Our Readers Write
Camp, Sweet Camp!
October 30, 2012
When clouds appear, wise men put on their cloaks;
When great leaves fall, the winter is at hand;
When the sun sets, who doth not look for night?
Shakespeare, Richard III
Who knows where the time goes? The last "Our Readers Write" went out into the æther in late July, at the height of Canoe Country summer. Now we're at the cusp of the year, poised between light and dark. In earlier ages, this was a time of circumspect celebration. The last fruits of the harvest had been gathered up and stored in granaries and cellars. When the harvest had been bountiful, it was a season of plenty. But no one knew how long winter would linger, locking the earth in an icy shroud. So men built fires against the encroaching dark, and took care to speak quietly, one to another, fearful of angering the spirits that walked among them at this balance‑point of the solar year.
We worry less about what the spirits get up to these days, of course, though Halloween survives to remind us of a time when "ghosts did shriek and squeal about the streets." But what of the harvest? The portents are mixed. While the near‑drought of summer left many trees bare of seeds and nuts, others were strangely profligate, with the result that wild apples, pin cherries, and grapes grew in profusion. Which means that the "closets of the woods" don't stand entirely empty. That's good news for wildlife.
And do we paddlers also have some reason to celebrate? Yes. The rains of early autumn — some of them tropical in their intensity — have recharged and revitalized many waterways, making this third season truly the best time of year for messing about in boats. Nor is that season over (wayward hurricanes permitting). Hardy paddlers will be out on Canoe Country lakes and streams till the encroaching ice walls off their waters for another year. Of course, the short days and long, cold nights of autumn are no time for casual camping. Which is why we're making use of this edition of Our Readers Write to publish a selection of letters on the art and science of staying comfortable in the backcountry, whatever the weather. After all, roughing it has few attractions when the frost is on the pumpkin.
Speaking of home comforts, there's nothing quite so cheery as a campfire on a chilly night. It warms the paddler both inside and out, and the flickering flames create a tiny oasis of light in the infinite black desert of the night. But campfires have become something of a rarity now. They're prohibited in many places, regulated in most, and frowned on (for good reason) by leave‑no‑trace groups. Yet the lure of the flickering flame remains.
What about you? Do you suffer from occasional campfire withdrawal symptoms? We certainly do. And we're happy to report that there's a middle ground — a way to get many of the pleasures of the traditional campfire without levying too high a toll on heavily stressed backcountry ecosystems. It's called the samovar, and in one guise or another, it's been cheering and refreshing travelers for hundreds of years. We were a little slow to catch on to this centuries‑old innovation, however. In fact, we first discovered the samovar only four years ago. But we did our best to pass along what we learned without any further delay.
Now, with winter once again marshaling its icy blasts, we figured we should revisit the subject. So if you're looking for a way to bring warmth and light to your camp without having to strip the limbs from every downed tree within walking distance, you'll want to read the new, improved version of our earlier article. It's called "Tempest in a Teapot." And who knows? You just might decide to add a samovar to your own pack.
OK. Is there a warm drink at your elbow and a fire roaring on the grate? Then it's time to hand Our Readers Write over to you and your fellow paddlers.
— Tamia Nelson and Farwell Forrest, In the Same Boat
Now That's Inspirational! Reflections on the Fine Art of Deflation
I have enjoyed many of your articles, and in equipping myself for lightweight backpacking and kayak camping I have found a lot of good advice.
I bought a Big Agnes on the report you gave ["Strike a Blow for Comfort — Send in the Air Core!" – Editor]. I did get to use it a couple of times, and thus far it has done the job. I am not a small person, and so would have the common complaint of anyone about wishing that the pad was X amount wider. But it is clear that if you went down that route, it soon would not be compact and lightweight anymore. Additionally, since I use the provided stuff sack I use a bit of parachute cord (that I have ANYWAY) to manty up the stuff sack, making it even smaller in the pack. So I give a thumbs up to Big Agnes pads.
I am a bit puzzled when I hear about getting the air out of a mattress. I generally squeeze as much as I can out, then lay on the thing and SUCK remaining air out. Takes about 15 breaths and helps ever so much in making a compact stuff. I haven't seen this tip in print, and have enjoyed seeing "Duh" looks on my campmates' faces.
Now why didn't I think of that, Greg? I wonder what you might be breathing in along with the trapped air, though. When an old air mattress of mine blew a seam, I was treated to a close‑up view of a well‑stocked herbarium of colorful fungi. And there's also the possibility that you'll inhale small fibers — if your Big Agnes is one of the insulated Air Core line, at any rate. Still, the idea certainly makes sense when time presses, as it often does when the days are short and the distances long.
It would also make getting the mattress back into its stuff sack easier. And as you suggest, parachute cord can transform any stuff sack into a compression sack, saving the canny paddler money at the same time that it reduces clutter on the gear shelf and bulk in the pack. That last consideration is perhaps the most important, since bulk looms large when traveling by kayak or pack canoe, or when embarking on an amphibious trek. But — as Lisa notes in her letter (below) — you still have to get the gear into the sack before you can manty it up. This is no small matter, since a compression sack won't be of any use to you if you can't cram your mattress into it in the first place. That's where your … er … inspirational deflationary scheme comes in.
A final cautionary word: It's not a good idea to leave any mattress tightly compressed between trips. But here I'm telling you something you already know, I'm sure.
Introducing the Big Agnes Pumphouse
We recently got the Big Agnes Air Core and found the Big Agnes Pumphouse as a inflation option. It's a bit slow but saves the lungs, and it's very compact.
The Pumphouse is a clever wheeze, John, combining as it does the functions of pump, dry bag, and (!) shower bag in one package. Not only does it save room in the pack, but it will eliminate a lot of tedious huffing and puffing. It should also minimize the quantity of moisture that makes its way into the mattress — and this would slow down fungal growth in the "herbarium" that I mentioned in my reply to Greg. A win‑win scenario, I'd say.
Editorial note: Echo trouble? Think you might have seen Greg's and John's letters before? Well, if you've read Tamia's earlier article on backcountry mattresses you probably did. But in this season of bulging packs and short days we figured the letters were worth a second look.
Three for the Trail (and One More for Hanging Out)
I've been out on some multi‑day trips and am happy to report that my expensive Exped sleeping pad is doing a good job. My back went out in the beginning of June but after some intensive physical therapy I was back in the cockpit and tent for eight days by the end of it. I was on mostly sandy beaches and often at a bit of a slant. I just rolled up some dry bags and stuffed them and my camp chair underneath to even things out, and it worked out fine.
In conclusion, based on my own personal research, I would say this: If price and/or volume is a consideration and comfort is not, get a Big Agnes. (Though I found it VERY comfortable, if not warming, when it stayed inflated.) If price is not a consideration and comfort is, get the Exped. If you are somewhere in the middle, get the Therm‑a‑Rest or its equivalent. The Exped definitely takes up more room, but not much. I also have found it to be rather time‑consuming to deflate and fold up at first, but I think that will get easier with extended use. How anybody was able to get it back into the original stuff sack is beyond me. I made a bigger stuff sack with Velcro compression straps on the outside to tighten it up before slipping it into its dry bag. (I make my own.)
I still prefer my Hennessy Hammock and will be using it this weekend! The double‑bottomed four‑season version makes it as bulky as a tent, but the comfort level is way better for me.
It's great to have a three‑way — well, four‑way, actually — comparison, Lisa, though I'm happy to say I haven't had any problems with the valve in my Big Agnes to date. [To learn more about Lisa's travails with leaky valves, click through to "Knit Up the Ravell'd Sleeve of Care" and scroll down to the section headed "Just Hang Out!" – Editor]
As for hanging out in a hammock, I've got admit that it has considerable appeal. And the number of enthusiasts is growing. In fact, there's now …
A Forum Where Hammock Aficionados Can Hang Out Together
I am an avid paddler and hammocker, and love the quality of sleep so important for a wonderful day of paddling. For more information, go to the Hammock Forums site.
Thanks for the heads‑up on this increasingly popular way for paddlers (and other outdoor enthusiasts) to put their heads down on high, David. Much appreciated.
The Deadmen of Georgian Bay
Of course, not every paddler is a convert. Some folks prefer to sleep directly on terra firma. Like Farwell, whose jungle‑hammock days left him with what he insists on calling post‑hammockic stress disorder. But while the terra may indeed be firma, tents still have the knack of falling down (or taking wing) at the most inconvenient times. Which is why it pays to give careful thought to how you anchor your guylines. This is especially true in sand, rock, and … yes … snow. Tamia described a DIY deadman in an earlier column, but now here's another variation on that tried‑and‑tested theme, and it looks like a winner.
I wanted to share a simple sand/rock anchor system I learned from sea kayaking in Baja, Mexico.
Here my tent is anchored on rock while camping on the Benjamin Islands in the North Channel of Georgian Bay. As you know, Georgian Bay is known for its beautiful rock and lack of soil into which to stick tent pegs. This wooden system is a major improvement over trying to tie rope around uncooperatively shaped rocks. Here a close up of the gizmo:
The square of ¼‑inch plywood is about four inches on a side, and, of course, can be made in any desired size.
Simple and good, Anna! Is there any higher praise?
OK. Anna gets the last word this time, proof positive that, while deadmen don't tell tales, paddlers certainly have tales to tell about them. And Anna's story is well worth listening to. In this season of high winds and early snows, there's no better addition to your pack than half a dozen deadmen. So start hunting up those scraps of plywood from your last home‑improvement project. After all, home‑improvement doesn't stop when you've updated the kitchen and replumbed the bathroom. A riverside camp is your home away from home, isn't it? Why shouldn't it be made more comfortable, too?
And then, when you're ready to take a break from sawing and sanding, drop us a line. We'd like to know what's on your mind. It's "Our Readers Write," right? Sure it is!
Referenced Articles From In the Same Boat
A little fine print: Although we often ask, just to be sure, we assume that it's OK to reprint any letter you send us, unless you tell us otherwise. (Just put "Not for Publication" at the head of your letter. That's all it takes.) We will never put your e‑mail address online unless you specifically ask us to, however. We also edit letters occasionally for length or clarity, and we add links to articles or other resources wherever and whenever appropriate.
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