Friday, December 19, 2014

Cesar's 2015 Shelter Systems for Solo Backpacking

I recently got myself an early holiday gift, which I spoke about in a first impressions video.  It's a 6ft x 9ft (1.8m x 2.7m) Zpacks flat tarp, and I opted for the 1.0 Cuben fiber in a nice translucent black for reasons I discuss in said video.  I finally got a chance to get out and test it out on a short day hike, and am very excited about what will be my new go-to shelter for the colder half of the year.  

Before I get into different pitches and configurations of this tarp, let me first explain the method to my madness for my two go-to shelter systems for the upcoming year.  One will be used roughly between late spring to mid autumn (the "warm" kit), and the other between late autumn to mid spring (the "cold" kit).

I have already discussed at length my warmer weather shelter system for last season, and it will remain the same next season.  Here you can see a picture of it in action last summer, or check out a short video I did setting up the poncho/tarp, and here are its contents and weights:

Golite Poncho/Tarp plus stuff sack- 205g
Borah Cuben Bivy w/side zip and vapor vent modification and stuff sack - 140g
SOL trimmed sheet ground cover and small plastic bag - 43g
Guy/ridge lines and small plastic bag - 30g
6 Ti stakes plus Cuben stake sack - 38g

Total - 456g / 16oz

Using the above set up, in my bivy I am covered from not only bugs, but also slugs, mice, snakes, etc. This is more of an issue in warmer temps. I also get a very small warmth bump, wind/spray protection, and can also have the flexibility to cowboy camp if clear skies or use the bivy super easy in a trail shelter.  Plus condensation is a non-issue with my vent mod.  I don't have much more to add about this set up.  I was very happy with it, so if it ain't broken don't fix it, as it is said. 

I have always really loved the flexibility and versatility of a good flat tarp, and over the years have used many, many different types of flat tarps--all of them cheapo DIY jobs.  In my heavy hauling days, this meant heavy duty hardware store tarps.  More recently in my Ultralight backpacking days, it was garbage bags, space blankets, clear plastic sheeting, and a lot of duct tape.  

I found that as much as I liked my Zpacks Hexamid tarp, I actually missed the DIY flat tarps--if only they were a bit lighter and much more durable.  After I got my poncho/tarp my Hexamid stayed in the gear closet.  Well I finally decided to sell my Hexamid and replace it with a solid flat tarp.  I debated several options, but it really came down to silnylon vs. Cuben, and you already know which fabric won.

So let's take a look at my updated cold weather shelter:

Zpacks tarp plus stuff sack and guy lines - 245g
SOL trimmed sheet ground cover and small plastic bag - 43g
Guy/ridge lines and small plastic bag - 30g
10 Ti stakes plus Cuben stake sack - 60g

Total - 378g / 13.3oz

Here it is all packed up, not that bulky either:  

I initially put the tarp in a Zpacks Cuben dryback, but have since switched it for a simple nylon one (the stuff sack that came with my Montbell UL down parka).  If the tarp is soaked, the nylon will wick and also breath, so that I can carry it on the outside of my pack (e.g. top strap or in a pocket).  That way it can dry out with the added benefit of not getting things wet on the inside of my pack.  During the colder half of the year, the issue of bugs and other animals is pretty much negated, as animals are not as active (or active at all) when the temps drop.  Rain/snow spray is also not that big an issue, as with a larger tarp there is simply less spray possible--plus it's much easier to stake the tarp right down to the ground in storm mode, as will soon be demonstrated.  The slight warmth bump is too small to worry about, especially considering all the good options I have to keep warm and cozy (e.g. sleeping bag liners, hooded down jacket, down pants, etc.), and this also takes care of the issue of wind (as will choosing good locations to make camp).

There is more to this shelter system, however--for instance, why so many stakes?  I have been so happy with my Golite poncho/tarp as rain gear and pack cover in addition to it as a shelter, that I have decided to use it year round.  So depending on how you want to count it--as a rain/snow/wind layer of clothing, or as part of my shelter--the total weight of my cold weather shelter could be considered 583g / 20.6oz.  

There is also one other minor factor that could change this total weight, which is if there is a fair amount of snow out, in which case I would leave the stakes at home and just make snow T-anchors out of sticks and/or rocks.  This would bring it to 523g / 18.4oz for snowy winter trips.

But let's focus on the unique combinations of shelter that this cold weather system can provide me.  On my day hike today I set up a few different pitches, a few with the poncho/tarp and a few without.  There are of course more possibilities, but the ones presented are the ones I will probably use for all my needs.  I'll start with perhaps the most basic set up, a lean-to pitch, which is just a small step up from cowboy camping.  Just something to perhaps block wind or a light passing shower.  Note in the photo that there happened to be a passing shower right after I finished setting the tarp up:

Next here is another shot of just the Zpacks tarp set up in a standard A-frame.  This would be for cloudy skies and/or light precipitation and wind, no need to bunker down too much all the time.

But what if there is steady or heavy precipitation?  And of course high winds can make even light precipitation an issue.  So here is a pitch that involves both tarps, and is the first level of bunkering down.  The key is using the hood of the poncho as a way to run the ridge line through it, and of course this is where the extra stakes come into play.  The poncho/tarp creates a large beak and/or vestibule that would do a good job of blocking moderate precipitation, spray, and wind.  Note how much room is in there in the last picture below of me sitting inside of this extended part of the shelter.

And finally there is storm mode, the next level of bunkering down.  The back ridge line is dropped slightly lower, and the four lower (foot end) tie out points of the Zpacks tarp are staked directly to the ground.  The two head-end guy lines are doubled up (halving their length) and staked down, the poncho/tarp is staked directly down to the ground at two points overlapping the Cuben tarp, and one doubled up guy line is added to the center tie out of the poncho/tarp.  

Finally, the corners of the poncho tarp are pulled in under the shelter, and they can either be staked down with the final stake or just anchored with gear (as my day-pack demonstrates).  And again, there are other options.  I can also stake out the four corners of the poncho tarp directly to the ground, for instance.

In spite of being staked down lower, there is still a good amount of space under the shelter--at least if you ask me, though for the record I am not at all claustrophobic.

Now keep in mind that I live in Sweden, a place covered by trees and forests (one source notes that in 2012 Sweden was 69% forested land), so obviously this is a very dialed in shelter set up for my hiking environment.  No trees means you have to use something to hold up your tarp, but many UL tarp users use trekking poles to pitch their tarps.  I rarely use trekking poles or staffs, and in general prefer not to use them.  But in the grand majority of places I have gone hiking here, there have been plenty of suitable spots to set up a tarp (or a hammock, if only I liked them--I prefer sleeping on firm ground).

I also love the simplicity and ease of using a flat tarp.  It may take some practice for those that have never pitched a flat tarp before, but for me I have very little trouble getting my shelter up.  My routine after a long day of hiking to make camp is to first find a good spot.  This usually takes around 5-10 minutes.  Then I clear the ground between the two trees I selected, which only takes a few minutes or so.  Then the pack comes off, guy lines and stakes come out, and I get to work.  It usually only takes me around 5 minutes or less to pitch the tarp, then I go inside and spread out the ground cover.  After spreading it out, I lay down on top of it to make sure there isn't anything uncomfortable or that could damage my bivy and/or sleeping pad.  A few final adjustments and I can get to setting up my sleep system, and on to dinner or a late snack before bed.

That about wraps up my new go-to shelter system, and I am really looking forward to putting it to good use next year.  If you haven't already, you can check out part two of my first impression review videos on the Zpacks Cuben flat tarp below, which I filmed on the same day trip that the above photos are from.

Usual disclaimer: I am not sponsored by Zpacks or anyone else for that matter.  I bought the tarp from them and they never asked me to write a review.