As this is no fashion show, there’s not new gear every season and many items are the same as those for previous trips. Most key items are. I won’t be commenting again on those that already were in 2007 or 06 and I’ll focus on the new items or the new life from old ones. As usual, there’ll be a few lessons learned.
There’s some nice story to tell here. From the time I started sewing my own gear items, tarps were among my favorite: easy to sew, ample room for design adaptation to own needs, all in a key item that leaves you feeling like you achieved something. And truth is you probably did. Yet, I had never taken one of my home-made tarps with me on a long distance trip, not really because I did not trust them but because they didn’t seem to fit the bill each time. I must admit it takes some leap of faith too… the fabrics are the same as those from off the shelf gear I’ve been using for years, my seams are almost straight… it must work!
I built the Siltoldo by the time I was about to hike the HRP (Haute Route Pyrenneen or Pyrenean High Route) and in my UL daze back then I seriously considered taking it along. It made my weight figures look so damn nice… but reality took over and I eventually went with a bigger tarp, which was challenging enough in the rugged Pyrenees crest. A PCT thru-hike or an arctic traverse that followed didn’t look like the best place for putting the Siltoldo to the long distance test either. Too long or too arctic.
The Siltoldo is rather small. Locking it down for maximum protection means a very confined space with room for nothing but lying down. A half pyramid arrangement is roomy and strong… on only one side. I was considering the idea of adding some kind of beak to the half pyramid shape to make it more protected while keeping the possibility to set the whole thing up any different way (A frame, lean-to, etc.) to keep it versatile and adaptable to conditions.
From the other fork in the road came the poncho idea. Nothing new here, I was just thinking of either buying or sewing a lightweight poncho and try it in the big trips. Re-using it as a tarp is a known UL paradigm that comes with a series of also known compromises I wasn’t ready to take in the long distance.
Now, what if my poncho is not my tarp but just part of it? And there was the beak for my Siltoldo.
Finally, there’s the proposed hike. The Colorado Rockies and the CT are the kind of place where I feel safe enough with a tarp: plenty of forest camping; predictable, mostly dry weather patterns… a good trail to follow so a poncho can work as rain gear with not much chance of needing to wear it for hours in a row. And that certain leap of faith.
My poncho was not to be a poncho-tarp proper (though certainly usable as such) but a poncho-half-tarp so there was born the Poncho Porche. Velcro would be my friend and my enemy to join poncho and tarp for a killer pair that would give me the peace of mind necessary to tackle the long distance. See what happened…
The Siltoldo is just too simple to fail: a rectangular sheet of silnylon, as wide as the fabric roll admits and with no seams. Its strength is also its weakness: the limited size puts some preassure on the user. The tarp won’t fail but the user may.
This tarp was meant to be a minimalist design suitable for the long distance (for those like me not so sure about their ability to successfully use those handkerchief sized tarps) so I tried to compensate the small size with versatility: lots of pitching options to suit the conditions, including a very powerful lock-down configuration good for the worst weather.
Only the first couple of nights did I use the traditional A-frame, maybe warming up? to transition into the nice, comfortable half pyramid that I complemented with the poncho when conditions dictated. First night out, a travelling thunderstorm dumped buckets as a welcome introduction to trail life on the CT; an A-frame, locked-down Siltoldo stood the test in a somewhat exposed location. Jet lag helped me stand quiet and somehow trust my shelter that night: I was so tired that I could just wait for the show to calm down to go back to sleep.
The weather was certainly quite predictable in the Colorado mountain summer but didn’t provide for the quiet nights I was expecting. Mornings were brilliant and peaceful but the afternoon cloudy mess often extended into the night and it was hardly ever clear it wouldn’t rain or storm so the poncho was usually part of the arrangement. It worked beautifully.
The poncho would give me the option to build an almost complete pyramid: three-sided on the Siltoldo half and two-sided on the other because the Poncho Porche is not as long as the Siltoldo. For the same reason, I couldn’t close the pyramid completely on one end so it was still important to place the whole thing so the less protected side was facing away from the weather. It was a sort of not-completely closed, assymetrical pentagon.
One thing that worried me was the waterproofness of the tarp-poncho junction: a continuous strip of velcro. I guess the velcro itself is not waterproof but since this junction was along the rigde line for the pyramid, water would slide down on either side and I had absolutely no leakage.
The tarp + poncho combo would provide a huge space (for solo UL standards, at least) with laying space under the Siltoldo section and well sheltered, ample room for cooking or gear on the other side. Being a pyramid, I could comfortably sit down under the peak.
Most camping was under forest cover but once I gained confidence I had no problem staying above tree line. The pyramid stood some moderate winds with no problem. It was precisely in my highest camp of the whole trip, close to the 13 K mark in the San Juan mountains, when a big thunderstorm moved in and I went through the dreaded thunderbolt, lightning, hail and violent dump display. I was careful enough to camp in a somewhat protected, small bowl and quickly locked the pyramid down as much as possible when I noticed the distant flashes. The shelter stood strong and kept an apprehensive hiker safe and dry. Next morning was as clean and beautiful as nature can be.
Smooth, day-long rain was not common but it did happen. I spent a whole morning waiting for the skies to clear (they didn’t) under the pyramid which provided a comfortable, dry space with room to move around, sit down or sort gear. A big plus for a lightweight arrangement.
I was very happy with how it all worked out yet it remains uncertain how much or if at all I’ll use this setup again for the long trips. I consider both elements Siltoldo and Poncho Porche necessary as I don’t think I’d feel safe and comfortable enough with just the basic tarp but then I need the poncho to be my rain gear… and that’s one part I’m not so sure I like (see below).
This was a new item and not a standard one. The theory behind it was part of the reasoning why I made them and this trip was their first real test. As stated back then, keeping hands comfortable and functional in cold, damp weather is tricky: the hands are exposed, we need to still use them and, being extremities, they get cold easily.
With these simple, light and waterproof mittens I tried to improve my comfort level with little weight penalty but I was aware of the limitations of the system and my expectations were modest.
Water has this ability to go through, over or under virtually anything if given the time and the hands are a weak spot. I didn’t have many chances of going through long lasting rain in Colorado but when I did the mittens provided some added protection but also added complexity to most operations. They worked better on their own than over the insulation mittens but this is probably accountable to the rough design and build and a bit tight sizing.
As expected, humidity from inside (remember the mittens don’t breathe) was not a big problem, either when worn alone or over an insulating layer. It was cold enough for the sweat not to be an issue.
Overall, praxis was not as good as theory but I still think these mittens are a good investment. Little weight penalty for some added protection that works for me psychologically as much or more than it does physically. I plan to take them with me again and if anything I could try to make a bigger, better finished version.
Main torso insulation has traditionally meant synthetic for me. For the 3 season warm tops, the weight difference against down is not that big and the synthetic insulation is more rugged than those almost weightless down wonders.
It’s not only about the potential for humidity compromising the insulation but also the feeling that lightweight down jackets feel more like an empty sandwich of air and nothing and look so fragile.
In Colorado, I was packing a thin fleece pullover (reviewed below) that would pretty much guarantee I wouldn’t need my high loft top other than in camp and never under my pack. In Colorado it’s supposed to be mostly dry mountain weather. So I decided to spare a few ounces and carry down for the long distance.
The Skaha is crazy light, 9 oz of nylon and down. I choose it for the lightest garment of its kind I could find. There are lighter ones but at the obvious expense of being thinner. The Skaha is ultra-minimalist and the baffled construction is a distinctive feature. I don’t really know if this contributes to make it lighter for the warmth (or warmer for the weight) than traditional, sewn-thru constructions.
The Skaha worked perfectly and there was indeed no problem with humidity even though the “dry” claim was not that clearly true but there was these almost guaranteed sunny mornings that are so useful to dry whatever out. Only once did I have to spread stuff out in the sun and that didn’t include the Skaha.
I got this garment thinking more of mild winter trips but I may continue using it in the summer when I need top performance.
Poncho Porche (as a poncho)
I had used ponchos as rain gear before but never taken one for the long distance except for a 1 week trip that was a kind of test for the Poncho Porche. I wasn’t sure if I liked ponchos or not. After the Colorado Trail, I still am not.
It feels safe and protected under a poncho when it rains. The almost integral protection provides this feeling of putting you on one side and the rain on the other, like being in a sheltered space, away from the weather.
The Poncho Porche is the most typical rectangular sheet of silnylon with a round slot plus chest opening for the head and a hood over it. It’s closable all along the sides for maximum protection with the option of opening a slot for the arms anywhere along each side’s length. It’s longer on the back to go over the pack and cover it completely even with a full pack. It goes down to knee level at the front.
One big pro for the poncho is how easy it is to put on and take off. If rain was likely, I’d carry the poncho in a side pocket in the pack. If needed, I could reach back and be covered in a matter of seconds, no need to take the pack off. I could reverse the operation almost just as quick but I could also undo the head hole and still keep the poncho over the pack and tucked secure under the pack straps, cape-like if rain was intermitent or I wanted to get the poncho dry before storing. Much better than a rain jacket in this regard.
I generally find ventilation good enough in a poncho. At least, in relation to the traditional rain jacket wear in the sense that condensation is not worse overall (depends on conditions).
On the minus side, I suspect the hood leaks on the main seam. I sealed that seam thoroughly as it’s in a most exposed area but my hair would get too wet too quickly.
The Colorado Trail is a good trail with no significant brush but lots of exposed areas which can be tricky for a poncho in windy conditions. Overall it’s not a bad place for poncho use and certainly much better than the scottish highlands were I did initial testing for the Poncho Porche.
So I have mixed feelings about poncho use. The theory looks good but somehow I don’t feel comfortable enough in this thing. Maybe the new size and shape my body gets bothers me somehow… it’s the one thing I can think of. Too many times I wished I had a jacket instead. Maybe it’s just the helplessness feeling in front of rough weather and not the rain gear itself. I’m really not sure but I do remember some negative feeling.
The poncho itself worked ok as expected with no noticeable leaks except for the possibility mentioned for the hood and just some fiddling necessary to close the velcro strips along the sides. It would run a bit too high on my back with a full load pack but still covering the pack completely.
I don’t anticipate using a poncho again as my rain gear in the near future. In any case, it’d be the multi-use as part of my shelter system what could make me take the Poncho Porche again.
It’s so thin you can’t believe it won’t disintegrate during first use but I had already taken this one on a long distance trip before. Even though I have a second, unused one, this time I took the same I had been using before.
More than the apparent fragility, the one thing I never liked about this groundcloth is the fiddle factor. Its own very big advantage, the low weight, becomes its main problem as it makes it tricky to set down and keep in place. No big deal really but annoying when you are tired and need everything to work smoothly.
It’s also a bit unnerving to have this as your only floor. This time I was taking a lightweight, non-waterproof bivy (aka, a bag cover) which has a floor of its own and a lightweight groundcloth makes perfect sense for some added waterproofness (the silnylon bivy floor is not completely waterproof under body preassure) and some more living space when under shelter but not yet sleeping so I was happy to take the Polycro again.
This time it developed a few minor holes along but it worked up to expectations.
The second to last night, I must have pulled from some weak spot while trying to deploy the Polycro: before my hands had time to follow my brain’s request to stop pulling, the groundcloth was virtually split in two. I wasn’t pulling hard or being rough at it, it just happened. No really big deal as the groundcloth was still technically usable and I was near trip’s end but this was a reminder of the potential limitations of UL gear.
It’s not clear I’ll take this again for the long distance. It may have its place when adding up to the bag cover’s own floor, as in this trip but even then I may choose some silnylon sheet instead. I don’t think I’ll use again the Polycro as my only groundcloth for a multy-week trip unless weight is too critical. It works and it weights so little but I think I prefer to invest some more grams for the added ease of use and potential for durability.
Nothing new here but some talk on the odds of trying to extend the life of running shoes beyond advised.
The actual problem here was the breakdown came without much advise. My Salomon Solaris II had gone through the arctic thru-hike and several shorter trips and they looked worn but nothing catastrophic. The sole looked fine. Too fine. I should have looked further and I could have probably seen the small crags that had started developing in the flex area under the ball and were hidden by the surprisingly intact outer relief.
Close to mid trip on the CT, I started feeling like a pebble was under the ball of my left foot but there was nothing there. By the time I had developed a red spot that threatened becoming a blister, I took a closer look and realised the inside of the sole had collapsed and I was treading on a small crater. On the outside, it’d still look good but flexing the shoe revealed a conexion between in and out, i.e. an actual hole.
One tends to get creative when necessity arises. I had to fill the crater so my foot would tread on flat land again. I was having a break at a river bank and there were plenty of pebbles around. It took seconds to find the perfect sized one.
A couple days later, I was reaching Salida, the last town stop where I would find an outfitter. I thought I could find new shoes here but the crater filling worked so well (red spot gone, blister danger gone) that I decided it’d be a good epiphany for my Salomons to complete another thru-hike.
Sole collapsing didn’t stop there. Right shoe followed left shoe and the latter being the original, it collapsed further. I had to refill both and paper towels did a finer job than the pebble which still stayed there blocking the now visible hole. I started rationing the paper towels from other uses so I could spare some for refillings. It made for some trip end epic.
Bottom line, tread light on the land. No need to say the Solaris II made it to Durango feeling like they could still go much further. Just add more paper towels.
Fleece was long gone from my three season list: too bulky and heavy. High loft synthetic insulation or down are so much lighter and more packable. Yet they’re not that good wear while moving: nylon shells somewhat block perspiration and feel awful when damp, insulation gathers humidity and the lightweight materials (insulation and shell) suffer under the weight of a pack.
In winter I still use fleece. Low temps require some insulation even while moving and fleece is perfect for this: it breathes very well, the furry face hides the humidity and it’s rugged so it wears well under a pack.
In three season conditions, it’s not common to need insulative clothing while hiking but sometimes it gets uncomfortably cold without it. I thought it could often be the case in the Lapland Arctic so in 2007 I brought back part of the winter setup for a summer season that could look a bit like winter to me. It worked so well and it was such a good idea that I considered keeping it for future hikes.
A trim, thin fleece pullover weighting not much more (187 gr.) than a regular base layer. I’d trade this for the sleeping shirt so I would gain only a bit of weight (three ounces) to significantly increase my range of comfort and my confidence in my gear kit to face the worst conditions possible.
This fleece pullover was also all I needed as aditional insulation while sleeping for most of the nights so the down pullover was spared for camp use and not used much for sleeping which is hard on it.
The fleece I use (a Haglofs Solo Top in 100 wt. Polartec) is trim enough to work well as a base layer and loose enough to go over one and when wore under a windshirt it’s a killer set that can keep me comfortable under freezing if I’m moving. So many times in the past I missed the function of this layer (it gets cold in the mountains even in the summer) but I plan to keep it in my list for good.