Tents Vs. Hammocks: The Great Debate

One of the subjects you’ll hear debated the most between hikers and backpackers is the preference between tent camping and hammock camping. This is probably something that you don’t think about a whole lot until you do some research, talk to someone who enjoys hammock camping, or have enjoyed using a hammock while out in the wilderness before. On the surface this doesn’t seem like it would be something that would require a whole lot of thought either way. But the more you dig into it the more you see that there is a wealth of information for both sides and avid supporters of both.
One of our biggest concerns as hikers / backpackers is the weight of our packs. For this reason alone a hammock seems like the logical choice for overnighters in the back country. Without the added weight of tent poles you can easily save yourself precious pounds and make those steep uphill climbs and downhill treks a little less painful. As anyone can tell you that’s ever hiked any significant distance. A few pounds can mean the difference between feeling a little tired at the end of the day and feeling like your legs have been utterly destroyed.

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There are clear positives and negatives to each, for example in order to use a hammock you need to find a place with grown trees that are spaced in a way that allows you to hang the hammock. In the same regard you have to be in an area that has trees in the first place. A lot of people on the hammock side of the argument will pose the question “If there are no tree’s is that a place you really want to be camping anyway?” which is a point that I see eye to eye with, but doesn’t necessarily hold true in every situation. Something else to contend with is the fact that you’re suspended in the air all night. While this can do wonders for people with back problems, it does make it a little more challenging to stay warm on cooler nights, unless of course you invest in a pricey underquilt. There is also the issue of bugs and rain that you have contend with when using a standard camping hammock. There are however much more cutting edge hammocks that address these concerns and the problem of heat loss if you’re willing to pay for the technology. A great example of these cutting edge hammocks are available online at https://www.junglehammock.com/ by Clark Hammocks. These are really more of a hybrid between a tent and a hammock and some models can even be used as a tent if you’re in an area that doesn’t have trees.  Another added benefit to our more patriotic hikers is that Clark is an American company that uses American material to build its gear, they also stand behind everything they build 100%.

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On the other side of the argument are the tent campers. If you did any kind of outdoor activity as a family when you were growing up, you’re probably more than accustomed to tent camping. This is generally what we think of when the word camping comes to mind. However, for the hiker / backpacker there are some extra considerations to consider when you decide to drag the old tent along. Foremost among these concerns is the fact that you need to find a suitable place off trail to pitch the tent. This means doing your best to clear the ground of twigs, rocks and debris. Only to find out in most cases, in the middle of the night, that you missed one or two of them. At which point you spend the rest of the night with a rock or stick in your back. However, you do get the added protection of being enclosed in the tent, which conserves warmth and usually does a fantastic job of stopping the wind and rain if you’re stuck in bad weather. While single person tents tend to be lightweight and easy to assemble and disassemble, they can get a little pricy. In most cases you’re going to get what you pay for, unless you get lucky with an Amazon deal or find a gem somewhere in the discount section.

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At the end of the day (literally) it comes down to trying both and sticking with what you prefer. I recommend playing around with both tents and hammocks to find what fits your needs and your style the best. I know I intend to get plenty of campfire time with both this year. Hopefully you get the chance to get out and do the same.

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Product reviews

It’s been a fun week for the Free Rangers, if you consider 104 fevers, spinal taps, and lopsided Super Bowl victory after-parties fun. I’ll let Aaron explain more (HIPAA violations anyone?) at his leisure, but…

I will say that the plan for this weekend, this Valentines Day weekend, involves sub-zero hiking, overnight camping, and product reviews.  And mea culpas to the women in our lives for rushing through the whole hearts and flowers scenario on Valentine’s Eve.

My reviews support my goal of paring down what I’ll need on the Appalachian Trail, and honing in on the most versatile and useful items to carry.  I should start with my pack, and the stuff protecting my feet.  I’ll give you the whole scoop in this weekend’s product review video, with maybe-just-maybe a bit of horseplay thrown in for good measure.

Stay tuned.

Fort Harrison State Park

Come along and see some of the mid-winter beauty of Indianapolis’s only state park.

Esbit CS585HA 3-Piece Lightweight Camping Cook Set for Use with Solid Fuel Tablets (Esbit 1300 Degree Smokeless Solid Fuel Cubes for Backpacking, Camping and Hobby – 20 Pieces Each 4g) Included as add on through Amazon.com

I want to start this post off by saying that anytime you buy something that you intend to use on a hike, while camping, or anytime you are going to have to rely on the product whatsoever, you need to be sure to test the product before you’re in a situation where you need to use it. In this review I’ll be talking about my experience with

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Respectively.
I’d like also like to say that the solid fuel used and pictured here came as an add on to the cook set for $4 on Amazon.com and that I did not have very high hopes for this solid fuel as a standalone heat source, for good reason.
The solid fuel tablets are very small, about 1/3 the size of most that are on the market at a comparable price. The packaging states that a single solid fuel tablet will burn for 8-12 minutes and boil water on its own. Unfortunately this claim is not even close to being true. Had I not tested these and been in a situation where I needed to boil water to drink or cook with in the backwoods I would have been very much out of luck. As it was I set this cook set up in my garage to reduce wind but with the door open and an ambient temperature around 30 degrees. The first tablet burned for about 11 minutes and managed to get a small bit of steam off the top of the water, but little more. I decided that maybe because it was so cold I would try more fuel to see if I could truly get the water to boil. So the next go around I used 2 or the tablets, which burned for approximately 10 minutes, but only got the water up to 155 degrees Fahrenheit before burning out. It’s also worth noting that the solid fuel uses some sort of fish oil as a base and will make an area about 10 feet around where you’re cooking smell like you’re processing salmon. Needless to say, I was less than impressed with the solid fuel, but as an add on I wasn’t too upset about the price.
I did go back later with the cook-set, used the solid fuel as a starter and fed small sticks into the opening at the bottom of the cook set and got water from a semi-frozen stream to boil in about 20 minutes on one of my earlier hikes. So, because of the small size of these fuel tablets and the fact that you get 20 of them, they can be useful to get a bigger fire going in pinch. While I absolutely do not recommend them as a standalone fuel source, they might be work keeping around your fire starting kit, since they start easily and will burn even when wet. However, strong wind will put these out so if you’re using any type of solid fuel source be sure to setup a wind screen or dig a hole about twice the size of your cook stove and about 5-6 inches deep, then use the dirt from the hole to heighten the barrier around the cook stove to keep the wind at bay.
Below are the links to the products on Amazon.com

Rock Shelter Trail 1-31-2016

This past weekend we decided to hike the Rock Shelter trail at Morgan Monroe State Forest. This has quickly become one of my favorite destinations for quick weekend hikes and I’m looking forward to better weather so that I can start doing some overnights on the Low Gap and Three Rivers trails. I hiked about 3 and a half miles into the low gap a few weeks ago and actually went through a portion of the rock shelter trail. Since the smaller loops connect the larger 10+ mile Low Gap trail.
Anyway, the scenery was so striking last time that I knew we should hit this hike together. They call this the rock shelter hike because of the large walk through cave in our pictures. It’s been signed in several places and looks to be a pretty popular destination for anyone hiking in this area. The center of this trail that is in the backwoods area is absolutely phenomenal. It’s well maintained and the scenery is absolutely beautiful, even in mid-winter when everything is dead. We did get lucky this weekend in respects to the weather. It was a balmy 55 degrees and we quickly shucked our cold weather gear as soon as we got to the trailhead. Of course the weight of our AT packs still makes for a sometimes sweaty hike. While we’re accustomed to carrying weighted ruck sacks from our years in the military (4 for me, 20+ for dad) you really can’t control how quickly you heat up when you’re scaling a backwoods will with 50lbs strapped to your back.
When we first started the hike we followed the trail head about an 8th of a mile to a paved road that takes you about a mile into the backwoods of the state forest. This is an underwhelming portion of the hike as it’s paved with rock and tends to be pretty muddy. There is also a lot of logging going on around this particular trail so it’s not exactly what you want to see on your weekend out in nature. But after about a mile the trail turns off into the backwoods where you zigzag down a large hill into a large ravine with a stream meandering through it. The stream crosses the trail in many spots, so if you aren’t wearing waterproof boots like I have been, you have to get a little creative to keep your feet dry. As you follow the trail through the ravine you’ll notice the terrain change from steep hills to rocky cliffs, the whole time you continue to hike though the ravine following the trail towards the caves at the center of this trail. Now this week we decided to take out our GoPro cameras and record the hike, so most of this will be published to our YouTube channel in a few days, I’ll be sure to link to it from here and vice versa so that you can see the real beauty of this trail.
Once you get past the caves you start heading uphill, this will be challenging for those of you who haven’t been hiking in a while as climbing these hills with weighted packs works your legs more than anything I’ve ever experienced in my life. The trail then follows a ridge for another ¾ mile or so before you come to a fork in the trail leading to the backwoods or back to the trailhead. Since we were just hiking the rock shelter trail, we took the left fork back to the trailhead. After about 300 yards that direction the forest trail turns back into a paved (rock) vehicle trail that leads you right back to the parking lot at the trailhead. The whole thing takes about an hour, maybe longer if you take a lot of pictures or decide to stop for lunch. All in all this is a beautiful trail and a much better way to spend a Saturday and Sunday afternoon than sitting around the house.

Directions and further information are available in the link below.  https://www.alltrails.com/explore/trail/us/indiana/low-gap-trail-loop

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Southwestway Park 1-24-2016

Our goal is to get out and hike SOMETHING every weekend this year. Sometimes we plan big, sometimes we plan small. This week was a small week. We decided to hit up Southwestway Park for a number of reasons. Chiefly for me being that it’s only 10 minutes from my house. When we got there we immediately noticed that this park is well travelled. There were people out walking their dogs, in fact we almost witnessed a dogfight as soon as we got out of our cars, as one of the patrons didn’t realize that just because your dog is nice and you think he doesn’t need to be on a leash, doesn’t mean that every dog he encounters is going to feel the same way.

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Anyway, right of the bat we understood that we were probably going to stick out a little with our loaded packs, hiking “city trails” that are never more than a mile away from civilization. Immediately the gentleman walking with his dogs off leash noticed the same thing and said asked if we were training for something because “[he] can’t imagine your serious otherwise.” We get it, we look funny. But if you don’t spend time getting used to walking on trails carrying a weighted pack, you’re going to regret it when you try to do it for real.

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Moving on, we started the trails and immediately noticed that the trailhead was not well maintained. There were dog “deposits” right in the middle of the trail in several spots and noticeable trash along the trail at the trailhead. That however, is not at all uncommon, since generally speaking people these days are slobs. We decided to take the mountain bike trails as they were a little bit longer and the terrain was a little bit more rough than the almost paved dedicated hiking trails. All in all we spent about an hour and a half exploring the area and especially liked the portion that runs next to the White River. If you’re looking for a casual nature walk I would recommend this trail, if you’re looking for a true hiking experience I would steer you to one of the State Parks instead.alltrails-southwestway-park–11 

Directions and further information are available in the link below.  https://www.alltrails.com/explore/recording/southwestway-park–11

 

 

Low Gap Trail Southwest Loop 1/19/2016

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Today’s trip was along the southwestern portion of the Low Gap Trail (blue loop on the map). This is a very scenic trail in Morgan Monroe State Forest, but is definitely not for the feint of heart. It’s full of challenging terrain and steep climbs. I hiked a little over 3 miles into it (almost back to the southern intersection with the paved road) before doubling back to my starting point. I was planning on hiking a larger portion of the trail, but it was incredibly cold in the morning, to the tune of negative teens with wind chill according to some weather sources. So I waited until afternoon to start the trip. As it was it only got up to 18 degrees as a high but with the terrain I was on it really didn’t seem that cold. This solo trip was more for conditioning and just to see what there was to see in this area than a serious hike. I know I plan on doing a few thru hikes on the full 10 miles of the Low Gap once the weather warms up a bit and I can do some camping in the backwoods. Definitely looking forward to that. But for now, I got a hell of a workout and some pretty awesome pictures.

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Winter Low Gap Trail: 1-10-2016

Low Gap Trail

My father and I hit the Low Gap Trail in the Morgan-Monroe State Forest (Martinsville, Indiana) this past Sunday for a short “get into the swing of things” hike.

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This was my first dedicated hike since I was a kid. We planned this out a week ahead when we heard that we were getting a decent amount of snow, in the hopes of seeing some of the Indiana backwoods in a different light; it didn’t disappoint. While we only actually went about a mile (maybe) into the Low Gap Trail, it was still a workout in the fresh snow. It’s a lot like walking up hills of very fine sand and would be challenging enough for someone in much better shape than myself. As it was, I sweat a lot, got out of breath, and was exhausted at the end of the trip. However we did take the opportunity to get some cool pictures of the scenery since we were the only ones out, aside from a couple of squirrels, in the aftermath of the snow storm. It was a short trip, but was definitely a fun way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

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Additional information and reviews of this trail are available at https://alltrails.com/explore/trail/us/indiana/rock-shelter

I don’t get paid to say that, I just enjoy the site.

Stepping back to me

unnamedWhen I was six, my family moved into a big white house on the edge of town, a mile north of the Wabash River. I was the younger of two boys, and we were lucky enough to have parents who settled into the neighborhood and became permanent fixtures there. Mom and dad are in their seventies now, still in the same house, still going strong but for some minor ailments.

I liked the house, liked my room, liked our yard and the neighborhood, but what I loved was the twenty acres of woods behind the house. There was a failed development between the back edge of our back yard and the beginning of the woods, only one house was built; when I was growing up, it was just a huge square grassy field. We played baseball and football in that field when the grass was short,until they stopped mowing it and it returned to nature.  Then when the grass got tall we bunched stalks of it and tied the tops together creating big grassy tunnels full of daddy long legs spiders.  Finally, saplings took root and begin to growing into a young forest itself, but that took years – the years after I grew up.  To me, that was always “the field” and what lay beyond was “the woods.”

The woods called my name.

I entered reverently, passing under the coolness of the canopy and into another world. It was a world I’d inhabit for the next twelve years. When I was six, those twenty acres seemed like their own country, and each year on the last day of school, I’d be gone. Riding my Murray Stingray up and down the hills, swimming in the creek, eating apples from wild apple trees, and setting up camp sites that would host overnights for a decade – too many memories to remember them all clearly because they all run together.

Until the day I went to college, I wanted nothing more than to be a Boy Scout, and I yearned for the day I’d turn ten and a half so I could ink that triplicate member application. To this day I can still remember the smell of at form because I held it up to my face and breathed in its official, business like smell like a bookworm might bury his face in a book. Nature was my book, my constant friend, my retreat. In the middle of that woods, there is a massive glacial pudding stone at the top of a small hill that leads down to the creek. To this day, it is my touch stone, and I’ve felt drawn to go and sit there and think before some of the most important decisions of my life.

I don’t even know who owns the property anymore, but it will remain forever mine in my memory.

Turning twenty, courting my wife, getting married, starting a family – all of these things took a toll on my outdoorsiness. There is a thirty year gap in my life that has been filled with good and bad things, but was almost completely devoid of just being outside in the wilderness I loved.

I turned fifty this past August, and I swear, the next thirty years will make up for the past thirty with a vengeance.

Getting ready for the AT

boxI spent an inordinate amount of time today getting ready to hike the Appalachian Trail (AT).  I don’t know when I’m going to accomplish it, but I know that I will.

How do I know that?

Because I’m planning to do it now.  Back in 2013, I was supposed to mobilize and deploy to Kuwait for a one-year support mission.  I was at pre-mobilization training (PMT) the summer of 2012, and they ended up cutting the mission in half, and decided not to send the surgeon section.  I was the 38th Division surgeon’s plans and operations officer, and ended up as part of the rear detachment.  Not fun stuff.  But I got to keep this cool green box in which I can store all of the stuff from my AT hiking equipment list.  I keep that checklist as a checklist in Evernote.  It is based on the advice of lots of folks who have already hiked the AT and learned lessons I don’t need to learn first-hand.  They learned what to take and what not to take,  I’m taking what they took. I’m not taking what they sent home or didn’t take.  Pretty easy math, huh?

So the time I spent today, what did I spend it doing?  Finding out what I already had, and putting that stuff in the big green box. Want to know what is in the BGB?

List:

I bought a synthetic short-sleeve button down shirt from Ex Officio a few months ago.  It rocks.  It’s made from recycled water bottles, and dries in about five minutes.

I have both a short and long sleeve moisture wicking compression shirt of the Under Armor brand.  They keep the sweat off of my skin and stop me from stinking in the pit area.

I’m taking a mid-weight synthetic long sleeve fleece top from Sierra Trading Post from my last employer.  It’s blue.  It’s warm.  It’s going.

I already had a pair of lightweight synthetic trekking pants that zip off at the knees.  Those will be my day-to-day bottom half outerwear, and they were produced for the Boy Scouts of America.  It’s my nod to the six excellent years I spent in the BSA, eventually winding up an Eagle Scout.

There was an optional line there for underwear, which on a hike are simply a bother.  Don’t tell my mom, but I’m going commando.

I also have a fleece toboggan of military heritage.  It’s camel brown and I love it.  I wear it everywhere in the winter.

I also have a Columbia Titanium sun hat that I bought before accompanying my son to the 100th Anniversary Camporee in the BSA National Capitol Region (NCR) at Goshen Scout Reservation.  

I’m indecisive on which pack I’ll carry, but I’m leaning toward the Osprey Atmos 65 AG pack at this point.  By the time I buy, they may have newer models out. We shall see.

I already have a great winter sleeping bag, the North Face Furnace, but it is much too warm for summer camping.  I’m sure I’ll carry it from Springer Mountain in late March or April until the end of May or so, at which point I’ll mail it home and possibly re-delivered further up the trail in September.  In the interim months, I’m looking at another North Face bag, the Aleutian 35, for the warmer months.

have in my possession right now a ThermaRest self-inflating air mattress that compresses down to just about nothing for packing.  That will be going with me.

The military was nice enough to let me keep my issued waterproof bag.  It is large enough to slip over a five gallon bucket, so it should store all of my stuff that has to stay dry.

I’m undecided on which tent I will pack.  I know I’m taking a fist sized hammock for the warmer months, but I’m debating whether to get an REI Quarter Dome 1 tent for regular use.  Of course, when I can stay in a shelter, I will, but when I can’t I will opt for the hammock or the tent.  Options, people, options.

Footwear?  I know I’ll probably go through three or four pair of shoes, but which shoes will they be?  Methinks Merrell Moab Ventilator mid-ankle hiking boots will do the trick, or possibly the low-rise shoes.  In any case, I know the inserts will be Superfeet premiums.  Heard enough trail tales to know that the only way to hike is over Superfeet.

Trekking poles?  Yes, I’ll have a pair.  Don’t know which ones yet and don’t care.

Headlamp?  Same deal.  The PX has a lot of really geared up options, so I may try out one or two of theirs.  They have a liberal return policy and there’s a PX only 20 miles from my house.  Within biking distance.

I had to turn in my military issue CamelBak water bladder system but I know I’ll be getting another one for the thru hike.

I will be cooking over the JetBoil Flash, which features both the burner and the 16 ounce cup and cosy and has been getting rave reviews.  I’m a peanut butter and banana kind of guy, so I know I’ll be packing lots of PB, and dehydrated banana chips along with oatmeal, cinnamon, and nuts for the most part, but I also have an ample supply of MREs to bounce down the trail from a long military career.  They keep for a long time.  You tear open the foil pack and sniff.  If it doesn’t stink, it’s still good and you eat it. If it stinks, you eat peanut butter.

My water will be purified, along the trail, by a Lifestraw personal water filtration unit.  I’ll also find an inline unit that has good reviews.

I’ve already picked out my Nalgene bottle, and it is in the BGB.

I also have a really nice single folding blade knife that my daughter found walking along the road one day.  It’s a Gerber it’s sharp enough to shave with.

My first aid kit already has mole skin for blisters, an assortment of bandages, salves, wipes, and OTC meds such as the indispensable Advil, Immodium, benadryl and pepto along with sunscreen, foot salve, and bug dope.  I’ll consult with my doc before the hike to get a round of broad spectrum antibiotics.

No hike would be complete without a map and compass.  I’ll also have a Garmin GPS unit if needed, and AWOL’s trail guide, so I should be fine.

You’ll be happy to know that I won’t be wearing deodorant or bathing regularly, but I will be bouncing lots of toiletries ahead of me so I can indulge when I hit a town.

I have a mini-moleskine notebook and an anti-gravity pen that writes on anything for those moments when a brilliant idea hits and the mobile phone is dead.

And of course my iPhone will be attending with me for taking video, pictures, journaling, and finding out where the hell I am if I get turned around.

I have a very nice set of sunglasses/protective eyewear from the military and it will be going with.

And for entertainment?  Kindle Paperwhite with charging cable and wall plug.  I already have a waterproof case in which to put it.

What if I don’t feel like reading in camp?

Hoyle.  All weather infrared readable playing cards.  Shelled out ten bucks for them a few years ago and friends, they work.  You can have a full blown Euchre tournament in the middle of the Hundred Mile Woods in the dead of night with a red flashlight.

I also bought a cheap harmonica so I can offend everyone I meet for the first month or so.  By then I should be playing like John Popper.

That is basically it.  Most of that stuff will be traveling on my back for about six months.

Do you think I’m “all in” enough?

I do.

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