Long distance hiking is not a vacation, it’s too long for that.
At a tent site high up on a ridge in Washington, I met two women sitting on logs next to their individual mineral green tents and passing a small flask betwixt themselves. They lifted their outstretched legs as I passed, since that was the only route to a tiny spring – described as a “crisp, cool, mystical, scoopable pool of water” below the trail.
As it goes with all backpackers sharing a space, the two were friendly, eager to share about their day’s hiking. For them, it was a return to familiar ground, which last summer had been shrouded in smoke with no views available at all of splendid Goat Rocks or Mount Rainier himself, shining high above.
Fortunately, it had been a gloriously clear day, so all had been rescued – and that might have explained the celebratory Scotch which was eventually offered to me.
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!
In Silent-Film-style, the Blissful Hiker prepares to hike the Te Araroa by setting up her Tarptent, the “alicoop” with her Leki trekking poles, blows up the Therm-a-Rest and finally crawls in for a little shut eye.
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.
Now I see the secret of making the best person, it is to grow in the open air and to eat and sleep with the earth.
Today the alicoop was carried to a spot along the Cumbrian Way right next to the river. Lonely and far from everything, it’s the first real “wild camping” experience so far. Even so, as I sat down to muse on the day with a spot of tea and my shoes off, another single woman slowly lumbered passed, the first person I’ve seen on the trip with a backpack.
Keswick was a fine stop for food and civilization. I skipped the Pencil Museum and instead hung out in town. Moot Hall with its high clock tower stands at the center of the pedestrian shopping zone and marks the start – and end – of the Bob Graham rounds. I was lucky enough to see a finisher just arriving for his picture and congratulations from about twenty-five pacers, supporters, friends and family. He was dressed only in flappy short shorts, fell runners and a light raincoat for the 24-hour slog of 28,000 feet over 40-something peaks.
The forecast called for 40% chance of rain, but began clear, the sun going in and out of cloud, dancing on the far fells I climbed yesterday, giving them a velvety cast over Derwent Water.
The real issue was how to get out of town and on the trail to Skiddaw. I am always amazed at my luck on walks as just when I was wondering which road to take, a young man kitted out for hiking came striding down the sidewalk sending me on the right route.
Church bells pealed in the town as I got closer to the fell. A sign pointed towards the public footpath, but appeared to be bent. Confused I marched up a trail that gave way to bracken, thick stemmed ferns standing three feet high with long grabby tendrils setting up a tripping hazard and hiding holes.
Turning around, I ended up heaving myself gingerly over a barb wire fence only to find the way closed by the owner. The only option was to get down to the road and start my search all over again.
Eventually the path came into view, and a farmer was even kind enough to ensure hikers didn’t accidentally venture into his fields. The going was steep, but to my surprise, signs had been erected to keep people from charging straight up the mountain, which had eroded away a good bit of it. Instead, the path zigzagged on a short series of switchbacks. I am betting these will be the only ones I use the entire walk.
Higher and higher as all of Cat Bells ridge came into view above the water, but so did mist blowing right over the peak I intended to climb. I met a couple who told me England’s third highest peak, Skiddaw, tends to “trap the cloud.” It makes me a bit tense to get into the mist. I’m blinded, for one, and the cool air feels like chilled silk against my cheek. But it’s also a lonely feeling. I find it hard to relax and feel sure being here is the right thing for me to do. It’s more than loneliness. More like an out-of-sorts.
But that all blew away as hikers suddenly appeared at the ridge, most in shorts and tank tops. Someone told me, “If we waited for good weather to go into hills, we’d never go.” I felt instantly better.
After the summit it was down and down towards a wide, well used track called the Cumbrian Way. On the way was one little Wainwright at 673 meters called Bakestall. I was certain I was on it at a cairn until one lonely cairn appeared out of the mist about 50 yards away and only slightly higher. Of course, I took off the pack, marched over, and touched it. One more for the record books.
My goal was to reach a flat spot by water and set myself up to tick off England’s second highest peak tomorrow, Helvellyn with a side trip up Blencathra. On the way is a youth hostel high on a bench looking out on the hills. No one was around when I arrived, and no beds were available anyway should the rain come. So I had my lunch on their bench, then pressed on.
And here I am, right next to an almost cliche bubbling brook, wide views and soft grass. The English describe carrying a tent and pitching outdoors, “wild”camping. I find it such an apt description of how I’m blending in with all that’s here, the birds, the grass, the changing weather and the continuity of the natural world. I am its guest here and my memories of this moment embraced in its wildness will go on the rest of my life. Will this place remember me?
Everywhere is within walking distance, if you have the time.
And so, it begins.
But not so fast. It takes about a day-and-a-half just to get to the town where the trail starts, the ancient city of St. Bees on England’s westernmost coast. I am flying from Minneapolis to Atlanta, then on to Manchester. Here at the gate, I’m inundated with northern England accents. A little pre-trip immersion.
Presumably, we are all on the same flight. I always scan the crowd for fellow hikers. Sometimes, secretly pleased to see none as I hang onto the misguided belief I’ll have the trail all to myself.
When I arrive in the green and pleasant land, l’ll catch a train – two actually – and arrive a bit staggering from jet lag with a few tasks ahead, to buy fuel and lighters.
But for now, I remain state-side still humming from quite the send off. Last night, Cameron Wiley, Andrea Blain and I put on air our last-for-the-season of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra broadcasts, with loads of help from Mike Pengra. I do so love my walks and getting away, but every day, I count my lucky stars to have such great colleagues, not to mention world-class music just a 30-minute walk down the Hill stairs.
My life is not bad, really. This morning, I biked to the market for eggs and fresh vegetables including six morels at two bucks for a departing feast. I packed enough of my dehydrated ingredients to last through day five when I hope to resupply in Keswick, but one never knows if customs will confiscate my healthy meals leaving me with bangers and mash for the next 20 days.
When I walked the spine of the Alps two summers ago, I wore an outfit ready for Goodwill and packed most of my gear in a lightweight bag lined with cardboard. The board got dumped – as did the clothes after a stormy first night, tossed out the tent to be colonized by French slugs. The bag, I kept for the return. This time, the entire lot will find a home at some charity in St. Bees. A good plan, as within hour one, I spilled an entire can of tomato juice in my lap.
Richard asked me last night as we sat out on the porch in the finally cooling air what I was looking forward to most. Sure, I’m ready for a vacation and a break from the day-to-day demands of work and home. But what I most savor is the feeling of walking, that glorious feeling of just putting one foot in front of the other, moving along and settling into my rhythm. I really don’t go all that fast, I just walk far. One friend said I saunter. There is a bit of a lilt to my gait.
That’s because I look around. I love to take in the grand and glorious, the views I work so hard to get to, both during and before the walk in setting up the opportunity itself. But there’s always something to see even below the climbs in out of the way places of the special unexpected moments. I’ll have the camera and microphone at the ready to find those and promise to share.
Richard and I celebrated our sixteenth wedding anniversary yesterday. Many years ago he made an observation about me. He said, “My wife is always smiling when she’s moving here body.” Ain’t that the truth. Lots of moving – twenty days worth – and lots of discovery.