Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Reflections on SUL Backpacking

The most popular post on my blog right now is a SUL gear breakdown and trip report from about a year and a half ago.  For those of you that don't know (if you are reading this, you probably already know, but just in case), SUL is short for "Super Ultralight" backpacking, which is commonly defined in the backpacking community as having a base weight of gear under or around 5lbs/2.3kg.

My SUL gear has gone through a lot of changes since I went on that trip, and I have gone on many SUL trips since then and intend on going on more in the future--lots more, if I am lucky.  Thus, I wanted to reflect on these changes, plus just give attention to and ruminate on the subject in general--not to mention I started writing my master's thesis and obviously need a healthy bit of procrastination ;).

I'll start by discussing what my 2013 SUL season gear list contains.  The only change I plan on making to this set up is to upgrade my summer sleeping bag, which will cut around 50-100g or so off the weight.  I will go into great detail on some of my choices since it seems like my audience is primarily Gram Geeks, so prepare yourself for nerdy wall-o-text again--though I recently put up plenty of pretty pictures, if that is more your thing.

As usual, here is what it looks like all neat and nifty on gear grams.

Backpack - Zpacks Zero XS

It has more than enough volume, good shoulder straps, and carries well.  I recently got my hands on a HMG Stuff Pack, but not only is it too big for my needs, I prefer the shoulder straps of the Zero--though in fairness I have not given the Stuff Pack a real test by say, taking it out on an overnight trip yet, but only packed it and worn it around inside.  Should I ever decide to go on a longer trip, like a section hike over 2 days, I might take the Stuff Pack... we'll see.  It thought it was worth mention as another option for those interested in going very light, though I have noticed more and more options out there for SUL backpackers since becoming one myself (e.g. Gossamer Gear's Murmur and Mountain Laurel Design's Newt).

Sleep System - Häglofs Lim 50, torso foam mat, natural materials (if needed)

I have really put this synthetic sleeping bag to good use, not only in the summer, but used together with a down bag in the winter for added warmth rather than buy a whole other winter sleeping bag (which is expensive, heavier, bulkier, and only gets used in one season).  It has a rated comfort temperature of 13C, and when I first bought it, it was actually a very accurate rating, which is rare from my experiences with sleeping bags.  

It is not the lightest summer bag out there, but it made up for it in being fairly low priced, as far as quality lightweight bags go.  I paid 950 SEK (about 150 USD) here in Sweden, but it is probably cheaper in other places.  Due to lots of use and wear-and-tear, it is not as warm as it used to be, so it is on its last legs this season (if I don't replace it sometime soon).

The foam sleeping mat is pretty straight forward, just a piece of foam mat I cut down that I also use as the back padding for my backpack.  I am one of those people that can sleep very comfy with minimal padding, as my first SUL trip demonstrated, where I took no sleeping mat at all and slept on a garbage bag ground cover directly over a bed of moss.  Should I deem it necessary to have additional insulation from the ground (this is usually for warmth), I can make a nest of natural materials to sleep on (e.g. pine boughs, leaves, grass, etc.).  

Shelter - Ti Goat Ptarmigan bivy, Zpacks Hexamid Solo tarp, DIY ground cover

The bivy and ground cover also contribute to my sleep system by giving me some added warmth/insulation, and the bivy also offers protection from wind as well.  I am currently in the process of modifying the bivy by adding a small vent on the foot box to help with condensation.  I like a lot of what using a bivy offers, but my biggest issue/annoyance with them is condensation, which I hope this mod will fix.  The vent will just be a small strip of breathable fabric sewn in as a patch after I remove a small strip of the silnylon top fabric, which is not very breathable at all (but very water resistant).

The bivy also gives me full protection from bugs, which is a nice luxury, plus added protection from rain should any blow in from the sides of the tarp, and gives excellent protection from dew/mist.  A few years ago with some friends I will never forget that the group decided to sleep out in the middle of a field, which of course was lovely--but in the morning came with the price of all of us being covered and soggy with dew.  We had originally intended on sleeping in a trail shelter, so I didn't bring any shelter at all, and this is before I had my bivy.  Of course dew/mist/condensation all has a lot to do with the specific location of where one makes camp for the night.

Another great aspect of a bivy is that should I chose to either sleep out in the open (clear skies and little chance of rain) or at a trail shelter and not have to set up my tarp, I can still gain the benefits of the bivy.  And of course a bivy is one of the easiest shelters to set up: lay it out, put your sleeping bag and mat inside, and you're pretty much done.  The tarp/bivy combo gives you options.

The DIY/MYOG ground cover is just a garbage bag with a space blanket duct taped on top of it.  It is perhaps a "heavy" ground cover from the perspective of SUL, but I feel it serves several important uses to make up for the small weight burden.  For one the space blanket reflects back heat, giving a minor boost in warmth/insulation, but it is somewhat fragile--hence the garbage bag under it, which on the other hand is quite tough.

As I mentioned earlier, at times I use natural material to make a nest to sleep on, and this (especially pine boughs) can cause minor wear and tear on a ground cover and/or bivy.  A double layer ground cover fixes this, and I also use this ground cover with my inflatable sleeping mat (Neoair Xlite) in the spring/fall to give added protection from the ground.  I never use natural materials combined with my inflatable mats, as it is just not needed--my Xlite for example has an R value of 3.2, which is plenty of insulation and warmth for 3 season use.

The ground cover also is quite large, giving me a nice sized boarder around my sleeping space to put gear I might need (e.g. headlamp, cell phone, clothing, etc.) to keep it clean/dry.  And finally, the ground cover also gives my bivy less wear and tear, so that I can continue to use it for awhile with less wear and tear.  Bivies in general are not that cheap (nor are inflatable sleeping mats), so I feel it is best to take especially good care of certain pieces of gear.

The tarp I have already written about several times, you can see it in action on an UL trip and on an XUL trip.  Needless to say, I love this tarp and it is one of my single favorite pieces of gear.  The extremely low weight yet high strength of Cuben fiber, versatility, low bulk, ease of use, and simplicity of this tarp still amaze me.  

Critics of Cuben fiber will point out that it is not very durable when it comes to abrasion, which is true (though most fabrics like rip-stop nylon, what a lot of traditional backpacking gear is made of, are not exactly magic protection from thorns and brush), but considering that a tarp has pretty much one job and one job only--which is to protect you from rain/snow--so this is simply not really a very relevant issue when it comes to using Cuben for shelters.  Which is why there are people that have gone on several thousand km/mile thru-hikes using Cuben shelters without any issues (check out Zpacks for proof).

Granted I have a few Cuben backpacks, but this is much stronger/thicker Cuben than what is used for the Hexamid shelter; and I don't intend on doing any heavy off-trail and/or bushwhacking with these packs, that is what my hybrid Cuben and Dyneema packs are for, naturally.

Cooking - Campfire kit

This kit is optional, as I can choose to go with non-cook foods, and often do during my SUL season (which is from roughly June to early September here in south west Sweden).  I have recently written extensively on my cooking systems, which you can check out here.  I have only gone on short SUL trips, though in the future would like to take longer trips.  I find SUL ideal for last minute weekend trips when the weather is nice, but of course if the weather changes (as it does often where I live) or if the weather is not so nice but I am really itching to get out into the woods, my SUL system can handle it.  

My fire skills allow me to be able to get a campfire going even in light rain, and have little trouble getting one going after a moderate downpour--just takes time, patience, and practice.  On my first SUL trip we got a nice fire going in light rain, and kept it going in moderate rain.  And of course if there is heavy rain or I am feeling lazy, I can just take my DIY alcohol cook kit and that would only put me at 5.13lbs/2324g, which is still pretty much SUL anyhow (who's keeping score anyhow :P).

The rest of my gear is pretty self-explanatory, so now I wanted to focus on the general idea of SUL.  Obviously I am a big fan and it has made a big positive influence on my experiences as a backpacker during a season that I am usually outside more often.  

If you are reading this, you are probably already a SUL backpacker, at least sometimes or in the past--in which case it is good to see other peoples interpretations and perspectives on this style of backpacking.  If you are an UL backpacker and you are interested in trying SUL, of course I would recommend it because of my good experiences with it, but ask yourself what you aim to accomplish, and be mindful of bad faith (i.e. there is no "contest" or "winner" for having a lighter base weight).  As I have said before, there are limitations based on a number of factors that only each individual backpacker can and ought to account for.  

If you are a traditional or novice backpacker and stumble upon this, I suggest you let this serve as an example of other possibilities that have a lot of potential to improve certain (perhaps most) aspects of enjoying a long hike and camping out in the wild.  I also suggest you first try going UL first before going SUL.  I began as a traditional backpacker for years hauling around a 20kg pack, then made a steady transition over several years to lightweight, then UL, then SUL, and finally a few XUL trips.  In short: do research, be safe, and have fun.

Regardless of your perspectives and style of backpacking, I hope that all this is both helpful and enjoyable to read, and please feel free to ask questions or leave feedback.

*The usual disclaimer: I get no free gear nor am I sponsored or paid by anyone to write these posts.  I don't even have adds up on my blog.  I bought all gear mentioned here or the rest of my blog on my own, or in some cases I was given gear as gifts from friends or family members.