in the Rain notebook, and write journal entries nightlsy (plus notes during the day).

Shelter/Sleeping: With all those gadgets, we’re lucky we’ve managed to pare down our home away from home… Sharing a homemade sleeping bag, under the pyramid shelter, with a pair of light 3/4 length thermarests (also doubling as life vests), we only have 2.5lbs of home each.

What we learned on our winter vacation

Posted by on 08 Apr 2007 | Tagged as: gear, trip preparation, trip reports

Ok, so my last blog post kind of sucked (too much rambling text about what happened). So here’s the lowdown on what we learned from this trip (along with a couple more pictures I didn’t have room to fit in).



Turnagain Ice

Skis: Maybe better skiers than us can handle skinny trail skis in hilly forests. We need all the help we can get. So going against the grain of our usual preference for the lightest stuff we can get away with, we’re planning to go with wider backcountry skis (metal edged) and stiff boots for this trip.

Skiing through the forest: Slower than we’d hoped. When you’re not only sinking into the snow, but also carrying it with you (in 6 inch layers on the bottoms of the skis), even five miles of forest is really really long. Luckily a lot of our winter travel will be over tundra. And it doesn’t really matter if the whole trip takes longer than 9 months… But on this shakedown, we were on a tighter schedule. So we bailed. We ended up relying on the “no spontaneous generation of snowmachines” principle (where a snowmachine comes from, there must ultimately be gasoline, humans, and roads), and hightailed it off our map after the second day of continuous forest, down a snowmachine trail to the road.


Open section of the Kenai River

Drysuits: Awesome. Still a few bugs in the beta test version, but we’ll be getting them back with better wrist gaskets, and I think they’ll be beautiful. Both more comfortable and more waterproof than anything we’ve ever had. And in the winter, the roomy top let us stuff waterbottles and cold-sensitive electronics down the front – giving us the appearance of some oddly boxy beer bellies.



Paddling the Kenai River
New thermarest-life vests doing well


Old Ski Boots from the Seventh Grade: More awful than I could have imagined. Too small, and not very warm (which I was expecting). Also completely formless, with holes tearing out at the bottom, no control at all over the skis, not at all waterproof, almost impossible to get on wet, and completely impossible to get on frozen (which I wasn’t expecting). Needless to say, they’re in a dump in Alaska now.

Alpacka Rafts as Sleds: Great. In all the temperatures we had (probably zero ish to about freezing), they slid across the snow beautifully, saving us from lugging a pack. And the spray deck kept everything under control inside, allowing us to be complete slobs about packing them.



Kenai River frozen solid

Stoves: You always need more air holes. Always. And don’t tip over the stove. Better yet, let Hig deal with the stove so it’s not my fault if it does tip over. (I think we might be better with a shorter and wider can?)

Shelter: Making a shelter with every last scrap of fabric and figuring that we can just barely fit inside…? In real world conditions (i.e. not a backyard test), we can’t really fit inside. Lesson? Don’t procrastinate so much on ordering fabric.

Fur Ruff: There’s a reason the Inuit have used them for thousands of years. I didn’t have one yet, but Hig was raving about the way it cut the wind and kept his face warm.

Flat Water Alpacka Travel: I just don’t understand why no one else does this. We paddled 12 miles from the Homer Spit to Seldovia, with one rest break in the middle. People are impressed when we tell them this. Propelling a boat forward on calm seas is not impressive. In fact, it is a pleasant and dirt cheap way to visit Hig’s family in Seldovia (just a little more time consuming)



Burnt forest on the moraine hills

Burnt Forest: I’ve never been on a trip in a recently burnt area before. Aesthetically, it’s really kind of an intriguing landscape. And interesting to see what still lives there (a few ptarmigan and squirrels). Fires have been huge in Alaska in recent summers – a combination of very dry weather and spruce-bark-beetle killed trees in some areas. Some people think that with global warming, increased fire in Alaska’s boreal forests will end up turning them back into grasslands.



Ultimate lesson? It was a great trip. We’ll fix a few things, get a few more pieces of gear, and it’ll work out one way or another. When I remember how awful some of our gear was for our first major summer trip (800 miles down the Alaska Peninsula), I realize we’re far better prepared now. And I realize that we can make it work out somehow even if we’re not.

Gear construction III – Winter shelter, Stove, and Drysuits

Posted by on 27 Mar 2007 | Tagged as: gear, trip preparation

Sunday night I gave a talk on last summer’s Bristol Bay/Pebble Mine trip at the Loussac Library here in Anchorage, which was really fun. When our journey brings us through here next December, I’m planning to give a talk on the journey so far. And I hope to get a huge flotilla of packrafters here to paddle Knik Arm with us on our way out.

The thermometer here has been down near zero the past few mornings, and hasn’t yet crept above freezing during the day. I’m sure the Anchorage residents are just about ready for spring, but we’re gleeful to have caught the winter. All the better to test gear in the cold, and have good snow for a ski trip.



Hig and Sheri in the shop

We’re making gear with Sheri (of Alpacka Raft) – she’s making us drysuits, and letting us use her shop and pick her brains for some of our other projects.


designing with plastic



Cuben Fiber!



cat investigating the cuben fiber tent



cuben fiber A-frame

Winter Shelter

Our idea right now is to make a tent (held up by kayak paddles) that nicely holds two partially-inflated rafts. These will keep us off the snow and add a bit of warmth. If we’re lucky, they’ll add enough warmth that we can keep on using our light summer sleeping pads into winter. If not, we’ll know soon enough…

We started trash-bag style – taping together a plastic tent from painters’ drop cloths, and fooling around with the design.

Then we graduated to a more high-tech trash bag.
We got some Cuben Fiber (about half an ounce per square yard) from Quest Outfitters. Cuben Fiber is made primarily for racing sails. It is the approximate weight and texture of plastic wrap (6 yards came in a small priority mail envelope) but has fibers within it that make it suprisingly strong. I am especially pleased that such an expensive high-tech fabric makes our tent look like a crinkly plastic bag. And is see-through.


We bought some tape with our Cuben Fiber, and were really happy to find how easy it was to stick stuff together with tape! Then we took the shelter out in 10 degree weather, and the tape came instantly unglued. Back to sewing.

Unfortunately, we didn’t have enough Cuben Fiber to make the floor, so we had to finish it off with Tyvek. If we like having a floor, we’ll replace it later.

The next 6 days will tell if it’s really going to work. Wiser folks than us might have tested this before a multi-day ski trip – but we’ll figure it out somehow.




Hobo stove I, in action

Hobo Stove
We don’t own a stove because neither of us have ever really liked them. Fires are pleasant and warm. When I’ve been on trips with other people’s stoves they seem far too finicky. And I definitely don’t like the idea of carrying fuel.


But in the winter, we thought we might need something to melt all that snow. And I figured a wood stove might eliminate the problem of needing to carry ridiculous amounts of fuel. So I looked around at some little wood stoves online. And determined that a: they cost money, and b: we weren’t going to be able to get one in time for this shakedown.

But hey, why buy a stove when you have a can of hominy? We drilled some holes in the can, set up a coat hanger pot stand, and started melting some water. After a little tinkering (a large can is better than the standard size, and you need more air holes than you think), we got it working pretty well – melting snow into half a liter of water with a can full of wood.



Hobo stove II, all the pieces

Of course, the stove melting down into the snow can be a problem. The paddle blade seems a decent platform, though cardboard isn’t quite enough to protect it from the heat. We’re bringing a chunk of wood.

Drysuit
Sheri’s finishing up our new hiking/packrafting drysuits as I type here. I’m super excited to see how they work. I’ve never had raingear I liked, and never had a drysuit of any kind. These ones are made out of something called "Dermizax", which sounds like an anti-acne medicine, but is actually a stretchy waterproof breathable fabric.



Food for a 6 day ski

Shakedown Time!

Tomorrow morning, ice permitting, we’ll paddle across Turnagain and start skiing down the Kenai Peninsula. I’m really looking forward to finally getting outside.

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