Sunday, July 31, 2011

First Official Super Ultralight (SUL) Backpacking Trip

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

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

Here is a breakdown of the gear I put together:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Total base weight 2181g or 4.8lbs

Tea kit 90g
Food 747g
Water 1500g

Total backpack weight 4518g or 9.94lbs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Finally, Pictures of Sunny Spain

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

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

 Wild mountain goat.

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

 Sunrise the next day.

 The view we left behind.

 The view we hiked through.

 Wild, wild donkeys.

 Coming down the mountain towards a lonely beach.


 I wish would could have made camp here another night.

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

Can't wait to go back.

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

Can't wait to go back!

Thursday, July 28, 2011

A Quick Update

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 14, 2011

My Favorite DIY/MYOG Camping Shelter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

In Defense of Boots

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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