Thursday, December 8, 2016

Gear Review: Zpacks Duplex Tent

When it comes to backpacking (or camping in general) nothing can make or brake the experience quite as easily as your shelter. No single piece of equipment has the power to make you feel safe and protected or exposed and vulnerable the way your shelter does. So, when it comes time to purchase a new one, you want to know that what you're buying is going to do what you want or need it to do. That's why it's so important to me that my shelter reviews are effective in helping you get the information you need to determine if a shelter is a good fit. So when it comes to reviewing tents, here are the considerations I will make sure to cover: Design, Weight, Protection, Capacity, Ease of Setup.

ZPacks Duplex Tent:
ZPacks is an innovator in the ultralight backpacking industry. They pride themselves in making the lightest products around. How do they achieve such light weight? By utilizing minimalist designs and using the lightest weight materials available. Enter Cuben Fiber (Now called Dyneema®)

Originally designed for use as sails on racing sailboats, Cuben Fiber is a a high-performance, non-woven, rip-stop, composite laminate made by sandwiching Dyneema® fiber filaments a thousandth of an inch thick between thin outer layers of polyester film. The “sandwich” is then melded together in a high-pressure autoclave. Dyneema® Composite Fabrics are lightweight, highly durable, and are 50-70% lighter than Kevlar, four times stronger than Kevlar, and able to flex without losing strength. They also weigh less than silnylon, float on water, are 100% waterproof and have high chemical and UV resistance. Cuben Fiber is so thin that you can see through it yet doesn't pack down the way woven fabrics, like silnylon do. And should you get a hole it can be easily patched it using Cuben Fiber tape.

The Duplex is a non-freestanding tent with dual doors and dual vestibules. Slightly reminiscent of an old fashioned scouting tent, the Duplex is just as quick and easy to set up as the old classic but has a number of features that provide better protection and greater comfort. This tent breathes surprisingly well for a single wall tent made out of a 100% waterproof material. This is achieved through the large mesh sidewalls on either side. Additionally, the bathtub floors are attached to about 2" of mesh rather than directly to the roof providing an outlet for any condensation that may form on the inside of the tent. Another nice feature is that, the roof overhangs beyond the floor enough that the inside of the tent remains dry even during heavy rains, provided the wind is minimal.

*It is important to note that at base design, the Duplex utilizes trekking poles instead of tent poles to give it structure. Tent poles can be purchase for those who don't use trekking poles (Zpacks also offers a kit to turn the Duplex into a freestanding tent).

The basic model is made from an olive colored .51oz material and weighs in at 21oz. This material is quite transparent which could be good or bad, depending on your preferences. Knowing that Chanda would want some privacy and that there would be times when we shared this tent with our children, I opted for the spruce colored .74oz material which is a little less transparent (you can see out but it's difficult for someone else to see in) and a little sturdier. The upgrade does come with a slight weight penalty though and our tent weighs in at just over 23oz with the included stuff sack.

As stated before, Cuben Fiber is 100% waterproof which means that you are pretty much guaranteed to stay dry as long as your tent is set up properly. I have even heard stories of people seeing small streams form and pass under their tents during heavy rainstorms while they remained perfectly dry and warm inside. The design allows for two average sized adults to sit comfortably and play cards, read, or simply watch the rain, should they find themselves having to retreat from foul weather. The vestibules provide more than enough space for storing packs, shoes, and wet gear, ensuring that moisture stays away from your dry clothes and sleeping bag.

The vestibules attach to a small hook which slides up and down the center guy-lines. It can be tricky (though not impossible) to deploy the vestibules from inside the tent as the hooks are designed to be pulled tight from the outside. This is an instance where simplicity of design does not necessarily equal convenience. If you anticipate having to deploy the vestibules, it's a good idea to attach them to the hook, pull everything tight, and then roll them back up before you get into the tent. That way, when the time comes, you aren't trying to make adjustments while rain poors down on your head and back. Trust me when I say the the two minutes it take to do this in advance are well worth it.

The Zpacks Duplex is easily my favorite tent. It is light, roomy, reliable and easy to set up. I feel it's only fair to point out that, as with all things Cuben Fiber, the cost of this product is substantial. I expect the cost of the materials to decline eventually but right now, only one company manufactures it, and they have no problem demanding a pretty penny for their wonder-fabric. The low weight and spacious design make it an excellent 3 season tent for one or two people. I don't know how well it will perform in deep winter, as we've only had it since late summer but I have no reason to doubt that it will do quite well. I look forward to many years of using this as my primary backpacking tent.

Packed up, lying next to a Nalgene, for size reference

If you have any questions about the ZPacks Duplex tent, feel free to leave a comment and I will do my best to answer ASAP!

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Presents With a Purpose

I've been thinking a lot about the way our family does Christmas. Traditionally, Christmas is a time of giving  gifts. It's a season set aside for celebrating Jesus' birth and showing people that we care for them through meaningful generosity. Often, it doesn't matter what the gift actually is because it's the act, not the item, that has meaning. Unfortunately, that concept has infiltrated our culture in a way that, I think has devalued the act itself, with parents and children.

Here's what I mean:

In my house, Christmas often consists of carefully choosing one or two gifts for each child that are meaningful. After finding and purchasing those gifts, we then proceed to scour Amazon and Walmart for stuff to make our kids' gift piles look more impressive under the tree. Most of what we buy are things that our children don't really need or even want all that much. It's just fluff - filler. And then on Christmas Eve (Or Christmas Eve Eve) we sort everything into piles and worry that one child has too much and another child, not enough. We spend hours wrapping presents and neatly placing them under the tree in a way that will look impressive when the kids come down the steps and then we go to bed hoping to get 3 or 4 hours of sleep before they wake up and dive in. On Christmas day, the kids are exited to open their presents but often throw them aside without a second look, in anticipation of what might be in the next box.

When all the presents are unwrapped, the focus then switches to trying out as many of their new toys as possible in the limited time they have before we head out to visit extended family. Many packages are opened and items are given a few minutes of attention before they are once again abandoned. Our children don't have a lot of stuff but we have a lot of children, which means that there is a lot of stuff in total. So we never have enough space for all their new gifts and everything has to go back under the tree until we figure out where to put all the new presents. Most of the items don't ever find a permanent home because they were cheaply made and my children are hard on them. By New Years Day, we have usually thrown away quite a few of their presents because they were broken by the recipient or a sibling. By the end of January, half of what remained is also gone leaving the initial items that were so thoughtfully chosen and a few, sturdier toys.

In the month that follows Christmas, we reprimand our children daily for not taking better care of all the items that they didn't actually want or need, as we throw them in the trash. We feel that our children are ungrateful for the hard work and sacrifice that went into acquiring all of these gifts. And they are. They're children. They don't really understand and appreciate what went into "making Christmas happen" because they have never lived it. In their eyes they were good; they made the nice list; they deserve these presents like we deserve our paycheck for working hard. And just like money passes through our fingers each week, these gifts too, are temporary.

But what if they weren't? What if we could give our children gifts that lasted a lifetime? What if we could give them more than a big pile of stuff? Because, here's the thing: I'm not opposed to my children having great memories of waking up and coming down the steps to a pile of gifts under the tree. I'm opposed to that being the only good memory that comes out of it. My kids don't need stuff. They need experiences. They need memories that will have a positive, lasting impact on their lives. They need time with the people they love doing things they will remember. They need presents with a purpose - gifts that will help them become more well rounded adults.

I want my kids to receive books and boardgames, snow pants and sleds, compasses and cutting boards, ballet tickets, zoo passes, and the promise of shared experiences. My kids like opening presents, but they cherish time spent having fun with the people they love so much more. I can see it in their smiles and hear it in their voices when they can't stop talking about their backpacking trip with Chanda, or the movie they saw with Grandma, or getting Jimmy Johns with Uncle David, or playing with the baby goats at Aunt Sherry's farm with She-She & Papa. They might not all be able to express it, but the thing kids want most is for the people they love to invest in them and the things they love. And I'm not just talking about my children. I'm talking about all children.

This year, as you wander the store in search of the perfect gift for your child, look for things you can do together. Make plans as you shop. Give them a fishing pole with the promise of trying ice-fishing. Buy them books they will love and make a plan to ask about it, maybe even read it yourself. Get passes to a zoo, or aquarium, or science center and spend time planning a special day with them. Buy them a pair of boots and promise to help get them dirty by taking them to explore a new patch of wilderness. Our kids are never going to appreciate most of the stuff we give them. But they will appreciate the memories we make with them. This Christmas, lets not just give kids presents. Lets give them memories!

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Tent vs. Hammock: Dispelling the Myths

Shortly after I got into running, the book Born to Run was released. If you haven't read it, it's a compelling story about the Tarahumara Indians - a tribe of people with deeply cultural ties to endurance running. After talking about the Indians for some time the book goes on to recount the story of how one of their athletes defeated legendary ultramarathoner, Scott Jurek in a footrace. The book was a top seller and spawned a barefoot running movement. Barefoot running became a subculture, dare I say a counterculture, within the running community. There were a lot of reasons people used to justify why everyone should take up barefoot running (many of them mythical) and barefoot runners were often viewed as condescending and snobbish by their more traditional running mates. As time went on, many runners who switched to barefoot running suffered preventable foot injuries, Vibram was sued for making unsubstantiated claims about the benefits of using their "barefoot" shoes, and runners in general started moving to shoes with more cushioning rather than less.

When I got into backpacking, I started to see the same sort of trend with hammock camping. (If you are a diehard hammock camper, don't stop reading yet!!) It is not uncommon to hear hammockers make statements like, "I'll never sleep in a tent again" or refer to tent or tarp campers as "ground dwellers." And I've heard all kinds of reasons as to why nobody should ever sleep on the ground. Now, I'm not saying that hammock camping is going to fade away. But if you look objectively at many of the "reasonings" why hammock camping is better that ground camping, you will find that they are often as mythical as the majority of the so-called "benefits" to barefoot running. That's why with little more than a handful of hammock camping trips and a lot of YouTube videos about hammock camping under my belt, I feel prepared to tackle the Tent vs Hammock debate.

First, let me say that I find hammock camping quite enjoyable. Though I have not and probably will not ever choose to use hammocks exclusively, I do recommend that most people give it a try. That being said, there is a lot to know before you venture off into the woods with a hammock, if you want to have a positive experience. I recommend checking out Shug's YouTube channel for all your hammock camping education needs. Shug is a diehard hammocker with just about every type of hammock and accessory you can imagine. I think you will find him both informative and entertaining.

Now, back to the Tent/Hammock debate. Below are a few of the common statements many hammockers make regarding the benefits of hammock camping over tent/tarp camping. I will follow them by a True/False/Sometimes response and an explanation of why I agree or disagree with the statement.

Hammocks are faster and easier to set up than tents: Sometimes

There can be truth to this statement. If you arrive at a campsite and there are two trees perfectly spaced, without dangerous limbs hanging over head, AND there isn't a suitable place for a tent or tarp, the hammock is definitely going to be faster and easier. That being said, it usually takes some time to find the right spot to set up your hammock, just like it takes time to find the right spot to set up a tent. Additionally, if you are camping in a place without an abundance of trees, like a desert or mountain ridge, hammock camping (while often not impossible) is far more complicated and time consuming than tarp/tent camping. The truth is, most campsites are chosen with care, regardless of which type of shelter system you choose. In my experience, ease and speed of setup varies greatly between location, equipment, and individual campers.

Hammock camping is the more lightweight option: False

Maybe this one should be a "sometimes" as well. Compared to an entry level backpacking tent, hammock camping is definitely the lighter option. But Hammocks generally require a tarp to ward of wind, rain, and snow. Choosing to use a tarp alone, is obviously the most lightweight option as a single tarp will always weigh less than the same tarp coupled with a hammock. Plus there are tarp-tents style shelters like the Zpacks Duplex or the Tarptent MoTrail that weigh just slightly more than a comparable tarp alone and can be shared (gathered end hammocks, even the big double hammocks cannot be shared comfortably all night long) cutting the weight-to-person ratio even more. Another consideration is that most hammock campers choose to use an underquilt/topquilt system to keep warm at night rather than the topquilt/sleeping pad system adopted by more conventional backpackers. Good underquilts like the Hammock Gear Incubator, while very light weight and compressible, easily weigh more (and cost MUCH more) than a good lightweight sleeping pad like the Therm-a-rest NeoAir Xlite (which can also be used in a hammock but is not as comfortable).

Hammocks are more comfortable than tents: Sometimes

There is no denying that there are certainly some luxury aspects to hammock camping. For instance, a hammock is a much more comfortable place to sit and relax than a log or rock. Also, it's nice to put on or take off your shoes while seated in the "chair" position. I have also heard that some back and side sleepers don't experience the same aches and pains after a night of sleeping in a hammock that they do on the ground. That being said, due to the convection process that takes place when you are suspended in the air, hammocks can be more difficult to stay warm in. And you cannot lay completely flat in a hammock. Even in an asymmetrically sewn hammock like the Warbonnet Blackbird you don't lay completely flat. This simple detail means that hammock camping is essentially backcountry purgatory for most stomach sleepers. So, about 10% of people will not find hammock camping more comfortable than "ground dwelling" under just about any circumstance.


When I'm planning a trip, I decide between a hammock and a tent by looking at each trip individually. The convection process I mentioned before that can make it hard to stay warm on a cool, windy night, is also an amazing feeling on a hot summer night. If it's going to be cold, or there is a chance that there won't be enough trees to hang my hammock close to the people I'm camping with, I will almost always opt for the tent. If it's going to be a low mileage trip and there is going to be a lot of time spent hanging out at camp, I am more likely to bring my hammock so that it's available to relax in. If Chanda or one of the kids will be joining me, or weight is a concern, I will bring the tent so that we can share a single shelter. For me, there is no best system for every scenario.

If you are kicking around the idea of trying out a hammock in the backcountry, I hope this post was informative. I definitely recommend giving it a shot to see if it is a good system for you. If you are a diehard tent, tarp, or hammock camper, I hope that this post enticed you to consider switching it up once in a while. There is merit to every system. In my opinion, there is a time and place for every system as well. If for some reason it came to where I had to choose just one, I would go with a tarp-tent design but I would be sad about never getting to stretch out in a hammock after a long day of hiking again.

On a side note: Check out the products I linked in this post. Everything linked is quality equipment. These companies are small businesses that hand build their products in the USA and are run by people who love backpacking too!  

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Tough Lessons from a Failed Hike

"We extract people from the canyon all the time. Rafters, mountain bikers, dehydrated hikers - a lot can go wrong out there. If you find yourself needing help, the best place to get picked up is Bradley Wales; about the halfway point. There's a road and cell service there. We can just drive up and get you if something goes wrong."

I could here his words ring in my head as I dialed the number for the outfitter that had shuttled us to the southern terminus of the trail.

"Pine Creek Outfitters. How can I help you?" a kind sounding voice answered. It was the same guy that shuttled us out.

"Hi... you guys, uh, dropped us off at the southern terminus of the West Rim trail yesterday... Uh..." It was almost painful to spit out the next part. "We need you to come extract us from the trail. We're at Bradley Wales."

As I assured the man on the phone that nobody was injured or dehydrated, and that we would be fine to wait until morning, I couldn't shake the shock of finding myself making this call. I wasn't sure if I was more embarrassed or disappointed.

I like to finish what I start. As an ultramarathoner, I have only DNF'd one race and it wasn't until the trail was completely washed out and one of my pacers fell into a ravine that I decided to call it a day. I'll push myself to breaking. I take pride in that. And if I'm honest, some sick, twisted part of me, enjoys the challenge. Yet here I was, making the call. Not because I felt tired or broken but because half of my team did.

It was an eye-opening experience. Over the last few days I've been reflecting on how this happened and I've come to the realization that I will need to modify the way I organize trips in the future. It turns out, my easygoing, laissez-faire attitude toward organizing backcountry excursions can be problematic, if not kept in check. I'm not saying that I have any intention of becoming a type A trip planner. But I've realized that there are a few things that I will never do the same way again. If you're like me, and you like to let the adventure just happen, here are a few tips that could help reduce the risk of finding your group in need of rescue, on your next outing:

Know Your Party
Before, I kind of had this attitude of "the more, the merrier!" I let anyone invite anyone. Never again. You need to know someone well before you head into the backcountry with them. And I'm not talking about their favorite color, food, or political views. What I mean, is that you need to know their level of experience and their backpacking philosophy. Everyone has their own personal take on backpacking. Everyone's packing list is different. But not everyone's philosophies mesh out on the trail. If you are an "Ultralight" backpacker on the trail with an "Overly Prepared" type, there's a good chance you'll run into problems. If you prefer to move slow, taking in the scenery, and making lots of detours and you're on a trip with someone who's trying to cover 15+ miles a day, you're both going to be frustrated,  no matter how well you get along in your everyday lives. Before you (or your friends) invite anyone new on a trip, make sure you know how they approach backcountry life.

Stragglers Must Carry a Map
I've seen it on documentaries about backpacking and now I've experienced it firsthand. Stragglers get lost. Why is it that nobody ever thinks to make sure they have a map when they end up at the back of the pack?? In retrospect, it seems like common sense that the guy (or girl) a half mile behind everyone else, should probably have a way to know where they're going. Make sure the the person at the back of the pack is armed with a map, a compass, and the knowledge of how to use both. Or better yet, insist that everyone carry a map & compass just in case. If you have someone on trail with you who is inadequate at orienteering, DO NOT LEAVE THEM BEHIND. Otherwise they could find themselves wandering onto private property with signs posted saying that trespassers will be shot on sight. And a lost or dead hiker is bad for moral all the way around.

Foggy Sunrise Over the PA Grand Canyon 
Plan to Start Unnecessarily Early
To me, this one is the hardest to swallow. But, what I have found is that, more than half the time there is a delay in getting on the trail, the first day. If you plan to get started at 10am there's a good chance that you won't actually hit the trail until noon. Once you have determined what time you need to get started, move that time up a few hours. Getting into camp at 11pm is no fun. Making up missed mileage the next day is hard. Sitting at camp a few extra hours, or having time to do some exploring without a pack on your back, can only be a bonus. Get started early, then if something doesn't go as planned, you'll roll into camp on time instead of late.

I've read a thousand blog posts about backpacking and none of them have suggested these things. Maybe everyone else assumes that they're a given. Or perhaps, learning this is all a part of the initiation process. Either way, it is my hope that sharing the lessons I learned from my mistakes will help others to have a more enjoyable hiking experience. This is by no means an all inclusive list, so if you have any other tips that you've learned the hard way, please share them in the comments section!

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Pokémon GO: An Ultramarathoner's Take

"I'm so sick of that game" I overheard the gas station attended blurt to her coworker. "I go into the woods for a peaceful, quiet workout and the park is full of losers being loud and looking for fictitious monsters!"

It's a sentiment that seems to be pervading the internet. Like the original Pokémon games of the 1990's this cultural phenomenon known as Pokémon GO has stirred up quite a bit of controversy. But there's a different tone to it this time. Instead of complaining about an entire generation never leaving their bedrooms, the complaints seem to be centered around an entire generation getting out of the house, invading our communities and even... (wait for it) going for walks in the woods! *shudder!*

Every time I hear someone complaining about this game I just want to shout, "Are we serious right now?!?! We're complaining about kids getting exercise?" But the attendants comments got me thinking... Where were these complaints when Nintendo launched the Wii and then the Wii Fit? I don't seem to remember hearing anyone complain that kids (and adults) who were previously living sedentary lives in front of a television screen, are now moving their bodies more. As a matter of fact, that seems to be one of the praises I remember being sung about the new game machine. And those praises continued to be sung about subsequent systems, like the Xbox 360 that used even more advanced technology, allowing a greater freedom of motion as remotes became unnecessary. So, why are we so upset about this new generation of video game?

It seems to me that what people are upset about is that Pokémon GO takes kids outdoors. A whole generation of teens and young adults are invading the places we love. They're going for walks in the woods, they're visiting monuments, libraries, museums and other points of interest in our community, many for the first time in their lives. The places that we have cherished are no longer as quiet and secluded as they once were. But isn't that what we want?

As an ultra marathoner and outdoor enthusiast, much of my social media is dedicated to sharing my adventures with the hope of inspiring others to get out there and experience the beauty of nature themselves. Many of my friends do the same thing. We share our adventures so that others will be inspired to have a few of their own, to get fit, or just to get outside more. But when something actually manages to get people out there en masse, we complain about it. Some of the complaints might have some validity. Others... I'm not so sure about. Here are the three most common complaints I've heard, and what I think we can or should do about it.

The places I go for peace and quiet are now crowded with young people!

Isn't that what you want? Sharing things we love with younger generations ensures that they continue to be appreciated. Additionally, parks exist for people to visit them. If people don't go to them, then they aren't worth the cost of upkeep. This surge of visitors to your favorite park or monument likely means that your local government will continue to fund it's existence when budget revisions come around. And lets face it, it's not THAT crowded. A few people walking up to look over the same pond you admire on a regular basis isn't really that big of a deal. And if it is, keep in mind that most parks have a few places that people rarely visit. Maybe it's time to find a new spot if you need more seclusion.

They're always looking at their phone. They're missing the beauty that surrounds them.

This is the same tired old argument that hikers have said about runners forever. I can't tell you how many times that I've heard hikers complain that I can't possibly enjoy the woods moving so fast. It's ridiculous. I love to hike and backpack as well. I am fully aware of the difference in experiences and I realize that I might not see as many small details while running but that doesn't mean that there's a better place for me to run. I still see more than I would have had I decided to stay at home and run on the treadmill. And, things still catch my eye that cause me to pause and take in the scenery. The same is true for kids hunting imaginary monsters on their phones. Yesterday on my run, I saw two teens holding their phones, looking up at the trees in search of a woodpecker that they could hear but not see. I watched a girl, looking at her phone, walk up to a bench near a pond, sit down, and admire the view. And I saw an overweight father and daughter walking down the road together in search of tiny monsters. There is a solid chance that none of these things would have taken place, had these people not been playing a video game on their phones.

They don't know trail etiquette. They're loud and take up the whole trail.

We weren't born knowing trail etiquette. Someone had to teach us. Someone has to teach them. Instead of complaining, how about kindly offering some instruction. For example, politely say, "passing on your left" instead of just yelling "on your left." It may take some time but eventually they'll catch on. Even better, slow down and ask them about the game, inquire about what they have caught, tell them what wildlife that you've seen, and then slip in that if they are quiet, they may see the same wildlife. Also, keep an eye out for things that you're local parks might be doing that do the same thing.

Pokémon GO is an opportunity for us to engage an entire generation in the outdoors. Instead of fighting it, lets embrace it. Lets look at the positives. And then, lets encourage these teens and young adults to look up from their phones for a minute to admire the places they're visiting for the first time.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Exploring the Twists & Turns of My Running Journey

Six years ago I started a journey. It began when I bought my first pair of real running shoes and said, "Maybe I am a runner after all" (See How I Became a Runner). It's a journey that has been full of twists and turns, victories and injuries, accomplishments and failures. It has been been a labor of love and a path to self discovery. But what I have discovered has not come to me through running alone. There have been other factors; other contributors and influencers that impacted me rather unexpectedly. I was not really aware that these things were at work until recently, when I realized that my whole perspective on running has changed.

Allow me to backtrack a little.

My First 50K
It didn't take long after I began running for me to discover that I loved to run on trails while I only tolerated it on roads. Road running was monotonous and painful. The miles stretched ahead with little variety but the woods, they called to me. Trail running was and continues to be an adventure full of variety and challenge. Every step was different. The scenery was both peaceful and exhilarating and I couldn't get enough of it. I built up my milage and ran a marathon, then a 50K, then another. I got injured and 6 weeks after I could run again, I ran another 50K. The following year I ran in two 50 mile races. I loved everything about trail running and ultra marathoning. I loved the process. I loved the time in the woods. I loved exploring new trails.

And then my kids reached an age where I could take them all camping. This was an activity that I enjoyed as a child and I wanted to share it with my own children. We started making it a point to camp at least once a month in the summer. Chanda did not share my fondness for camping but she supported the kids and my adventures nonetheless, often coming out to visit us, and occasionally staying the night. While I loved taking the kids camping, the twins were only 2 and the work of setting up camp for eight, while trying to keep seven children entertained, was exhausting. As camping took up more of my time, I allowed my training slide.

Last summer, while training for the Run With Scissors Double Marathon (RWS), I often found myself viewing one short run and one long run per week as acceptable training. I was running the heaviest I had been in years and, to no surprise, I got seriously injured a month before the race. Two stress fractures in my left leg: The doctors recommended I take a 3 month break from running to let myself recover and then ease into running slowly. I agreed, and immediately contacted the race director and volunteered to help mark the course. I might not get to run the race but I wasn't going to let that keep me off the course.

In the months that followed, I started preparing for a new adventure: an early spring backpacking trip (See 10 Things I Learned on my First Backpacking Trip). Preparations included online research, the acquisition of gear, and hiking. Lots and lots of hiking. I told myself that this would be good cross training and that I would be a better runner because of it. I took the kids on many of my hikes and found myself pulling facts and theories that I had learned from recent biology, geology, and natural disasters classes, my favorite of the general education courses I've been plugging away at as I work toward a psychology degree.

I missed running, but not as badly as I had anticipated. I looked at backpacking as a nice distraction from the hole that injury and the break from running had left in my life. But to my surprise, when I returned home from backpacking, all i wanted was to do it again. I loved everything about it. I loved the slower pace. I loved the beauty. I loved the quiet. I loved the physical challenge of carrying everything you need to survive for 10, 15, even 20 miles in a day.

Cumberland Island, GA
I had a fall trip on the calendar within a week. Then Chanda and I planned an anniversary trip backpacking Cumberland Island, GA. When I wasn't planning a trip into the woods, I was reading about them. I finished Henry David Thoreau's Walden, which I had started in the fall and moved on to devouring the writings of John Muir as fast as I could. Slowly and steadily, my running mileage was increasing and I found myself looking forward to each run with great anticipation. Last week, I sat down at my computer and began working out a training plan for a second shot at RWS. Intertwined into my training are several camping trips and several backpacking trips. I considered the physical demands and the benefits of each as I planned out my mileage and was able to create a training plan that should have me going into this race stronger and more fit than ever.

Then, this past Monday, as I was running through the woods, marveling at the beauty that surrounded me I was struck by a thought: I don't love running nearly as much I thought I did. I was confused. I misunderstood my feelings. Like a person has confused their love for someone with their love for that persons family, I had misunderstood my love for running. In fact, it isn't running that I love at all. I don't love running just anywhere. I don't love running roads, I dread running on a track, and I despise running on the treadmill. If I truly loved running, shouldn't I feel differently?

I continued my run, rounding a corner into a patch of pine forest and took a deep breath. The smell of decomposing needles filled my nose like a strong perfume. I heard the distinct thumping of a large Pileated Woodpecker drilling holes in a nearby tree, and like a veil had been lifted from my minds eye, I was able to see clearly. It had not been running that I loved. Nor was it camping or backpacking that I adored. These are merely tools. My love affair was not with any activity in particular. What I realized was that my love affair was with the wild itself and I would use any method available to me to get close to her.

This realization has not had any negative impact on my desire to run in the woods. If anything, it has been strengthened by a clarity of purpose that I previously lacked. I have often said that fitness goals should be determined by what you love to do not by how you want to look. I understand what I love now more than ever. I love to experience the wild; to watch the changing of the woods follow the changing of the seasons; to experience the infinite biological variety and processes in different ecosystems; to stand in awe of the seeming permanence of geological structures; to stair into a night sky, unpolluted by city lights, and try to wrap my mind around the vastness of cosmological time and distance; and to wonder at the handiwork of a God who simultaneously works in the infinite and the microscopic. That is what propels me forward as I train for my next race. It's what compels me to drag my kids away from tv and computer screens and into the woods. It's what leads me away from the comfort of my bed and my home, to wander through the forest with my shelter and food strapped to my back for days at a time.

I've rounded a corner on this journey. I have a greater understanding of where it is that I'm headed. And the best part is: I have much further to go!

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

10 Things I Learned on My First Backpacking Trip

"I've been thinking about getting a backpack and doing some hammock camping trips. You know, hike out and find a place to camp, kind of an ultra low impact sort of thing."

The idea resonated with me as we sat around the fire. Maybe it was the quiet night and the campfire. Or the sense of euphoria that accompanies completing a challenging race like Hocking Hills Indian Run, in which I had taken 2nd in my age group that morning, but whatever the reason, a whole new type of adventure (for me anyway) was set into motion, that September night.

Fast Forward to Mid-March. None of us had ever set out on an adventure like this before. But here we were, 5 guys, armed with hammocks, backpacks, sleeping bags, and 6 months worth the research, leaving the safety of the car for a 3 day point to point trek through Shawnee National Forest. We thought we knew what to expect. Looking back, we had no idea how strong the learning curve would be. Here are 10 things I learned on my first backpacking trip:

1. Everything weighs more on the trail
It's true. Putting on a fully loaded pack that weighs 40 or 50 pounds and walking around the house does not give you an accurate idea of what your pack actually weighs or how it fits. While a 50 pound pack might seem completely manageable, even light, within the confines of your living room, it can seem unbearable after 6 hours on the trail, especially if your pack doesn't fit right. My pack fit right and weighed in at 24 lbs and I was tired of carrying it by the end of each day, I can't imagine what the guy with a 50(plus) lb pack that didn't fit right was experiencing.

2. You need a lot less gear than you think
Online, you'll find a ton of packing lists. Everyone has their own idea of what gear is necessary and honestly, packing lists are a highly personal thing. But there are really only a few things that you actually need in your pack: shelter, sleeping bag, and water. If you view everything else as a luxury it becomes much easier to to pair down what you plan to carry.

3. Some things are worth the extra weight
Two luxury items that I definitely splurged on were extra socks and instant coffee.  I knew there was a strong possibility that I would find myself wet and cold at some point. Dry socks and a hot cup of coffee seemed like they could do wonders for moral. I was right. They were little things that made a huge difference to me and they were worth every ounce of extra weight. Ask yourself, "If things turn bad, what little thing might boost my spirits?" That item is probably worth the extra weight.

4. Something will go wrong
For me, it was the realization that I had forgotten gloves. For my brother, it was finding out that the cook box he had bought for his alcohol stove made it less efficient and he didn't have enough fuel. For another guy, it was the discovery that his pack didn't fit right. And on day 3, it was the realization that the trail was 9 miles longer than we had all previously believed. Which leads me to my next 3 lessons...

5. Test your gear before you're relying on it
Whether its a pack, a tent, a cookstove, or a sleeping bag, test it out before you take it on a trip. Make sure you know how to use it and that it functions the way you expect it to. Getting a day into a three day trip and realizing you're pack doesn't fit right is the pits. Finding yourself setting up a tent that you don't know in the dark is frustrating. Hanging a hammock for the first time, only to realize your tarp doesn't cover it, can be a nightmare. Give it a shot before you are depending on it.

6. Backpacker Magazine isn't always right
Sure, they're an authority on backpacking. But they're also an organization made up of humans. Sometimes they make mistakes. Sometimes they give out bad advice. Sometimes they tell you that a trail is 24.6 miles when it's really 33.4. 8.8 miles is almost a whole extra day of hiking. A WHOLE. EXTRA. DAY!!! So take everything you read with a grain of salt.

7. A good sense of humor is invaluable
When you're tired and you realize that you have a lot further to go than you thought, sometimes you just need a good laugh. Being able to look at your situation and make light of it is a great way to process what you're experiencing without letting it drag you down. In the end, backpacking like running, is all about putting one foot in front of the other, and nothing makes that harder than allowing yourself to sink down into a pit of despair.

8. Factor in unscheduled downtime
An itinerary that requires you to be on the move for 10 hours a day, is a bad plan. Give yourself some the freedom to explore a rock formation, or rest at a fallen tree. You never know what might put you behind schedule so give yourself some wiggle room.

9. If you look for it, there is beauty in even the worst conditions
The second day, we woke up to the sound of rain, ice, and snow falling on our tarps. Before any of us had even opened our eyes, we knew that it was going to be a day of trekking through miserable conditions. But what we found in those conditions was an abundance of beauty that we would have not seen otherwise. There were ice covered spider webs, starkly contrasting hues of the snow and the forest in early spring, and delicate cherry blossoms kissed by ice and snow. It was in some ways, the most beautiful of our days on the trail.

10. Bring a camera
Seriously, there is a chance that you will see something that you want to remember, or that you'll never make it to that same place again. There are so many unique and wonderful places to explore, take a camera (or a phone with a camera) and capture the beauty. If nothing else, maybe your pictures will inspire someone else to get outside and explore for themselves.

What about you? What are some invaluable lessons you've learned out on the trail?