Since 2008 I’ve used a ton of different packs, I’ve bought packs, made packs and paid to have packs made for me. My packs have changed as I have learned more. They have also changed as I have done different types of trips.
My first “Ultralight” packs were all frameless. At that point I thought they were the best thing for someone trying to go light. The Jam2 pictured above is actually my second pack, I started with a used Golite Trek. However it illustrates a problem both packs had. The torso is too short. Notice how the strap attachment is below my shoulder level. Also the fact that I’m leaning forward is a pretty good hint that the pack is too short. When a pack is short it puts weight on your shoulders. To counteract this you loosen the straps, but then you have to lean forward or the pack will put pack from you.
I was able to get away with poorly fitting packs for a while because my load was usually very light. Weekend loads were between 14-18 pounds starting out. I finally realized the problem when I packed 5 days worth of food into the pack above. I got sick and we bailed early but not before I realized how uncomfortable this homemade pack was.
I rebuilt essentially the same pack but with a longer torso. Notice in this picture that the shoulder straps are closer to the leel of my shoulders. I’m still leaning forward a bit so this pack probably was still a bit short but it was a big improvement. The pack worked well enough for a trip in the Gila Wilderness. At that point I thought I’d nailed MYOG frameless packs.
In summer of 2011 I began planning a August/September thru-hike on the Colorado Trail. The Backpackinlight.com Absaroka pack was on sale and I grabbed one. I actually wanted to make a new frameless pack with more room to take on the trip. But I didn’t have time so it was a choice between the Jam2 and the Absaroka. The Absaorka was heavier but it fit better. I knew there would be some long sections between resupply so I went with the Absaroka. It worked great on until I hurt my ankle and ended the trip at Molas Pass.
I still thought I could make a frameless pack work if I found one that fit. So when a size Large Jam 2 was on sale I grabbed it. It seemed to work okay on a 2012 hike in the Adirondacks.
In the fall of 2012 I went back to Colorado to finish the last section of trail that I had missed. I loaded up my frameless Golite which was at least half a pounder lighter then my old Absaroka pack and headed out. But it just wasn’t comfortable. After 2 or 3 miles my mind was made up that it wasn’t going to work. So I hiked BACK to the car, threw my gear in the old pack and happily finished the trail. My conclusion was that for weights over 15 pounds a pack with a frame was more comfortable even if it was heavier.
With the Absaroka pack wearing out I commissioned Chris Zimmer to make a new pack for me. It worked well for a number of short trips but the hipbelt had a bad shape (my fault not Chris’s). This limited its weight bearing ability.
The next pack I tried was a Exped Lighting 60. The wrap around hipbelt was way better. And the longer torso made it more comfortable then the Absaroka (which was on the edge of being too small)ON a test hike I carried about 55 pounds in it. I used it for the summer of 2013.
The secret of the Lighting is that it combines a very good hipbelt with a single stay down the center of the pack. This gives you flexibility while still supporting weight. Also the hipbelt attached directly to the frame which is something few ultralight packs do.
In 2014 I took up packrafting. The lighting was a bit small for a packraft so ibought the HMG Porter 440It was bigger and semi waterproof which made it a nice pack for rafting. The HMG packs are better then most ultralight packs at load bearing but inferior to the Lighting.
I spent the fall and winter thinking about a better pack for rafting.
Inspired by Dave Chenault I bought a Seek Outside Unaweep frame and hipbelt. I made my own pack bag and sewed the shoulder straps onto that. I expected there would be some kinks to work out so I made a smaller pack for desert hiking. Version 1 worked well at Big Bend but the torso height was higher then necessary and the lack of side pockets was annoying.
I finished version 2 in time for a trip to the Guadalupe Mountains. Major changes were a shortened frame and side pockets.
My current plan is to built a 70-80 liter pack on the Unaweep frame with waterproof fabric such as Xpac. For big loads like a packraft with 10 days of food I think the Unaweep is currently the best suspension system out there. The only downside is the width of the frame. Not a big deal with a pack that is already going to be big, but annoying for a smaller pack. At some point in the future I’ll probably build something different for small loads.
President’s Day Weekend meant crowds at Big Bend so I headed back to my old stomping grounds in the Guadalupe Mountains.
As expected there was no problem getting a permit (meanwhile Big Bend was essentially full at least in the Chiso area).
No matter where you start you always have to climb a lot to really get into the Guadalupe Mountains. Usually this means a steep hike up Tejas Trail.
The “Bowl” or forested center of the Gaudalupe Mountains may be my favorite spot in West Texas. It doesn’t have the dramatic scenery of the canyons but having a mountain forest to hike through in the middle of a desert is cool. And the fact that I can enjoy it while New Mexico and Colorado are buried under snow makes it even cooler.
If there had been more time I would have done a side trip to Hunter Peak and a hike along the Canyon Rim. But daylight was fading so I headed across the Bowl toward my campsite.
I often don’t set up a shelter in West Texas. But since I was unsure of the weather forecast I went ahead and pitched my tarp. It was a good thing I did because it rained pretty hard about 2 AM. I would have gotten pretty wet in just my bivy.
In the morning clouds hung over the mountain tops. I decided to skip a trip to Bush Mountain and just go straight out on Tejas Trail. Another good call as it turned out.
At the edge of the canyon the fog was thick enough to block all views.
This trip was a chance to try out my second version of a pack built on the Seek Outside Unaweep frame and hipbelt. This version had side pockets and was a bit shorter in the torso and wider.
The sky began to clear as I finished the hike out to my car. Another fun weekend in West Texas was over.
As someone who has lived in the Lone Star State on and off for many years its funny that I have never visited Big Bend. Texas is a big place and driving to Big Bend from the Dallas area is almost as far as a drive to New Mexico.
Without time for the Outer Mountain Loop I headed up the trail to hike through the Chisos Mountains with a side trip into the desert via Blue Creek Canyon.
I wasted a lot of time (and some water) helping a dehydrated Boy Scout until his group caught up to him. After that completing my three day route seemed iffy so I considered Plan B.
I decided to turn around and either hike out in the dark or see if a ranger would give me permission to camp somewhere else.
Two Scout Leaders I met invited me to join their campsite saying a hike out in the dark would be a bad idea.
One of the boys had discovered at the Trailhead that his boots didn’t fit. So he’d hiked the trail in these thin soled moccasin styled slippers. They looked sort of out of place around all the REI gear but he said they worked okay. I like minimalist shoes but I would not have thought of hiking in something like that.
I said goodbye and headed down toward the South Rim. I didn’t have enough water for three days but I did have enough to fully enjoy the hike around the Chisos Basin.
Hiking the South Rim provided some of the most dramatic views I’ve seen in Texas.
My Scout friends took a shorter route so they caught up to me on the trail out through Book Canyon.
Soon I was back at the Trailhead ready to go home. I’ll definitely try to get back to Big Bend at some point.
Morgan and I had done an amazing trip through the Bob Marshall Wildenress but I wanted to go back. Due to our lousy map we’d skipped some interesting looking off trail routes along the Chinese Wall. I wanted to go back and check those out.
Once again I left my car at the Spotted Bear Ranger station and hitched a ride with a fisherman up to the trailhead (finding a ride was not as easy this time, I’d probably try something different if I did it again).
This time the sky was clear so I was able to see mountains that had been hidden by fog the last time.
I had planned on following a ridgeline off trail but at this point I only had a liter of water left and its was in the 80s if not the low 90s. Hiking off trail for 6-8 dry miles did not appeal to me at that point so I followed the trail towards the river.
I tanked up on water and headed back up the ridge to a dry camp part way up Ibex Mountain.
I started hiking early to beat the heat, at this point I was low on water again and the snow banks that Morgan and I had used just a bit more then a week ago were completely gone.
Just over the unnamed pass I found a melting snow bank and filled my two bottles again.
There was noticeably less snow on this trip. There was supposed to be a trail somewhere around here but I didn’t really try to find it. There is a great feeling of freedom walking through a place independent of any trail.
Seeing a place again is interesting. It is easier going back and sometimes you go back smarter but nothing quit matches exploring a new place for the first time.
In hindsight I should have stopped for water at this lake since everything after it was dried up for a long ways. I wonder f I might have been more aware of details like that if I hadn’t felt some comfortable since this was now familiar ground to me.
Last time Morgan and I had gone straight down into the valley looking for the White River. This time with a better map I was going to stay a bit higher up and follow a ridgeline above the Wall Creek cliffs. From there I was hoping to cross to the Chinese Wall and follow it down to the White River.
After a short scramble up a scree slope I found myself on a lovely alpine meadow with the Wall creek cliffson one side and a great view of the White River valley on
The views along the ridge were amazing. I took my time knowing this would likely be the part of the trip I returned to over and over again in my mind.
It was also a good time to be grateful for what I hadn’t done in the past. Earlier I’d sort of tried to talk Morgan into following the ridgeline that was now in front of me. Looking at it now I was pretty sure we would have “cliffed” out sooner or later.
As the ridge ended I headed down into the forest where the headwaters of the White River were. I was desperately hoping to find some water since I was running dry again.
The bushwack was steep but not too hard.
Soon I was on a trail again, easier but not as inspiring as finding my own way.
At the creek I risked some unpurified water and assessed the situation. In my semi-dehydrated state I didn’t want to hike the 8-10 miles of dry ridgeline with only 2 liters of water. The Chinese Wall would have to wait.
On a now familiar trail I saw the White River again and didn’t like what I saw, it looked lower then the previous trip. I was starting to question whether rafting it would be worth the effort.
At a trail junction I decided to explore Pagoda Pass and skip the White River.
Not finding any flat openings in the forest I sped up towards tree line hoping for better luck there.
I found this big fella’s tracks right outside my campsite. The dry mud indicated they were at least a day or two old
Dinner was a no cook meal of spicy crackers and summer sausage. Leaving the stove behind saved pack space.
The nice thing about the northern Rockies is you can hike a very long day and still have time to set up camp and enjoy the sunset.
In the morning I got an early start to beat the heat and had a nice view of the South Fork valley.
This snow was at a very low elevation and I puzzled over it a moment until I noticed the debris. I’m pretty sure it was an avalanche. That would explain the busted up wood. Probably the snow piled up deep enough that it lingered this late.
The South Fork was a bit lower looking at the bridge but its so big its hard to say one way or the other.
I quickly realized that the river was much less pushy this time. Smaller rapids had practically vanished and bigger ones were noticeably smaller.
One wave train that had scared me before was so much smaller I didn’t even realized I’d passed it until I saw other landmarks later.
The miles flew by and sooner then I expected I was at the Meadow Creek take out.
I hiked around Meadow Creek where I met a retired wildlife biologist out surveying the area for future backpacking trips. The conversation was so much fun I was happy to accept a ride down to Spotted Bear rather then raft the last few miles. A quick drive into town and I was enjoying another post hike burger.
If my trip with Morgan was about unplanned adventures this trip was about a plan coming together almost perfectly. Yes I missed the Chinese Wall but that was a minor adaptation to conditions on the ground, everything else went according to plan. Very different experiences but both good in their own way. It was a fine way to end an awesome summer.
After my trip with Morgan in the Bob Marshall I was feeling somewhat invisible so I decided to try packrafting in the “Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.” I won’t say exactly where I went just that rafting there was perfectly legal (its not in the actual Park).
I have come to love off trail hiking above treeline. So my plan was to follow a ridge above treeline for two days then packraft up to the border of Yellowstone and take out there. Boating in Yellowstone Park is illegal in most places which is a bummer. From there I’d hike back on trails to my starting point.
The scenery was great hiking out. I’d done some of this route but the last half was new to me. The crux would be box canyon I’d have to navigate down in order to reach the river.
Since the planned route was rather challenging I tried to move fast to make as much time as I could while the weather above timberline was good. However you can only go so fast when you are slogging up a step slope on loose soil.
There was an unusual amount of snow above treeline. It didn’t look too bad but close up it was a major hindrance. Steep snow and cliffs of crumbling rock often forced be to walk back and forth looking for a safe path through a gully.
Once I made it up onto the ridge line things got a lot easier as far as hiking went. Navigating was a breeze and the hiking was pretty easy as well.
I remember last year this snowfield had melted into a lake. With the sun beginning to set I hurried to get off the ridge to a pass where I could find a bear bagging tree and get lower in case of a midnight thunder storm.
Getting down required a bit of a detour around a very steep snowfield. Again it wasn’t there in 2013.
My campsite was scenic but for some reason I didn’t sleep well. I think it was a combination of a noisy creek and a lumpy sleeping spot that my short sleeping pad didn’t even out.
I was up early ready for a big day of hiking. My plan was to cover between 15-20 off trail miles and get to the headwaters of the river I wanted to float. Tomorrow would be a short hike and then a long float.
The scree fields and snow turned out to be a lot more work then I’d expected. They weren’t bad, its just that you can’t hike 2 miles an hour balancing on loose rocks or sinking up too your things in soft snow.
After lunch up high I dropped down to a small pass. I did some thinking at that point. I clearly wasn’t making ideal progress. I concluded I could still finish. I might be a bit hungry or hike a bit late the last day but I could do it and still be enjoying myself.
Pushing into new territory I headed back into the high country and spooked a herd of Elk bulls.
Getting up on the ridge where I wanted to be took about twice as long I’d calculated it would. By now I was operating in thru-hiker mode and setting goals for where I wanted to be by a certain time. If this was going to work I needed to be more efficient.
After a bit more hiking I pulled out the map and took an honest look at where I was, where I should have been, and where I could reasonably expect to be by evening. I concluded that
1. I was not hiking as fast as expected and this was unlikely to change.
2. The way forward promised to be both steeper and higher elevation. So if anything I was going to be slowing down.
I was now looking at an extra day needed to reach the river. By paddling hard and hiking really fast on the trail back there was a chance I could still make it on time.
Then I noticed another fact. The south side of the pass I was aiming for had plenty of snow. Chance where the more shaded (and steeper) north side would have more snow. There was really only one way down the north side that I was aware of, everything around it was a cliff. There was a very real chance that there would not be a safe way down to the headwaters (at least not without an extra day).
In the end I just decided that trying to force the trip to work on the time table I had just wasn’t going to be much fun. I wanted too enjoy this area, not rush through it and possibly spend a day or two hiking on an empty stomach. So I decided to bail out while I was enjoying the trip rather then wait for it to fall apart. I could always come back later.
I dropped into a valley and followed an established trail on the way out.
I crashed for the night in a small camping spot then finished the hike the next morning.
Normally I hate to quit a trip because I feel like I’m missing an opportunity. This time thought I had plenty of time for other things. I just felt like there was no point in finishing a poorly planned trip when I could just as easily quit and do something better.
A partner can make or break a trip. Fortunately Morgan made a fantastic partner on my second trip into the “Bob”
I met Morgan at the APA Packraft Roundup but didn’t do any trips with him then and didn’t get too know him real well. After the roundup he wanted to do a trip before flying back to California. I was sort of tired out but I thought a trip with a friend was worth heading into the backcountry a bit earlier then I’d planned.
I managed to loose our map crossing the Spotted Bear River, Morgan had a rough FS map that was barely good enough to continued on with. However navigating with it once the trail petered out would be a challenge
We spent the first day hiking through rain in a dense forest and considered ourselves lucky to find a campsite with enough daylight left to build a fire.
The next day was all hiking through the mountains first on a rough trail and later bushwacking using a compass and dead reckoning to find the headwaters of the White River.
This is about the point where the trail heads down into the valley. We didn’t notice that (due to our undetailed map) and kept right on going. The trail wasn’t very helpful anyway because it was so faint. When we realized our mistake we agreed to keep going and hope we could make it over the notch in the mountains.
Bear tracks were a reminder to be alert. Bears don’t scare me much now but they do keep me more “awake” when I’m hiking, personally its a feeling a like.
Once at the top of the notch it was very nice to see that we were not at the top of an impossible cliff. With some very careful map and compass work we figured out reasonably well where we were give or take a mile. The important part was that we were almost sure the valley ahead held the White River which as our route out of there.
Even though I was reasonably certain where we were it was still a funny feeling not being 100% sure of our location. I didn’t mind it so much but I would have felt horrible if Morgan had missed his flight due to my losing the map.
Down in the forest the hiking got a lot harder.
The map showed a “Lone Butte Mountain” Morgan guessed (correctly we learned later) that the butte like mountain ahead was it. It made a hand landmark as we headed down.
We navigated a couple of beaver ponds and began looking for signs of a trail.
We found wolf tracks on what appeared to be the trail. I actually think it was an outfitter’s unofficial trail but it led to a bigger trail that led to the White River.
White River Falls was a cool sight. It has a natural rock bridge across it.
After miles of dusty hiking it was nice to finally get out the boats on the White River. Dave Chenault had told us it was a “roller coaster” but well within our abilities. This was accurate. The river was fast most of the way. AT higher flows I think it would be harder.
Towards the bottom the White River braids into multiple channels before joining the South Fork of the Flathead.
We camped a bit early so we could use the sun to dry out. I repaired a torn spray skirt. We were too lazy to build a fire.
The paddling on the fourth day was amazing. The miles seemed to fly past.
We hiked around Meadow Creek Gorge. I don’t know the rating of the rapids there but apparently they are nasty.
It was nice to get back on the river after the hot dusty trail. In this part of the Bob the trails are not particularly scenic the river is not only easer but it offers better vies of the mountains.
Our car was waiting at the Spotted Bear Ranger Station. I drove as quickly as I dared back to town and we splurged on cheeseburgers. I published a more detailed account of our navigational adventures on Backpackinglight.com
An invite to join Dave and others for a trip to the Bob Marshall Wilderness was an excellent excuse to finally get up and see the “Bob.” Our party ended up consisting of myself, Dave, M and Spencer.
Our first day began with a sweety hike to the headwaters of the South Fork of the Flathead.
I’ve hiked alone more and more in recent years, its hard to find someone who has the inclination and the time to do the kinds of trips I like. Getting to go with someone like Dave was a real pleasure.
At Stadler Pass we took a lunch break. Enjoying the mountains with other people who enjoy talking about packs and hiking shoes was fun.
From the pass we dropped down to Danaher Creek.
On a typical backpacking trip the main challenge is to make sufficient miles in a day with perhaps a map reading challenge to keep you from getting complacent. This trip was different, we’d hiked, lost the trail, found the river, floated and portaged around log jams.
After a good days work a fire roasted trout was heavenly.
In the morning we quickly paddled down the remainder of Danaher Creek to the South Fork.
Wood was less of an issue here but we did have to portage a few times. Unfortunately I didn’t get any good pictures of the rapids. They were not particularly bad by Dave’s standards but more complicated and bigger then what I’d run so far.
We hiked a few miles up the White River looking for a campsite. We’d thought about rafting it down it but it was a hot day and no one wanted to hike that trail twice.
Our second campsite was not as comfy as the first but it had good scenery and we were tired. I had left my sleeping pad at in the car by accident and I was making do with Dave’s sitting pad and two life jackets.
In the morning we hike up the river, forded it with Spencer’s packraft and began hiking up to White River Pass.
Keeping up with Dave is a challenge, I’d forgotten to factor in that he’s competed in the Alaskan Mountain Wilderness Classic twice.
On the West Fork of the Sun River we blew up our rafts on a rather crowded slope and got back on the river.
We portage part of one rapid where the river blasted through a narrow rock channel. When Dave and Spencer, both more experienced on whitewater opted to portage I followed their lead.
Farther down the river slowed down a bit and was more relaxing. The shots from my waterproof helmet cam don’t do the scenery justice.
At a pack bridge we took out and hiked “4” miles to the trailhead, we all agreed it was likely a lot more.
This was my first overnight packrafting trip and it was a very good learning experience. I learned a couple lessons that would help me later on.
1. Us 1inch webbing with buckles to secure your pack to the raft. It sounds like a small thing but it makes packing up so much easier.
2. Multiple dry bags are better then one big bag.
3. Organization is key. You can waist a lot of time packing, unpacking and finding something if you are transitioning between hiking and rafting.
I’d bitten the bullet and bought a Porter 4400 for this trip. The extra space made it way easier to use then my Exped Lighting 60 and the water resistant fabric was a plus. I liked Dave’s system of strapping his PDF under the talon pocket of his pack. I improvised a similar system for later hikes.
I made the mistake of heading west without snowshoes or an ice ax, a decision that would come back to bite me a few times.
My plan was to hike over a pass from the south side of the wilderness, camp near treeline and explore the alpine areas.
The steep mountains and narrow canyons reminded me a bit of the Wimenuche Wilderness Area in Colorado.
I knew there would be some snow but I thought I could posthole through it.
As I got higher the snow got a lot deeper and keeping up with the trail became a problem.
Eventually I stopped. Much as I hated to turn around I didn’t see the point in going farther. I wasn’t going to make it over the pass before dark at the rate I was going even if it was safe.
In the past I’ve pushed trips past the point of fun and safety to meet a goal. This time I decided to be smart for a change and turn around.
I headed back down the way I came. Not seeing any attractive campsites I hiked all the way back to my car and got a burger. Since hiking without snowshoes didn’t seem practical I went back to packrafting .
After some packrafting I headed back north into Yellowstone Park.
Even in June there was a surprising amount of snow left. One particular area between the South Entrance and Lewis Lake seemed have more snow. Local weather pattern coming off the Teton Mountains I guess.
I spent a couple evenings and mornings in the Hayden Valley. With a spotting scope I was able to see wolves and a family of three grizzlies from the side of the road. These three bears came out fairly regularly. Whenever I got tired of staring through my spotting scope I’d find a family with kids or some foreign tourist who’d never seen a bear before and let them use it. The fact that my scope and tripod together cost only $150 made sharing it a lot less nerve wracking (some people had much, much more invested in their scopes.
After bit of snow I woke up to this at the campground. I still went out to see if I could spot some wolves or bears.
At the overlook I was able to spot the bears briefly. A van on a guided tour moved down the road for a better look. I followed them hoping to get closer to the bears (as in 3/4 of a mile rather then a mile away, we were not being dumb).
I tried Lamar Valley for a couple days hoping to see more wolves. This horrible shot barely shows a bison carcass and a lone wolf. This lone female fed on the carcass till a couple other buffalo ran her off. Then she came back a couple times trying to sneak in.
I was a bit late coming out the next morning and missed out. The wolves dug up a coyote den and started eating the pups. The two coyote parents couldn’t fight the wolves but they harassed them and were able to save one pup. Most of the action was over when I got there. We hung around for a while and saw a bear far off.
I moved over to a spot called the “S curve” later and saw a wolf lying at a rendezvous spot. I returned to this place over the next couple days. Once I saw a “babysitter” wolf watching a couple pups play.
This September a Utah researcher was killed by an unknown bear in Wyoming. All the reports say about the location is that it was along Cub Creek. I’ve hiked most of Cub Creek multiple times and on other hikes have been in the mountains surrounding it. Whichever bear was involved its highly likely that I passed through that bear’s territory more then once.
Now you can make something like this much more dramatic then it really is, “I hiked through the territory of a killer bear” sounds exciting but its over simplifying things. I don’t think it was an unusually dangerous bear that caused the tragedy. I think it was a dangerous situation with a bear that caused it.
Unfortunately its quite easy to have a dangerous situation with a bear along Cub Creek. The valley is narrow, noisy, and forested. Its the kind of place where you could easily surprise a bear, and there are lots of bears along Cub Creek.
What freaked me out was that Cub Creek is precisely the place where I took the most risks in grizzly country. I didn’t just hike there, I hiked there alone and in the dark, more then once. I also camped above it and had a hard time getting my food hung properly. The only tree I could find was so spindly a bear probably could have pushed it over if he’d thought to try.
Assessing risk is tricky. Statistically hiking in grizzly country is a lot safer then a lot of other things we do. But statistics can only show the big picture. The average hiker in grizzly country is quite safe. But the average hiker does not hike after dark along a noisy creek, the average hiker is not solo, and the average hiker is not on Cub Creek where the trail is barely used and the bears probably do not expect to see people (unlike say popular trails in Yellowstone).
I plan to return to Wyoming next year and will be hiking solo again. But I’ll probably change a few things.
1. I will plan my hikes more carefully so I don’t end up hiking in the dark.
2. I will probably carry an Ursack on all my hikes. I prefer hanging the food but I’ll have the Ursack just in case the hang isn’t perfect.
3. I’ll continue to carry bear spray and in places like Cub Creek I’ll probably keep it in my hand rather then on my belt. I like to use trekking poles but I’ll have to do without in such places. Realistically there is no way you could deploy bear spray from a belt pouch if a bear charged along Cub Creek
4. Since Cub Creek seems especially thick with bears I’ll plan hikes so I’m not hiking along it in the evenings or early mornings.
And finally I’ll be grateful for the life I have and the loved ones I still have around me. Life can end all sorts of ways and should be appreciated.