Wednesday, January 22, 2014

23 Days and Counting: Winter Shakedown

This past weekend, Chase and I took advantage of a long weekend to test out our new sleeping bag and packs by hiking the familiar Standing Indian loop trail in North Carolina. We drove up Friday night and checked into the Sapphire Inn in Franklin just as a light snow was beginning to fall and temperatures dipped into the teens. This was Sheila’s first soiree with snow and the first time I had been in the stuff in almost 10 years. We were pretty giddy, even as our cheeks stung from the wind as we rushed from the car to the hotel room.

The next morning, the forecast at the 4000ft Rainbow Springs weather station called for temperatures below freezing all day with a slight chance of snow and lots of wind. The sun was shining so we didn’t think too much of the weather and we were pretty confident in our gear. After a hardy breakfast, we headed to the backcountry information station, suited up in wool gloves and mid-weight jackets, and set off on the 4.7 mile Lower Ridge Trail that would lead us to the summit of Standing Indian Mountain, our intended camp for the night.

We didn’t get on the trail until after noon and breakfast seemed like it was ages ago. The Lower Ridge Trail turned out to be very strenuous and I was exhausted in the first 2 miles. Between the lack of calories and the biting cold, I felt absolutely drained. I wanted to push on to camp without stopping, but my legs felt like jelly and I couldn’t keep going without some energy. We stopped and munched on Nutella and graham crackers, which were delightful, but soon the sub-freezing temperatures and blowing wind stole all the warmth from our fingertips. We knew we had to get moving again to get the blood circulating. We pushed onwards and upwards and the feeling finally returned to our fingertips just as we reached the AT and the side trail that led to the campsites and summit.

I was very excited to reach camp and set up. I was cold, I was tired. The view was beautiful and there was a light dusting of snow on the ground. We pitched in the most exposed area as possible on purpose in order to test out how the tent would fair in the wind and how our sleep system would handle the intense cold. We reached camp about 2 hours before sundown, but I couldn’t keep my toes warm outside of the sleeping bag, so I sat in the warm tent while Chase tested out our stove by making us some hot chocolate. Our Ti-Tri stove is pretty awesome. Chase loved being able to use wood as fuel, though it took him a minute to get the fire going. He did comment that if you wanted to use the wood-burning function as a little campfire, you would need a lot of wood to keep it going.

While Chase was still fiddling around with the stove, some other hikers came up to check out the view and to pitch camp. They had three dogs with them, two big males and a female puppy. Sheila loved playing with these dogs and had a blast with them, but the owner wasn’t very responsible. He let the dogs roam free all over the camp and didn’t pick up after his animals. One of the dogs kept trying to come in our tent. It was really frustrating because it is experiences like these that make people resent seeing dogs on the trail. They were fairly well-behaved, but they just didn’t have any boundaries and the owner wasn’t stepping up to the plate. I’m just glad that all the dogs got along.

We made dinner a little while later and buttoned down the hatches as the sun was setting. Sheila was cozy-comfy in her Ruffwear Cloud Chaser jacket and a polartec buff wrapped around her ears. She curled up on her Therm-a-rest foamy and fell asleep quickly. Chase and I shuffled around in our Zpacks twin quilt and relished the warmth of our NeoAir Xtherm pads. Despite the warmth of these items, the wind still managed to infiltrate into the bag. This kept Chase up most of the night. Sheila woke up a few times looking for extra warmth. I tried wrapping her in my silk sleeping bag liner, but this didn’t do much for her. Eventually she crawled down to the bottom of the bag and didn’t come out until the sun came up. This created problems in and of itself because Sheila would push our pads away from one another and allow the cold from the ground to seep between us. Overall, we didn’t get a great night sleep, but it wasn’t as terrible as it could have been.

The next day we decided to head down the Kimsey Creek Trail back to the car because we realized we didn’t bring enough food for Sheila. On our last hike with her, we had to force her to eat. This time around, it didn’t seem like we were feeding her enough. While it sucked bailing early, we got the chance to see a very beautiful trial in the winter. The icicles and ice formations along the creek were really beautiful.

Overall, we learned a thing or two about winter hiking and camping.
  1.  Get mittens and down booties. Keeping our fingers and toes warm is really important, and we found that our wool gloves and water-proof over-gloves were not sufficient. Mittens keep your fingers warmer because they are pressed together and generate more heat. Down booties would be great for camp when your boots and thick socks do little to keep out the cold on short walks around the campsite.
  2.  Get a solid interior for the tent. Our Tarptent currently has only the mesh interior, which will be great for summer, but in the windy and cold conditions we encountered, having that extra layer of nylon between us and the elements will be well worth the extra couple of ounces.
  3. Get Sheila a sleeping bag. Well not exactly a sleeping bag. I loved how easy it was to slip the liner beneath her and kind of tuck her in it to try and keep her warm, and I would love to get a heavy duty fleece liner to help her stay warm at night. We went to REI but they don’t have anything child-sized in the world of bag liners, so I enlisted my friend Roni to help sew Sheila a bag. I would like for it to be a warm fleece on the inside and a soft-shell material on the outside, kind of like her Cloud Chaser jacket. The plan is to order a couple of yards of Polartec fleece from the Interwebs and fashion her something warm. I may try to use a couple of patterns online.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

40 days and 40 nights

Things are really moving quickly now! Honestly I don't have much more to update on, other than the fact that we finally compiled all of our winter gear, weighed it out, and packed it up. If you want to check out the full list, visit our gear page above.

Here's a summary of our Big 4:

Backpack: Osprey Exos 46 (2lbs 4oz)

Tent: Tarptent Stratospire II (2lbs 8oz)

Sleeping Bag: Z-Packs Twin Quilt 900 Fill Power Down XL (20 degree) (1lb 14oz)

Sleeping Pad: Thermarest Prolite Plus (1lb 8oz)

The only item out of our Big 4 that we are looking to probably replace is our Thermarest pads. They're bulky and heavy and with the smaller pack, we really need the space. I've been looking at the Thermarest Neoair XTherm pads, but at $180 I'm a bit hesitant to pull the trigger. We haven't paid full price on hardly any of our gear so it's a hard pill to swallow.

Tomorrow we are set to pack up some things around the house, take the Christmas decorations down, and organize the storage shed. I'd also like to fill out our Appalachian Trials lists and post those sometime next week.

We've decided to do a winter overnight at Standing Indian in a couple of weeks. With the crazy weather this week, we'd really like to make sure that our gear is sufficient in case we get caught in a winter storm. For once, I'm hoping for cold and snow!