Thursday, February 16, 2017

Jeny and The Race: Camp notes.

Newbies to the ITI might be surprised to learn that it is possible to complete the entire Knik to McGrath route without sleeping outside.  There are private homes, BLM cabins, and commercial lodges spaced intermittently along the route, such that if your pace is good and your luck holds, you'd never need to deploy your bivy gear at all.

Think about that for a moment and you might start to wonder why you'd carry the extra ~7+ pounds of gear if you didn't have to.

In a word, safety is why you carry it.  There is never any guarantee that the conditions will be good enough to get from one lodge to the next cabin, or the next, in any reasonable amount of time.  The trail isn't groomed and weather is unpredictable: Plan to sleep in a lodge, carry no bivy gear, then a ground blizzard blows the trail in or a snowstorm buries it, and your pace and plans just went out the window.  What then?  Cuddle up in spruce boughs?  It has happened and it will continue to happen to those that are willing to gamble with their personal safety.  Hopefully the end result will be nothing more than entertaining stories shared by those who've been humbled.  I have a few of my own -- for another time...

Out of respect for the place and desire for their own safety, most people carry a puffy jacket to wear when they stop moving, and a sleeping bag and pad so that they can get some meaningful rest.  How big of a jacket, pad and bag are up to you to determine, based on how long you think you'll need to sleep, what the temps are, and what kind of sleeper you are.  Volumes have been written (and will continue to be regurgitated) on the subject of sleeping comfort -- handily distilled down to inflatable pad vs. closed cell foam pad, and down vs. synthetic insulation in your jacket and bag.  If you arrive at the ITI start you should be able to intelligently discuss at least some of these theories and explain why you went the route you did.  Most importantly, you should have at least a few nights of experience camping in the gear you plan to take.  

Jeny has been busy this month, and especially on the weekends, getting out and riding alpine snow all day on Saturday, camping that night with the gear she's carrying, then waking Sunday, cooking a meal and melting snow to refill her bottles, then closing the loop back to the start.  She understands that there is no better way to learn than to make mistakes, and the more mistakes she makes now, the fewer she'll make in the ITI when the stakes are higher.

The lodges and cabins along the way are spartan in luxury but often seem heaven-sent despite that, largely because when your life is distilled down to what can be dragged in a sled or fit onto a bike rack, the simplest things like food and heat are most appreciated.  Stumble exhausted out of a -30* night into a warm building and that alone is enough: anything beyond that -- like a $5 can of Coke or a $20 cheeseburger -- is just gravy.  Because of this allure, and because there are ~70 people participating in the ITI, the lodges are *busy*.  Think a little more about this and you'll realize that it is very difficult to get meaningful rest inside any of these buildings because people are constantly coming and going, packing and repacking, excitedly talking to friends when they arrive, rummaging through food and trash bags, burping, farting, clomping around in boots, and just generally doing anything other than being quiet.  The person that can sleep regardless of external stimuli will do well here.  If you need anything resembling uninterrupted quiet to sleep, you should plan to sleep out.

Jeny is planning to sleep out.

Just because you ditch the chaos of indoors does not guarantee that all is well.  There are a handful of things that you need to do, and to understand, in order to ensure solid rest.

First, the event is only a ~week long.  Getting 8 hours of sleep a night isn't needed.  I *like* seeing some of these landscapes (both inside and outside of my head) through the filter of darkness tinted with a teeny bit of sleep deprivation.  The experiences are much richer, the stories more compelling.

Maybe that's just me?  Quantity aside, when I do settle in I want the sleep to be short but of quality.  I shoot for at least an hour, and never (intentionally) more than 4.  90 minutes seems to be the magic number for me -- less than that and I'm still groggy and grumpy.  More than that and, after the initial moment or two of rumminess wears off, I feel rejuvenated and ready to move.

It goes without saying that if you're only going to sleep for 90 minutes, you don't want to waste another 90 setting up and breaking down camp.  You want to be fast, efficient -- not just so that you can maintain your forward mojo, but also because breaking camp in the cold is *cold*: You haven't been moving to generate any heat, and until you pack up and move you aren't going to.  Learn to be quick by thinking proactively about how and where to pack your gear.  If you have to think about where something is your toes just went numb.  If you unzip a zipper or peel back some velcro and find that what you sought is indeed somewhere else, your fingers are now numb too.  You'll be surprised at the speed with which your extremities begin to chill straight out of the bag in the morning.  

Over the last ~month Jeny has refined her camp setup routine to where she needs only to remove the bag from her rear rack and she has her entire "camp" within: Bag, pad, puffy, cookpot, food, and stove.  Fuel is kept separate for many reasons, but is handy in a bottle cage on the bike so that once she's setup and in her bag, she can reach from the comfort of her bag to grab that bottle and start melting snow.

But I'm getting a bit ahead of myself.

First, you need to pick a good spot, and "good" is both different and relative every time out.  My goal is always to find shelter first and foremost.  We don't carry a tent, mid, or tarp on the ITI because the weight, bulk, and time spent setting up and tearing down aren't offset by the meager protection they offer.  It's no warmer inside of a tent than out, but it can be quite a bit wetter due to condensation from exhalations.  I'll never use a bivy sack in winter again after experimenting and learning how much moisture they trap next to and inside of your sleeping bag, thusly degrading the insulation.

We sleep out.  And that means we need to be protected from wind and falling snow.  Trees offer good shelter, although if you set up camp in a grove of cottonwoods and it snows overnight you might wonder about the truth of that statement.  When I say trees I mean conifers, where the needles can catch any snow that might otherwise land on (and melt on) you.  

So the very first step is to find a spot that's quiet, and that means getting off of and away from the trail.  Stomp a path out into the trees, far enough so that other nocturnal travelers don't even notice you're there.  Jeny had an anxious moment a few weeks ago when a midnight trail groomer saw her camp and came to check on her -- but never got out of his snowcat to do it.  There was never any danger but as the cat approached her location it was hard to convince herself that she wasn't about to be tilled into corduroy.  Once the driver saw that she was safely ensconced in her bag he flipped it and left her to sleep.  His intentions were admirable but her adrenaline hit couldn't subside quickly enough.  She'd never have woken had she been better hidden.

The trick to sleeping under conifers, as any To Build a Fire fan will tell you, is to remove any snow that might fall on you before you set anything up.  How?  Put on your jacket, pull the hood over your head, close all zippers, bow your head, and then kick the snot out of the trunk until the last bombs have whumped to the ground around you.  Good?  Good.

Next. stomp a trench out next to a big tree.  Why big?  Bigger circumference of protection, plus (hopefully) a healthy trunk to lean against while melting snow.  The trench is necessary because the snow is deep and soft -- stomping it out packs it into a ~level surface to sleep on.  Make the trench big enough that you can't inadvertently touch the edges and knock loose snow down onto yourself.  There is an art to finding the right size: I'm not here to tell you how to do that, I'm here to encourage you to go out and find out!  An added bonus is that the stomping warms you a bit before you shut down the turbines for the night.

Above is Jeny's campsite from last Wednesday, after she'd placed her bike and stomped the trench but before she'd laid out her bag and pad to start cooking.

Our camptime habits include walking the last ~1/4 mile to "cool down" and cook any residual moisture out of our layers, eating a few hundred calories while walking so that the fire is stoked before we get into our bags, changing into dry socks as soon as we get into the bag, and rehydrating a hot meal to give our bellies fuel for both recovery and heat production through the night.  If we're tired enough we'll often pass out before brushing teeth, but the feeling of fur on teeth is usually the second task I take care of when I wake.  The first being the need to pee, which is almost always what wakes me and signifies that it's time to move again.

Clearly there is nothing exhaustive about what I've shared here.  I intend it as a springboard to get people to think about camping not in the abstract -- but to go out and do it and learn to be good at it.

No time like the present.


  1. This is pretty much a description of what my daughter and I been doing, except that we have tended to use a tarp over us since many of the places we go don't allow random camping or can't be depended on for sheltering trees. My friends have questioned our preference for the tarp, but on the third night, you sure appreciate how dry you are when others are shivering.
    The one year I did the ITI, I have memories of spending the night in Shell Lake Lodge and thinking it was as loud as a chainsaw factory testing room. Smart of Jeny to sleep outside.

  2. For winter camping, having a small emergency blanket along (one of the Mylar ones you find anywhere) is super handy. Throw it down as a groundsheet to keep your pad drier, but it behind you to reflect heat from a fire if you decide to have one, throw it over top of you if it's snowing. They weigh nothing and take up almost no space.
    They seem gimmicky, but pretty darn useful.