JMT: August 2009 Archives


August 30, 2009

Behind "what did you eat", "where do you get water" is one of the big questions you get. On the JMT and in the Sierras in general, the answer is "everywhere". I only remember a few stretches of the JMT over 5 miles without some source of water (lake, creek, river, etc.) And for the few stretches where there isn't water, you just need to know in advance and tank up. I carried three water containers: an empty quart-size Gatorade bottle and two 2 liter Platypus canteens, but never carried more than 3 liters of water, even for the dry stretches; if you're moving at 2 miles/hr, then you really only need about 3 liters even for a 5 mile stretch, since you can't absorb more than about 1l/hr.

This is only a partial answer, though, since it's not considered a great idea to drink untreated surface water (though see this article). There are three basic treatment options:

  • Chemical treatment (e.g., iodine, chlorine)
  • Water filters
  • Electronic devices (steripen, miox)

The idea with chemical treatment is simple: you fill your containers, drop the chemicals into them, mix, and wait. Old-style chemical treatment really was terrible: it was slow and left a bad aftertaste. Things have gotten a lot better, though. The best chemica treatment is probably Aquamira, which works in 15 minutes and leaves only a very minimal aftertaste. I've used Aquamira drops, which require mixing from two bottles, but Aquamira also comes in tablet form which I'm informed by friends is more convenient. The big advantage of chemical treatment is that it's ultralight. The disadvantage is that it's slow and can be problematic with marginal water sources: if the water is cloudy you need to prefilter it to remove as much of the particulates as you can. If you are trying to get water out of a shallow stream, you also can have trouble getting your container to actually fill. Finally, it's still annoying to have to wait 15 minutes to drink.

The other traditional alternative is water filters: your typical filter is a pump attached to some sort of filtration element. You drop the input hose in the water and attach the output hose to your bottles. When you pump, the water is forced through the filter and into your bottles. The big advantage of a filter is that it's fast, can work even with very shallow water (since it's a pump), and removes all particulates. Of course, if the water is really dirty, the filter can clog, but the better filters are pretty good about this. Many of them come with prefilters that will remove most of the larger particulates. You can also get two kinds of non-pump filters: small filters that fit over the mouth of a water bottle (this only seems suitable for very limited circumstances) and bag filters (e.g., the ULA Amigo). I've seen the Amigo in action but never tried it myself so can't vouch for it. The big disadvantage of filters is weight: the overall weight of my filter (I use a Katadyn Hiker Pro) is 440g.

The newer alternative is electronic purifiers. These come in two varieties: ultraviolet irradiators (Steripen) and electrolytic (MIOX). [As far as I can tell the MIOX is just making chlorine dioxide, the active ingredient in Aquamira, electrolytically.] Of these two, the Steripen looks better: it's more convenient and seems faster (about 1-2 minutes). I'm not sure I see a huge benefit here: they're both a lot heavier than Aquamira and have a lot of the same drawbacks in terms of marginal water sources that any chemical system has.

I currently use a Katadyn Hiker Pro, and carry Aquamira as backup. The difference between the Hiker and the Hiker Pro is that the Pro has quick connect hose fittings, which is somewhat more convenient. I also bought a Platypus Filter Link so I can pump right into my Platypus containers. This works well, except that there's no vent in the Filter Link, so when you get to the very top of the container, you start to get air back pressure. This seems like it would be fixable by punching an air hole.


August 27, 2009

Some sort of shelter is one of the "big three" heavy backpacking items (the other two are backpack and sleeping bag). Traditionally, of course, this means a tent, but some ultralight backpackers have started to go with some even more lightweight options, such as tarps (see for instance: Tarptent). Tarp construction varies, but at a high level they're single-wall tents with various degrees of full enclosure. A lot of them save weight by using a trekking pole as a tent pole, thus avoiding the need to carry a separate pole. With this technique you can get a single-person shelter for around 20 oz (assuming you're using trekking poles anyway).

I don't use trekking poles myself, and my personal preference is for an ultralight tent: the Big Agnes Fly Creek UL1. The Fly Creek UL1 is a double wall tent: an ultralight mostly mesh bag held up by a single pole and then a separate rain fly. The entire apparatus weighs 1.04 kg (2 lbs, 5 oz) including stuff sacks, stakes, etc. [Big Agnes lists this as 2 lbs, 3 oz, but my scale gives the above number]. It's nominally freestanding, but as a practical matter you at minimum want to stake out the foot of the tent, since there's only a single pole running to the foot the corners tend to flop in otherwise. In addition, if it's cold you need to be careful about how you stake out the rain fly: unless you guy it out especially in the vestibule, you don't get adequate ventilation and there's a lot of condensation inside the tent—I've seen this happen with my Big Agnes Seedhouse SL2 as well. In addition, if you just leave the vestibule slack you get a lot of draft. So, finding a site where you can put the stakes in can be a little tricky. The other minor issue is that the tent only has 38" of headroom so I at least can't sit up straight except in one location and even then I suspect I'm a little bent over. On the other hand, you don't really want to spend that much time in your tent.

If set up properly, the Fly Creek UL1 does a great job of keeping you warm and dry. The next to last day of my JMT trip it started to rain right after I got to Guitar Lake at 3ish and kept going for the next 11 hours or so. I stayed in the tent warm and dry pretty much the whole time and slept well. The two guys next to me were in tarp tents (not sure which model) and complained that they had a lot of wind and rain intrusion (I think due to the requirement to keep some openings for ventilation) and that they were extremely cold and wet and didn't really sleep at all. Seems like that difference was worth a few ounces and I saw other people ogling my Big Agnes.

I should mention that on about day 8 (probably the 9th day I'd used the tent) I went to stow it in the stuff sack and the top 3-4" of the stuff sack tore almost completely off (there's a seam running down one side and that didn't tear). This doesn't affect the functionality of the tent—it's just the stuff sack—but it's a minor inconvenience. I've contacted BA and they're sending me a new stuff sack.


August 26, 2009

Probably the first question you get asked about a long backpacking trip is "what do you eat?" This is definitely a central concern, since you obviously need to eat and food often makes up between 1/4 and 1/2 of the mass you're carrying. First, some constraints:
  • The nominal human caloric requirement is something like 2000 Cal/day, but more if you're exercising. Different people require radically different amounts of food depending on their metabolism, how fast they're going, how much weight they're carrying, etc. Backpackers probably aim for more like 3000 Cal/day, but you need to learn how much you personally need.
  • You want your food to be as light as possible. Carbohydrates and protein provide 4 Cal/gram and fat provides 9 Cal/gram. Water in the food costs as does fiber and other non-energetic components.
  • You probably need around 1g protein per gram of body mass per day.
  • In areas where there are bears (the Sierras definitely have bears) you need to store all your food so bears can't get at it. In some areas you can hang your food from trees, but it's better to use a bear canister, which is basically a big plastic bin. I use the Bearvault, shown below. For JMT, bear canisters are basically required. This creates a new constraint: food must also be compact in order to fit into the canister. Note that the canister itself weighs on the order of 2.5 lbs, so that's a substantial cost in and of itself. On the other hand, it's not like you're not going to bring food at all!

Within those constraints, you can more or less do whatever you want and there is a lot of variation. Lots of people use the traditional freeze-dried backpacker meals, especially for dinner. From one another hiker, I heard the legend of a Pacific Crest Trail (Mexico to Canada) thru-hiker who eats couscous and textured vegetable protein cooked in a plastic bag on the top of his pack by the heat of the sun during the day.

Another important factor here is palatability. You could of course load up your pack with dog chow (approximately 4 Cal/g) and eat that for every meal, but you'd probably get tired of that pretty quickly. There are plenty of trail stories of people who just packed the equivalent of dog chow (e.g., trail mix) and then tired of it 3-4 days out and were reduced to begging passersby for something different. Confounding the palatability issue, a lot of people lose appetite after long days of effort as well as at high altitude, and what you want to eat in those circumstances may vary. A lot of people also report losing their appetite initially and then regaining it with force after 4-5 days, which complicates resupply (more on this in a bit). Finally, you have to decide if you want to cook. Most people do, but the stove does weigh something, and then you need a pot to boil water in, plus the fuel, and so you're talking somewhere on the order of 250-600g, which isn't insignificant. My experience on recent trips in the sierras has been that I wasn't hungry for freeze-dried dinners after a long day and I don't much care if things are hot, so I just decided to take cold food this time.

As a practical matter, you can't take enough food for 11 days, so nearly everyone does one or more food resupply drops. I did mine at the Muir Trail Ranch.

My initial plan was as follows:

Meal Food Quantity  Calories
Breakfast  Granola 60g 294
Lunch Triscuits 56g 265
Almonds 56g 376
Snacks Granola 60g 294
Clif bars 3 783
Dinner Triscuits 74g 395
Peanut Butter  64g 400
Jerky 56g 146
Chocolate chips/m&ms  30g 152
Fun size snickers 2 ??

I packed all this stuff (except the clif bars and the peanut butter) into individual ziploc bags inside one quart-sized ziploc bag per day. The idea here is that you just pull out today's bag and you're good for the rest of the day. I also brought an extra day's food bag for backup.

This plan disintegrated really fast. Let's start with the triscuits. My general thought was that they were flavorful, salty, and crunchy, etc. so this would work out, but unfortunately while this is fine at home in front of the tube, on the trail, it's more like you're eating sand and you just have to shove it down. I only managed to choke down the full dinner portion of triscuits once or twice. Now for the jerky: I generally like TJ's beef jerky (teriyaki flavor) but I decided to mix it up a little bit and buy different flavors and somehow whenever I pulled out a dinner bag I got some disgusting flavor. The only ones that I concluded I could tolerate were the teriyaki and some spicy/peppery flavor. Also, jerky requires a huge amount of chewing, and this isn't really consistent with the objective of just getting calories in, especially when you're not really hungry in the first place.

Finally, there's the peanut butter; from a palatibility perspective it was fine, but from a dispensing perspective, a disaster. I packed it in these squeeze tubes, but they're pretty useless. I put chunky peanut butter in one and then when I went to squeeze it out, I got a small bit out and then it just clogged. When I squeezed harder, the plastic clip popped off the end and getting back on didn't really work out—I think it was broken somehow. The clip on the other tube actually broke before I left, so basically a bust. At the resupply point, I threw away the tubes and just packed the peanut butter into a ziploc bag, but this didn't really work any better, since you can't get it out with a spoon without making a huge mess. [And remember you don't want to get covered with PB since then bears think you smell like food.] Like I said, a bust.

So, the bottom line here is that I brought way too much food and had to do a bunch of re-sorting out at the resupply point. What I eventually settled on was something more like this:

Meal Food Quantity  Calories
Breakfast  Clif bar 1 240
Almonds 56g 376
Snacks Granola 60g 294
Clif bars 2 783
Dinner Triscuits 56g 265
Peanut Butter  64g 400
Jerky 56g 146
Chocolate chips/m&ms  30g 152
Fun size snickers 2 ??

Note that we've lost about 650 Cal here, so that's a pretty significant change, and even then I was really having to shove food down and often only ate like half my jerky or something. I wasn't wearing a power meter or anything, but at this point it's clear I was at a significant caloric deficit; at the end of the trip I had lost about 10 lbs even though I had a fair amount of food left in my pack and wasn't really ever feeling hungry.

Three other points that deserve making:

  • I deliberately deemphasized (yes, 3/day is deemphasized) energy bars even though I eat a lot of them during training. The theory here was that for the long term I should actually eat, you know, food. This was a mistake. I had energy bars left at the end but they were the thing I liked the best—probably because they're sweet—and I would have been better subbing them for some of the more food-type food.
  • I brought about 6-8 energy gels on the theory that I might need the occasional fast burst of energy to get over some pass (and this helped with Forester Pass and Mount Whitney), but I only ate a total of 2 gels. This isn't a big deal, but they're the only food I brought that contains a lot of water, so there is a weight penalty here.
  • One of the better moves I made was to bring a few packets of Propel powder. At altitude and in the heat you need to consume a lot of water, but it also gets boring because it's tasteless [this is part of why Gatorade was invented]. Propel is just flavoring, so it's super-light, and mixing up a bottle of flavored water occasionally can make it much easier to rehydrate.

All in all, though, my food seems to have worked out pretty well. Given that I didn't want to eat at all, it was always going to be an exercise in forced caloric input, and since I managed to get enough calories in without vomiting I guess you could call it success.


August 25, 2009

Sorry for the unadvertised absence but I've been gone hiking the Appalachian Trail John Muir Trail.

Here's the executive summary: the JMT starts at Happy Isles trailhead in Yosemite Valley and nominally goes to the summit of Mount Whitney, 211 (208? It's remarkably hard to get accurate numbers here) miles away. Because there's no road that goes to the top of Whitney, you then need to hike out to the trailhead at Whitney Portal, for a total distance of 218 (222?) miles. I left Yosemite at about 10 AM August 13th and arrived at Whitney Portal at about 2 PM August 23rd. More specifically:

Day  Camp Site Distance  Cumulative
1 Upper Cathedral Lake 17 17
2 After Donohue Pass 20 37
3 Reds Meadow 21 59
4 Squaw Lake Outlet 21 79
5 South of Selden Pass 24 103
6 Sapphire Lake 21 124
7 Upper Palisade Lakes 22 146
8 North of Glen Pass 22 168
9 Tyndall Creek Crossing  21 187
10 Guitar Lake 16 203
11 Exit 15 218

Note: numbers are approximate and don't include detours, places where I accidentally went off the trail for a little bit, etc. The cumulative and distance numbers don't add up perfectly due to round off error.

It's traditional, I suppose, to do some sort of day by journal, but honestly you don't want to read that "Day 5: walked another 20 miles. Ate another 9 PowerBars. Stunning scenery. Very tired." More interesting, I think, is to talk a bit about planning, gear, logistics, etc., so I'll be doing some of that over the next few days. I'll also post some more pictures once I get them uploaded, sorted, etc.