A Fresh Start, and Some Updates

I have been away for too long! Over the last several months I have bee very busy with professional obligations and have forgotten entirely about this blog. I had resolved not to let this happen, but alas. Things seem to have regularized at work for now, so I will return. Now for some updates:

(1) We have bought a treadmill so there is no excuse when the weather is bad. And we have had a rough winter so far here in Pittsburgh, so I’m glad we have that option. In the short term I would like to set weekly distance goals: weekly so that I have several days’ wiggle room and distance so that I don’t need to worry if I’m not in the mood to jog. For now I’m working on a half-marathon a week, but ideally I’d work up to a marathon each week, preferably outside but when necessary on this:

(2) As for a long term goal, I think I will try to hike the first stretch of the Appalachian Trail in GA over spring break next year, from Springer Mtn. to Unicoi Gap (at GA 17/75). Logistics will still be difficult with two children, but I want to try for it. Especially in March the first stretch of the AT will be very exciting, with several dozen thru-hikers starting each day. I would solo-hike with confidence since the trail will be very populated.

(3) I have recently updated my gear list. Except for the two most expensive and central items (pack and sleeping bag), I have a complete kit for most 3 season conditions in Eastern forests. My plan is to save up over the next year to buy the GoLite Jam 50, if nothing else.

OK, that’s enough for now. Let’s see what comes of this…I hope I can stick with it!


My Gear Lists, Or Why Excel is Indispensable

Things are about to get serious…no pictures of cute kids in this post!

As promised, here are my gear lists.  I have a “semi-ideal gear list” and an “actual gear list.”  They are in pdf format for internet use.  Please contact me if you’re interested in my excel spreadsheet for your own use (it’s not too hard to program yourself).  As usual, the organization is very much inspired by the gear lists in Skurka’s very helpful book, although I’ve tweaked some things for myself.

The list is organized in 6 sections: items worn or carried, clothing packed, sleeping system, cooking system, small essentials, and pack system.  The math works out as below:

gear list totals

Some detailed info:

“Base weight” refers to the weight of one’s kid not including items worn or consumed.  You can see that my actual kit has a 50% heavier base weight than my semi-ideal kit, coming in at 16+ lbs.  This is because my semi-ideal kit lists the weights of two of the “big three” which I have not yet upgraded: my pack and my sleeping bag.

Backpackers often talk about the “big three” as the three most significant sources of weight: sleep system, shelter, and the pack itself.  While my shelter system is pretty light at 22.4 oz (not including trekking poles), my sleeping bag is very heavy at 51 oz. and my pack is very substantial at almost 6 lbs.  I don’t mind the heavy pack: my Gregory Baltoro is indestructible and very comfortable, but I hope to upgrade the sleeping bag soon.  What I have is perfect for car camping, but not ideal for backpacking (more on this in future posts).

All of the other ways to cut unnecessary weight are relatively cheap, and often involves eliminating redundancies (more on this, too, in future posts).  Upgrading the small stuff is a gradual process you can do over time: the lines marked with orange in my lists are flagged for gradual upgrades of minor items.

Both lists are suited for 3 season hiking in Eastern forests, since that’s where I live.  If I were planning a trip elsewhere, these lists would look very different.  But here, when hiking from spring to fall, what I take is influenced by several factors:

  • temperatures from the 40s at nighttime to 90s during the daytime
  • high humidity and a fair amount of precipitation
  • relatively low elevations, rarely getting over a “mile high”
  • sunlight from 12 to 16 hours a day
  • generally soft ground terrain, with rare rocky bits
  • generally good coverage from the sun, with rare exposed sections
  • abundant water sources
  • bears are usually not a problem, depending where you go; insects can be
  • it’s hard to get really remote in the Eastern US, so civilization isn’t far

I hope to share more in the future, but for now, I hope you enjoy my lists!

What outdoor gear would you like to acquire or replace?

The Ultimate Hiker’s Gear Guide

gg_coverThis book has changed the way I think about backpacking.

Released last spring, Andrew Skurka provides an exceptional introduction to backpacking, or “ultimate hiking,” in a relatively short book.  Those who subscribe to Nat Geo might remember him as the Adventurer of the Year a few years back, for his 4680 mile expedition through Alaska and the Yukon, by ski, by foot, and by pack-raft.  He has clocked well over 30,000 miles as a hiker in the last 11 years (I am 6 years younger than him, but began backpacking in 2002 as well…I have clocked just short of 500 miles in my 11 years…).  I hope to post more about this guy, because I draw a significant amount of inspiration from him, and while I’ll probably never be able to disappear for 5 months and traipse around Alaska, and I’ll probably never be this awesome (profanity warning) in the face of a grizzly bear, I still hope to get out into the true wilderness for at least a couple of days sometime soon.


Back to the book: he divides things up into three sections.  First, he gives some basic principles behind what he calls “ultimate hiking.”  The idea is that hiking is the main purpose of one’s outing, not camping or birding or photography.  For an ultimate hiker the principal aim is getting from A to B, and so you want to pack light and avoid unnecessary weight.  I had thought for years that so-called “ultralight” backpackers were crazy, having read articles and books by a few of them.  Skurka is unique in being able to make the case in a convincing way to a skeptic, in part because he deliberately avoids using the term “ultralight” (more on this here).  In this section he also goes over some key questions whose answers will differ for each trip: hours of daylight, terrain, climate, etc.  These questions, not rigid weight measures, should determine what you bring, according to Skurka.  I’m inclined to trust his judgment!

In the second section (the bulk of the book) Skurka details the various parts of your kit: clothing, shelter, footwear, navigation, cooking systems, food, etc.  In each section he gives the gear alternatives and the conditions under which each variation might be useful.  At the end of each sub-section he gives his gear recommendations.  One concern about the book, perhaps my only reservation, is that his specific gear recommendations will become dated very quickly.

Finally, he gives sample gear lists.  This is a big selling point of the book in terms of practicality.  The gear lists are not just checklists of items to bring on any given trip — no, these gear lists are very trip specific, giving seasons and locations for which the list would be applicable as well as precise weights for each item.  He offers five samples: Eastern Forest (summer), Mountain West (early fall), Desert Southwest Packrafting (early summer), Northern Winter, and Philmont Scout Ranch.   The Philmont list makes this a particularly good resource for scouts, since his list conforms to the Boy Scouts’ minimum gear requirements for the reservation.

skurka scouting magazine

Andrew Skurka does not neglect the scouts!

Once you finish reading the book, you realize three things very quickly:

(1) I need to plan a trip soon.  Where will I go and when?  So you’ll spend some time putzing around for maps and eventually you’ll be at the FedEx printing off your own USGS quadrangles etc.  In short, you’ll be encouraged to develop your own itineraries and work with your own navigation tools…in Excel.

(2) I need to update (or start developing) my gear kit. His sample lists offer a great starting point for developing one’s own gear lists…in Excel…especially once you’ve caught the “ultralight” bug and want to track the weight of items in your kit. I’ll be sharing my own gear lists in a future post!

And finally (3) I need to be much more deliberate about food.  One advantage to the book is that it gives you principles and tools, but not necessarily all the answers.  I originally thought this was a drawback, particularly in the food chapter, but then I realized that even Skurka can’t do this work for me.  People’s caloric needs and tastes differ, and from trip to trip food types can vary for lots of reasons (temperatures, whether you bring a stove, water availability, etc).  I haven’t gone crazy with extensive planning on this front yet, but my old friend here, God rest his soul, knows just what I need to get the job done!


Looks like you’re planning an adventure…may I open a new Excel spreadsheet?

All in all, this is a great introduction to ultralight backpacking, even for those who are skeptical.  Practicality is the author’s main concern, and he delivers.  It is well worth taking a look!