Camp Site Selection

Selection of a good spot to camp is one of the most important aspects of a backpacking trip for me…I tend to spend at least 12 hours in camp so it directly affects over half my trip!  Note that this doesn’t apply so much to use of existing campsite locations, although even then you should be very careful of pitch location within the site.  Even at an old faithful campsite, conditions can change (i.e. weaker limbs on trees than the last time you were there).

I have a 3-level approach to selection of a camp site:

  • Pre-Trip Site Selection
  • General Site Selection
  • Pitch Site Selection

I thought it might be useful to go through each of these steps one by one in case folks are interested, and use both a good and marginal site result as two case studies.

Pre-trip Site Selection:

When planning a trip, I tend to avoid established camps and prefer Leave-No-Trace (LNT) campsites off-trail.  The first thing I do is establish my general mileage and route for the day.  This determines roughly where I will end up, which leads to the general camp location.  I look for an area on a topographic map with relatively flat contours and proximity to water.  This does not mean I camp by a stream…in fact over 2/3 of my camps are dry.  What it does mean is that I have the ability to “camel” up on water for the night and next morning within about an hour or so of the potential camp.

Here are two general areas I picked out for different trips…first in the White Mountains in NH and the second an unnamed quiet spot in an overused wilderness area close to me.

In the White’s, my wife and I wanted to have a quiet camp one of the two nights (the second was pretty much constrained to a tent platform site) and also shave off some of our second day climb up to the peaks.  An area on the USGS 1:24,000 topographic map looked like it had some potential off the Twin Brook Trail.  I was pretty confident we could find something for our 3-person tent, but since it was new territory I had a backup plan of dropping back down to the 13 Falls tent site below it….although that would mean re-climbing the next morning.

Here are several potential sites I picked out year’s ago at one of my favorite backyard wilderness playgrounds.  This area is mostly wooded and lower elevation so I wanted a fair weather site that got a lot of breeze and also some winter views after the leaf fall.  Several potential knobs not too far from water sources below are circled on the map.

General Site Selection:

Once I arrive in the general area, I will spend a good bit of time hunting around for the right site.  This may include wandering an area of several acres or heading further up the trail to see what’s around the next bend then backtracking if it doesn’t look as good.  I think that is the hardest part – going backward at the end of the day and feeling like you are losing ground.  However a good camp site is well worth it and most of the time I don’t regret that versus settling for a less ideal campsite.  This process can often take me 30 minutes or more.

In the White Mountains, this general selection took about 45 minutes. I first had to ensure that we were 200 feet from the trail (Forest Service rule) which wound around the area…a couple of sites were 200 feet from where I left the trail, but less from the trail ahead or behind due to the curve.  The ground was also extremely hummocky with few spots large enough for a 3-person tent that I was carrying since it was a couple’s trip with my wife.  This micro-topography is not something that you can pick out on topo maps, and unless familiar with an area it is a wild card.  I passed up a couple of  spots that seemed to have historically been disturbed. 

They were flat but had too much vegetation that I didn’t want to damage (especially the ferns).

We finally settled on the slightly higher area at the edge of a flat saddle that seemed to have potential to be a little boggy but was not wet this time of year.  You can see the lack of hummocks and relative lack of slope in this photo.  The site wasn’t ideal but dry enough based on the season and weather patterns.

In the other wilderness area with the three potential knobs, the site selection was easier.  The first (northernmost) one I hit was exactly what I wanted…flat topped and enough soil to get some of my variety of tent stakes to hold.

Pitch Site Selection

With both general sites selected, it’s down to the tent pitch selection.  First and foremost is safety…looking out for widowmakers and other loose branches that might damage the tent if the wind picked up.  This factors in with my preference for at least a decent chance of seeing stars so gaps in the canopy at forested sites are important.  Here is an extreme example of where you don’t want to camp!

Once I have a suitable pitch site for safety, it’s all about a good night’s sleep.  If the weather is good, I’ll lay down on the ground for a few minutes (usually on a ground cloth) and make little adjustments in the orientation of the pitch site to account for minor slope, roots, etc.  I try to avoid doing any site improvements so I can leave no trace in the end.

Finally, its the orientation of the tent – which way will the doors open and where will the pack go?  There is rarely a perfect campsite, but there are a lot that come close.

The White Mountain site turned out better than expected,

and the no-name wilderness camp has become a frequent peaceful stop for me on short winter trips when I can’t wander farther from home.

The research and field search for camping spots has become one of the most satisfying and rewarding aspects of my backpacking over the last decades.  Happy hunting for campsites!

 

Gear for the Aging (or Experienced!) Hiker

I have been backpacking since the mid 1980’s and although a bit older, it is still just as enjoyable to strap a pack on my shoulders and head into the forest or down the trail.  Not only enjoyable, but not that much more difficult since I can still do similar miles and climbs. I think this can be attributed to two things:

  1. My better attention to between trip fitness and training.
  2. Acquisition of better and lighter gear.

It’s the second one I have been thinking about the last couple of days.  My pack weight is now in the mid teens most (3 season) trips, which makes the miles go easier but also allows for some addition of items to make the trip more comfortable (and fitting into my “comfortably light” approach).  Several items help buffer my aging body from aches and pains including:

NEMO Astro Air Insulated Lite (19.5 oz) – a full size 3+ inch thick air mattress that provides the most comfortable sleep I have had in over 30 years of backpacking.

REI Trail Chair (20 oz) – a camp chair for my back that lets me relax on the ground or even inside the tent since it doesn’t have legs.  My lower back issues make multiple night trips without this a real pain!

Coccoon Ultralight Pillow (3.6 oz) or NEMO Fillo (9.2 oz) – an air or foam/air pillow for the night and chair lumbar support during camp hours.  I trade these out depending on the length of trip, preferring the Fillo for short trips but the lighter Coccoon for longer ones.  Trailspace reviews are coming soon on both.

Garmin Inreach (6.9 oz) – I compromised with my wonderful wife to allow her to keep track of my wanderings and not worry that I might have twisted an ankle or worse.  At first reserved about electronics in the backcountry (I am a traditional map and compass guy), now I enjoy the mapping capabilities of it through my phone. Review is in the works.

Trail Designs Ultralight Glasses (0.1 oz) – doesn’t aid my comfort but these small reading glasses for the trail that help my old eyes see maps and GPS units better without digging out my reading glasses from the pack.

These are the primary items I would never have carried in the past (or carried lighter versions like a mattress), but add so much comfort and enjoyment to my trips that I never leave them behind now.

The additional weight of these items is around 34 ounces (if you assume the air mattress replaces a simple foam pad).  This may seem like a lot of excess weight, but I still come in around 17-19 pounds of base weight for 3 season backpacking.  Getting a good nights sleep and comfortably lounging around camp are worth way more than the additional weight to me.

One other piece of gear I’ll add often is a bear canister (BV 450 – 31 oz).  I bought a couple of different sizes over the years as they are required in a couple of spots I spend a good bit of time.  Although close to 2 lbs, I carry it in more places than I would expect as it eliminates the need to hassle with hanging a bear bag, which I used to enjoy but now try to avoid.  Lots of people hang bear bags, but I rarely see one hung correctly at wild camp sites without bear bag lines etc already installed.  The difficulty of getting it just right (distance from a tree and height on a strong enough limb) is just not worth it to me. Plus, when I get up to make coffee at zero dark thirty, I don’t have to fuss with getting it down.  The BV series make handy camp stools as well. I used to not bring the trail chair when I had a canister, but I really need the lumbar support so now use both as a stool and backrest.

Top it off with my conversion to trekking pole use that has made the most difference to my bad knees and increased my mileage by a factor of 1.5 since I started using them.  Never mind the number of times they have saved me from a fall!

You can’t stop aging but sure can make it easier in the back country with a little additional weight!

Trip Report – Acadia NP and White Mountains

We are just getting back from a wonderful celebration of our 23rd wedding anniversary and a whirlwind trip through Maine and New Hampshire. It combined the best of everything…a couple of nice bed and breakfasts along with hearty dinners, camping and day hiking in Acadia National Park on the rocky coast of Maine, and backpacking along the legendary trails of the White Mountains in New Hampshire.  I’ll break this one into sections so you can scroll to the areas of interest…

MAINE & ACADIA NATIONAL PARK

The trip started off perfectly on our anniversary…we had a reservation in Camden, Maine (a quaint fishing village) for a night in a bed and breakfast as well as a great dinner at the B&B restaurant.  However, on arriving we found a Scottish pub right across the street.  My wonderful wife immediately cancelled our dinner reservations to allow me to partake of pretty authentic Scottish fare from my homeland at The Drouthy Bear (it means thirsty)!

We enjoyed an excellent Bacon Butty, an above average Sausage Roll, and the best Fish and Chips I have had in several years, washed down with traditional Scottish (Belhaven Wee Heavy) and local Maine beer (unfortunately I forgot which IPA but it was good!). I finished up with a decent dram of Scotch as well.  A perfect evening!

The next day it was off to Acadia National Park for our long awaited visit to this scenic spot.  We have learned over the years to maximize our enjoyment of an area by sacrificing convenience and highlights for quieter spots, so while planning the trip we were immediately drawn to the Schoodic Woods portion of the park and the hike-in campsites there.

The area did not disappoint…from the initial drive when we left everyone else turning right to go into Ellsworth and onto Mount Desert Island (main part of Acadia) and enjoyed a quiet drive up through Winter Harbor to Schoodic Woods.  Make sure to stop in at the JM Gerrish restaurant for some really good food (and great blueberry pie!) before camp!

The campsite we chose was the furthest walk (only about 5 minutes) from the parking area of those available, on a little knob of a hill.  We really enjoyed the peace and quiet, couldn’t see any neighbors, and just occasionally heard someone.  For those planning to hike-in camp here, I would recommend sites 2, 5, and 8.  Site 2 was booked but had a great view of Mt Desert Island, although it was a 10 minute hike up the hill.

After settling in, we went for a tour around the Schoodic peninsula and enjoyed the cold rocky coast and great views.

After dinner at camp we decided to head back to Schoodic Point and enjoyed sunset there with a few other folks.

Our next two days, we had planned to head over to Mt Desert Island by the ferry, and then go to a local wildlife reserve area for quieter hikes, but those plans changed as we settled into Schoodic.

Falling in love with this area and its peace and quiet, we immediately knew we would be coming back here and therefore didn’t feel the need to discover every corner or face the crowds in the main portion of the National Park in the summer, which we heard was pretty busy and would likely lessen our enjoyment.  We look forward to enjoying that in the off-season in the future and opted for a quiet couple of days.

Instead, we thoroughly explored Schoodic peninsula including taking the almost empty shuttle down to Anvil trailhead and hiking back to the camp, through the rocky hills with great views of Mt Desert Island…

and the Maine coast…

from The Anvil and Schoodic Head.  We then dropped into the beautiful woods and found bogs…

more hilltop rock outcrops…

and then more bogs with pitcher plants.

After that, we relaxed at camp for lunch and then spent the afternoon exploring the rocky coast areas and investigating the tidal pools.

This area really reminds me of Scotland and England where I spent my first decade…the life in the pools is dramatic and colorful.

We had a wonderful and relaxing day followed by dinner at The Pickled Wrinkle (decent food and a good beer selection) and still don’t regret skipping the main National Park area and saving it for next time.

NEW HAMPSHIRE & WHITE MOUNTAINS

Knowing we would be back freed us up to head out to New Hampshire a little earlier and do some last minute equipment shopping in Conway before heading into the White Mountains.  After picking up a couple of supplies and a (discounted) pair of hiking shorts with a mild/hot forecast, we enjoyed another night in a B&B and a hearty dinner and breakfast before heading to the Lincoln Woods trail head.

With her new ULA Ohm pack loaded up, my wife was ready for the trail!

An easy hike along the river on an old rail bed (Lincoln Woods Trail) was followed by a beautiful hike up the Franconia Brook Trail, past ponds and views of the hills we would be climbing. Our route led us to the 13 Falls and its tent site, which was an option for night one.

There were several groups at the campsite already.  As mentioned earlier, we are folks who like peace and quiet, so the idea of camping with a bunch of other hikers was not really ideal.  We gathered up water for the evening and headed up the Twin Brook Trail to look for a campsite off the trail in what looked like some flat areas on the topographic map.

After much searching to get a legal site (below tree line and 200 ft from trail or stream), we settled on a flat area a little elevated from a relatively spongy saddle.  While initially I was worried about the amount of bugs in the area, it turned out to be a nice little site that we left relatively untouched except for the usual dry patch of ground after some overnight rainfall.

We enjoyed a dinner of chicken and dumplings then a good night’s rest knowing that we had already shaved a bit of the next day’s climb from the itinerary.   The bugs weren’t bad and respectfully retired at sunset.

Day two in the Whites found us climbing for an hour to the Galehead Hut…

in time to buy a piece of fresh baked Mocha Cake that fueled my wife for the climb up to South Twin.

The trail lived up to expectations – a straight line rocky hop…

that led to some wonderful views…

Since this was our first experience in the Whites and my wife, while in great shape, was not as used to mountain trails like this, we decided to skip the out and back hike to North Twin and make for the Guyot campsite early enough to get a good spot.  We passed through some more great views on Guyot…

and a pretty fern forest…

before reaching the newly rearranged campsite (the site numbers below don’t match the wooden camp signs and several new platforms seem to have been built).

This turned out to be a great plan as we were the first to arrive as rain started coming down.  As  usual, we chose the tent platform furthest from everyone and holed up there for the next 15 hours as the rain pretty much fell continuously.  We socialized a bit in the cooking area with a late afternoon snack, but generally kept to our private platform while the camp filled up with tired hikers.

The camp host came by and recognized the Trailspace logo on my hat.  I think this bought us instant trail-cred and she OK’d us LNT cooking at the platform in the rainstorm (no crumbs – just boiling water for tea and coffee and a boil in the bag meal) since we had a bear canister along for the wild camp nights.

An evening in a tent in the rain talking and playing cards with your best friend is hard to beat! (No photos of camp as it rained consistently from mid-afternoon to the next morning.)

Our last day, we got a decent start and had a few views on the climb to Mount Bond…

although the mosquito squadrons were out in force well up to the heights…

and the top of Mount Bond was shrouded in mist.  My wife is pretty convinced that I wasn’t the first person to come up with “Bond, Mount Bond” upon reaching the peak, but I am going with that theory until proven otherwise!

I really enjoy walking through the clouds and fog, but we also wanted to take in some views.  Luckily the wind picked up and we got the best of both worlds along the Bondcliff Trail with periods of white out…

followed by breaks with incredible views.  I would put this section of trail up against any other for scenery and pure enjoyment of the terrain.  Walking along Bondcliff with the clouds rolling in and out added to the atmosphere…

and even the valley views were impressive.  I didn’t have the camera out enough for the peak views but we got a good share of those as well.

Bondcliff itself was shrouded most of the time with occasional views of Franconia Ridge, but we had little company as we traversed this incredibly striking rocky terrain.

Then we began to meet the weekend crowds as we descended along Bond Brook down to the valley below.

After a steep (knee aching) drop down Bondcliff to the Wilderness and Lincoln Woods trails, we hiked out with a couple of snack breaks.

The trip totaled 25.5 miles with some decent climbs, and my wonderful better half handled it all and really enjoyed the trip.  We dried out in a hotel in Concord before heading back into the warm south.

Like I said earlier, we will be back in the off-season some time to spend about 5 days in Acadia, and I know I will be back in the shoulder seasons to really explore the White Mountains in more depth, but we couldn’t have asked for a better anniversary celebration!

Tarptent Stratospire I – First Field Test

After my much documented 2-month layoff (see my whining in the previous couple of posts!) I managed to get 2 good nights out with the new Tarptent Stratospire I.

Quick summary: I have never like a tent this much on first use!

The Stratospire pitch on the first night was relatively easy (I had practiced at home 3 or 4 times while stuck around the house). While I didn’t have monster winds or any storms or rain to truly test, there was a steady breeze the first night and it barely ruffled the open flaps.

I used a combination of tent stakes for this trip with relatively rocky open ground:

  • Aluminum 6 inch Easton stakes (2) – 1 at each pitch-lock end
  • Titanium UL nails (4) – at the door/vestibule corners
  • Titanium ascent stakes (2) – at the main guy line locations

I carried 4 Y stakes (MSR Groundhog knockoffs) as well but didn’t need them – they usually replace the nails in softer ground. The taughtness of the pitch first time with little adjustment is what impresses me the most. I did have to make sure I set the pitch-lock ends up vertically.

I found it even a little easier the second night in a steady breeze to stake out the rectangle firsts then insert the trekking pole supports through the roof vents. This allowed me less hassle with getting it right and required only one adjustment to a stake once the tarptent was up.

I had ample room for my gear in each vestibule and my essentials inside the inner netting portion alongside my full size sleeping pad.  The only thing lacking for me personally in my organizational camp habits was a small door pocket to keep my headlamp and glasses (a long habit of mine).  I am planning to add that myself.  Having my entry/exit on one side and my cooking area on the other (I was not in bear country) was ideal.

The vestibule space and two doors are one of the key features I like the most, and the flexibility of this was apparent at a hot and sunny campsite on the second night out.  I rotated the closure of one half of the vestibule doors around to keep the tent shaded while still allowing critical air flow through the shelter.

Overnight, there was no visible sag, but obviously that is dependent on weather, be it rain, temperature change, or humidity.  The Stratospire was so sturdy that I had no concerns running a laundry line from one of the corners.

Breaking down the tent was easy as well – I prefer just for wet weather practice to unhook the inner netting first and pack that away then take down the tarp portion.  This goes quickly – the clips on the inner are a little finicky at first but it gets easy with practice.

Condensation was not an issue on this trip as I slept with both doors wide open both nights and left the netting open on the second night as well since the bugs weren’t bad.

I’ll keep testing this summer and into the fall/winter season and provide a post or two once the Stratospire has ridden out some severe weather.  And of course I’ll eventually post a complete gear review on Trailspace as usual.