Late fall. Brilliant color leads to subtle tones in brown. The wind is up and leaves detach, one-by-one, whirling as they float to the ground to join the crunchy carpet I walk along in these quiet hills dotted by lakes.
For one day and one night, I backpacked at Lake Maria State Park, about an hour northwest of my home in Saint Paul. I needed to field test a few pieces of gear and I’d assumed it would be cold by early November when I made my plans.
Instead, it was mid-70’s and warm enough to sit out on my private picnic table without a coat and watch the sun set and the stars fill the sky.
Lake Maria is well known for its beautiful backpacking sites (and remote cabins) a focus that makes this park such a gem. It also hosts one of the few remaining stands of old-growth oak, an island now but once blanketing southern Minnesota.
The woods were so thick, it’s been said, that sunlight couldn’t penetrate the forest floor. French explorers named this region “Bois Grand” or Big Woods.
Just because this is the Midwest, it’s not flat. Lake Maria lies at the center of the St. Croix Moraine, formed during the Wisconsin Glaciation. Granite forms the bedrock and is topped by several feet of debris left by a bulldozer of massive ice sheets.
Short, steep inclines lead to narrow catwalk ridges called eskers, hovering above myriad depressions or kettles scoured into the earth as the glaciers retreated.
Just one day and one night, the gear tested and my soul revived.
In the long run, we shape our lives, and we shape ourselves. The process never ends until we die. And the choices we make are ultimately our own responsibility. – Eleanor Roosevelt
The men are awake and out by 3:15. True to their word, they are absolutely quiet packing up. They’re heading north to ‘meet their wives,’ they tell me from a very snug two man tent. I sleep beautifully in my tiny spot under their clothes line, especially happy they warned me about mice and I hung my food and garbage on a mossy branch.
Everyone marches out early and I find it difficult not to succumb to the peer pressure to move faster. My body is only tired, not injured, though I have two small infections to attend to – a bear-grass slice on my pinky and an ingrown toenail. Sounds small, but out here it’s nearly impossible to stay clean.
When every inch of the world is known, sleep may be the only wilderness that we have left.
I am afraid of heights.
At least according to Ohio-based Hammock Gear, who – despite the name and mission – happily provides its superior quilts to us ground-dwellers.
I am delighted with the traditional mummy set-up I have been using for years. But lately I’ve read excellent reviews about sleeping quilts, and after a lot of nights of feeling a need for my legs to sprawl, I began to think hard about having more of a blanket over me than being swaddled in a cocoon.
At $180 for a 20-degree, extra wide, zippered-footbox, premium 800-down quilt, I thought what-the-heck and took a chance on Hammock Gear’s Burrow Econ. D-day is exactly two weeks from last night, so it was only fitting I have Olive Oyl schlepp the new purchase to the backyard, set up the alicoop and take her for a spin on a damp October night with temps dipping into the mid-30s.
First let me explain what a quilt is in the backpacking world. It looks like a traditional bag, but one that’s been sliced open like a seed pod à la Invasion of the Body Snatchers. That riven section actually goes beneath you. The idea is that you don’t need down under your body.
In fact, what you compress with your weight loses its warming power and, the argument goes, is wasted. Quilt-makers put all the coziness where you need it, making it a more efficient piece of gear.
I admit, climbing into my new Moroccan Blue quilt at first took a bit of trust as it was just my tender backside against my Therm-a-Rest, but in time, things came right up to temperature and I felt toasty warm.
I opted for a zippered footbox – rather than sewn – to stay flexible should temperatures rise and I want to transform my quasi-bag into a blanket. What is noticeably missing is a full zipper and a hood. This saves a lot of weight. A comparable 20-degree bag weighs nearly a third more than this 24.5 ounces of thru-hiker bliss. Less weight, less volume, less faffing about to maintain loft means a much more blissful hiker.
Hammock Gear understands that a hoodless, backless down ‘blanket’ with a box up to the knees is going to invite pockets of drafty air to any side sleeper. They recommend a wide width for tucking in, and cords to affix the quilt to your mattress. I ditched the cords, as anyone who has slept near me knows I’m a pretty fidgety sleeper, but opted to spend an extra $20 for more coverage. I am 5’7” and 135 pounds, and the quilt closed me in like a tube.
HG puts a snap at the neck and a cinch cord to seal the deal. Though no hood meant I slept wearing my beanie, a buff and down coat. I do recommend choosing bigger and wider, and depending on your temperature needs, choosing colder. 20 degrees was just right for temps hovering in the mid-30’s.
That being said, an added benefit of keeping your head out of the bag is less moisture build up to compromise the down. But the sleep system does take some getting used to. I come from the generation that was told sleeping nude in a down bag is warmer than clothed. An alternative fact created by the back-to-the-land hippy culture, no doubt, but one I seem to have a hard time shaking. With a quilt, you’ll need to sleep clothed, mostly your head and neck, but likely also your upper body. Quilts are roomy so this shouldn’t be a problem, but it’s a rethink on how you feel coziest at night.
Down is my go-to even in summer bags. It’s hands ‘down’ – pardon the pun – superior warmth to weight ratio than synthetics. Most manufacturers are using water-resistant shells these days, so keeping your down quilt dry is easier.
If you’re thinking about cutting weight, you are already on track to own an ultra-light mattress. I use the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir X-lite. It’s ideal for quilt-sleepers: warm, comfy and sits high so the quilt drapes over the sides and forms a seal. With hundreds of nights on this pad, I have never sprung a leak, even in the desert.
I realize it’s a one-night stand for me and the Moroccan Blue, but we’re off to a good start and she is my ‘bag’ of choice for the Te Araroa.
Specs at a glance
Weight: 24.59 oz
Length: 5’7″ to 6’2″
Temperature rating: 20 degrees
Down fill: 800
alison young purchased this quilt from Hammock Gear.
Amicus means friend in Latin, and I have a feeling this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Soto Amicus is a canister stove with built-in lighter (optional) It has superior features are far more expensive stoves including four rock solid folding pot stand supports and a recessed burner head that performs decently even in reasonably windy conditions, makes this sub-three ounce stove my first choice for the Te Araroa.
I have been vacillating between using my home made alcohol ‘cat stove’ and the very easy to manage, all-in-one Jetboil. But with a keen eye on ounces, I wanted to cut weight and the Jetboil rebuild seemed a bit risky.
I came upon the Sotos on Massdrop. For under $30 I felt it was worth a try and I am impressed with the quality of the craftsmanship. It feels solid with each arm locking into place with a satisfying and tight click. The cook surface is wider than most and will support wider pots.
While the piezo lighter adds a few ounces, it is built to last running through the stove’s center, protecting it from impact and adding to its reliability, though I will take a mini lighter just in case.
I did a quick test with 25 ounces of water at a rolling boil in four minutes at 45 degrees outside and at sea level.
I then placed a fan directly facing my wee stove and the cook time was noticeably slower – about fifteen minutes! – but the flame never went out fighting against the artificial breeze.
It is never recommended that a backpacker use a windscreen due to the efficient and focused flame. You don’t want to create a ticking bomb. Rather look for a natural wind break and don’t bring your fan on the trip!
Many years ago, my mom, who was a Forensics coach, took me with her to the All-State Finals to cheer on her very best students. There was so much talent that day, but our favorite by far was a kid from a Chicago suburb. He was competing in original comedy and his story revolved around what might happen at an amusement park if you had poorly trained staff. It went something like this:
Here’s how you run this ride, kid. Simply open the door, close the door, spin the room, and drop the floor. Got that?
OK, boss…let’s see… Open the door, close the door, spin the room, drop the floor. I think I’ve got it. Open the door, close the door, spin the room, drop the floor. Hey, this is easy! Open the door, close the door, spin the room, drop the floor. Open the door, close the door, spin the room, drop the floor. Open the door, close the door, drop the floor….uh-oh.
These lines became a family joke for years, and I share them today because they capture what has turned out to be my complete ineptitude in following fairly simple instructions for my otherwise cool headlamp.
I love my light-weight, multi-functional Diamondback Spot headlamp. She is a bit like me, a former model, and at 3 oz and around $40, a steal.
That being said, this past weekend Richard and I were lazying in bed and my mind was on packing and preparing for the Te Araroa and I blurted out my dilemma. No matter how hard I try I to memorize the functionality steps, by the time I’m out in the field, I immediately forget them, fumbling about in the half-light and inevitably ending up with a flashing red light or a dim white beam on the periphery.
Rich was aghast that I was headlamp illiterate, so in hopes of proving to him that it’s not as easy as it sounds, I hopped out of the coziness of our marital nest to grab the headlamp – as well as my laptop so I could share the helpful little Diamond Back video I watched on repeat trying to cram for my next outdoor adventure.
“Does this mean we’re getting up now?” Rich asked in a slightly exasperated voice.
“Not at all! You can just sit right there, and we’ll watch together.”
Thankfully, Black Diamond uses a straight forward searchable title, “How To Use The Black Diamond Spot Headlamp” and in no time, the video was up and running. Why exactly they chose to use a porn-film soundtrack, we’ll never know for sure, but the instructions are admittedly fairly straight forward beginning with power on…
The steamy beat and the perfect youth of our headlamp-models begin their familiar show and I explain to Richard all the reasons I like my headlamp – inexpensive, lightweight, multi-functioning – it can also be shut off to save the battery draining. Though this has not always worked out perfectly for me. If just one piece of gear presses against the on button for a little too long, it can undo the function. I have often opened my pack to find it glowing, the light on high beam and the batteries down to nothing.
Sure, I could simply pop out the batteries as I pack, but it’s just another bit of awkwardness to open the headlamp unless you don’t mind bending your thumbnail backwards. Richard showed me how you have to pull up and not back. And, ta-da, that did the trick! It just popped open – with batteries flying everywhere, lost in our sea of sheets. The batteries don’t lock in place with a satisfying click. No doubt to save weight, they just sort of perch there. So consider yourself warned not to open your light over a canyon or a rushing stream.
Meanwhile, back to the tutorial, the music twanging away as our happy headlamp wearers with perfect teeth and perfect skin smiled effortlessly. They surely were never ones to lose batteries when they opened the headlamp. These are the faces of people who memorized each and every function on their first go.
I hate them.
Regardless of my negative attitude, they remain patient as if speaking to a very slow child.
Click once to turn on.
I turn on my light and immediately shine it into Rich’s face. “Turn it off!”
Click again to turn off.
But then things begin to get really tricky. They tell me to turn it off then on so the white light will change from the center (proximity) to the outside (distance) OK, got it. On and off and on. On, off, on. On-off-on…drop the floor…
I feel chuffed at this point. I made something happen! And the next section, too, is a breeze. I’m on cloud nine. Battery consumption is measured by three lights. Green means you’re at full power, yellow is only adequate, and red means you’re running down. And you can even save power by dimming the light, simply hold the button down and the light will slowly dim, hit bottom and blink at you, then begin brightening again.
This is fun!
But soon dark clouds move in as I enter territory meant to confuse this Blissful Hiker. It seems if you want to switch the light to red so you don’t blind your hiking pals, you better pay close attention.
With the power off, hold the switch down for three seconds.
OK, easy enough. And then my lovely headlamp friends tell me just repeat it and the white light pops back on. So hold down the switch three seconds – from off! – and the red light magically comes on.
But wait, there’s more. It seems the universal sign for an emergency on the trail and to get the attention of passing airplanes or paragliders is a flashing light and this little light of mine has that function too. Instead of holding the button down, you click it three times and you get the strobe light.
But didn’t I just click three times when I was switching from proximity to distance?? I am so confused!
“Just think of Dorothy wanting to get back to Kansas,” Richard says helpfully.
It works, but I’m sure that in the field I’ll likely simply give up, put the light away and go to sleep no matter the time. But I soon find that even that is a challenge.
With power off in the white mode, hold the switch down for 6 seconds. The light will cycle through red, then the blue indicator light in the battery window will activate.
Makes sense, but maybe it’s because the light has to pass through white to red before the little blue light flashes to tell me all is well that I want to release the button too soon. Stay the course, Alison, don’t let up, don’t go into the light!!
The light goes out.
And all is well.
At this point you’re probably asking, why not just upgrade, Alison? I am sure things are on the upswing in the headlamp arena and I can afford a new light. Call it laziness, call me cheap, call me determined to become the William Tell of headlamp functionality, but I am not giving up on this little light of mine.
Not yet anyway.
Specs at a Glance
Lumens : 300
Weight With Batteries : 3.1 oz
Max Distances : [High] 80 m; [Low] 16 m
Max Burn Time : [High] 30 H (est.); [Low] 175 H (est.)
alison young is too cheap to buy the up dated Spot but did buy this older model.
The Tarptent Notch Li is a fantastic ultra light shelter for the solo thru-hiker looking for simplicity and durability, while not sacrificing comfort. Made of dynamee, the Notch Li is essentially waterproof. It sets up super fast with the use of trekking poles that remain outside the living space. The twin-peaked catenary ridgelines add rigidity in the wind and rain as well as create an enormous living space with two entryways and two vestibules.
Notch Li is my choice for a home away from home.
I bought my first Tarptent when I walked the John Muir Trail in 2012. The single-walled Moment was the envy of all my hiking friends because it set up literally in seconds and was roomy with an enormous vestibule. I have since added an inside layer provided by Tarptent to alleviate condensation, but when I planned to walk on the soggy Coast-to-Coast, I decided to upgrade to something more reliably dry.
The success of the Notch Li begins with its fabric. Formerly known as cuben fiber, dynamee is considered the most revolutionary material used today to make outdoor gear. It’s technically classified as ultra-high-molecular-weight polyethylene. The fiber has low density that allows for high load dispersion. Fifteen times stronger than steel and extremely light, it is the strongest fiber in the world.
But wait, there’s more! It’s also waterproof, resistant to UV light and chemicals, and is extremely durable.
But that doesn’t mean you can just stuff the Notch Li in your pack. You need to handle it with care by rolling it into its dynamee bag. The feel is a cross between taffeta and rice paper, but I endured absolute downpours and there was not one drop in my tent.
I opted for the partial solid interior made of silnylon which saves a bit of money on your purchase but I had a few other reasons for this choice. While dynamee is strong and waterproof, it’s translucent and I like a wee bit of privacy.
I also hike in places with blowing sand and heavy rainfall. The solid wall rises fairly high inside. It does cut down on views when supine, but it also keeps splash and detritus from finding its way through the no-see-um screen.
The partial solid silnylon interior adds a few more ounces, but I felt it was worth it. I did not purchase nor have I used a footprint due to the floor’s ruggedness, but I do choose my sites carefully.
The Notch Li sets up like a dream. It is a non-freestanding tent with each corner supported by carbon struts that create a triangle. You simply roll out the tent, stake down each end with the provided Easton aluminum stakes, insert your trekking poles – which remain outside the living space, entry and exit – and stake down the sides.
You should be able to do all of that without getting the inside wet because the two parts remain attached. The outer does not use zippers, which takes a little getting used to. I found I needed to slightly loosen the tension before attaching the poles into their loops and then ensuring the points of my poles stayed in place once I tightened up again. There is a little tab below the hook that helps when opening and closing the door but you do have to get the hang of it.
The tent held up well in wind, though there is an option to attach another set of guylines. That being said, you will need two more stakes to make the tent more stable in inclement weather. The six-panel design has advantages as does the ridgeline which makes the Notch Li more stable when loaded, though I have yet to take it out in snow.
Did I mention there are two doors? The Moment only had one, and that seemed sufficient, but once you are spoiled with two, you will wonder how you survived. This gives you two vestibules for storage, organizing gear and hanging out. But if the midges are as bad as they were this summer in the UK, you will be staying tightly zipped inside the tent.
But don’t despair because the inside is huge. Richard is 6’4” and crept in for a test and found he had enough room to lie down and sit up. I am smaller so had loads of room for my bod, my gear at both head and foot as well as room for a few items along the side.
I use a Therm-a-Rest Xlite, which fit inside beautifully. There are also a couple of strategically placed pockets as well as a ceiling hook.
This tent is in one piece, the inner tent attached to the outer, but you can take them apart if you prefer to use one without the other. This requires more stakes and for my uses, it never made much sense to use the pieces separately.
However, I needed to have them apart when I returned home because I had so many squashed midge carcasses inside it was the only way I could clean the tent. It was a breeze to detach and reattach parts.
I love this tent and I should mention that my Notch Li was named by a contest. She’s the alicoop and will happily be my safe little chrysalis on the Te Araroa.
Specs at a glance
Weight: 21.76 oz.
Interior Height: 43 in
Floor Width: 20 – 34 in
Floor Length: 84 in
Minimum number of stakes: 4
Packed size: 16 in x 4 in
Materials: dynamee and silnylon
Support: trekking poles
alison young purchased her Notch Li from Tarptent.
Today, my boss gave me the green light to take a personal leave of five months to take care of a little something that has been on my mind for the past several years: to walk one of the biggies.
While it would seem to make more sense to start with something close to home like the Appalachian Trail or Pacific Crest, my chunk of time away will be in the winter, and it’s only logical to track down summer – and prime backpacking season – where it happens during our cold months, on the other side of the earth.
I must have been playing a long song on Classical MPR when I stumbled upon this long trail. I was surfing the web looking up top hikes of the world and this newish hike – or tramp, as the Kiwis call it – popped up, piquing my curiosity.
Te Araroa means “the long pathway” in Maori. Completed in 2011, it’s a 3,000 kilometer trail extending from Cape Reinga in the North to Bluff in the south. It traverses the entire country; beaches, forests, mountains, volcanoes and cities, and should likely take all the time I have planned to finish it.
Thus far the furthest I’ve walked all at one time was the GR5, 450 miles over the spine of the Alps. While taking on that challenge I wondered if I was made of the right stuff to sustain a thru-hike of not just weeks, but months.
Aside from the logistical nightmare and the risk that I might not be missed at my place of employment, I hadn’t the faintest idea if I possessed the grit, the fortitude and determination, and the sheer pig-headedness to stick with a walk of 1,864 miles.
Over the ensuing years, I decided there’s only one way to find out, and that’s to go and do it. Keeping in mind the fact that I’m not getting any younger and my arthritic toes are continuing to protest, I made the decision to request a leave of absence, and put myself directly on the path of enormous change.
Sure, it will be a change in scenery and routine, but also in how my life looks and feels because I am going alone. Don’t worry! Richard will be following my every step through the magic of GPS tracking – and I’ll stay connected by blog. I certainly hope you’ll follow me. I might need emotional support along the way.
So right now I’m absolutely tingling with excitement for this rare opportunity even as I make lists of all that has to get done, including applying for a visitors visa on an extremely thorough application which requires proof I not only have the financial means to return home, but plan to do so!