I retired from the Army in the Spring of 1999 and went to work with a friend from a previous assignment who had retired the year before. When he retired he had taken about six weeks off and started hiking the AT. He (trail name Troll) made it from Springer Mountain to just short of the Virginia State border during the Spring of 1998. His plan was to complete the AT by section hiking and weekend trips. I went out with him and another of his friends for a three day weekend trip from US Rte 60 to the Tye River Gap (Rte 56) during the summer of 1999. I have always enjoyed camping and the outdoors but hadn’t done any serious backpacking since I was a Boy Scout. I got the bug! Unfortunately, between requirements of the job and both of us having medical problems (he has degenerative arthritis in his hip and I had a bout with cancer in my right thigh) we weren’t able to get back to the trail.
Jack Tier (trail name Peter Pan) and I met through our wives back around the 1996 timeframe and our families rekindled their friendship after my retirement when we moved back to the Yorktown, VA area. We discussed hiking on a number of occasions while I was recovering from my cancer surgery during the Winter/Spring of 2000. Jack too had done a good deal of hiking growing up as well as some while raising his son. We finally planned a three day hike in Shenandoah National Park over several loop trails along the AT during the late Summer of 2001.
We loaded up with what gear we had – 3-5 pound packs, 3-5 pound sleeping bags, 5 pound tent, 2-3 pound self inflating pads, etc. and proceeded to tackle the loop trails in the central section of Shenandoah National Park. The AT through the park is a pretty nice hike. It’s mostly ridge walking and the trail is superbly groomed and well marked. The loop trails are also fairly well groomed and well marked but…they all originate at the Blueridge Parkway that parallels the AT, and proceed down to the valley to the east and back up to the Parkway. We picked a couple of those loops to do during the course of the weekend. At the lower end of the first loop is a trail that goes over the top of a mountain called Old Rag. The upper part of Old Rag is a rock scramble. Jack had done this trail a couple of times in his younger days and thought it was a fun trip. Key in on the term “younger”. Now we’re a couple of fifty-ish old farts who haven’t hiked in years and we’re carrying 35-40 pound packs up and down the mountains. We actually survived Old Rag in pretty good shape. However, the ensuing climb up White Oak Canyon back to the top of the ridge and the Parkway nearly killed us both. When we got to the top, we cut the trip short one day, spent the night in a motel, got a nice hot shower, went out and got a big steak dinner, and slept like babies that night. We drove home the next day and have never heard the end of it from our wives.
Lesson learned: There’s gotta be a better way!
Through Boy Scouts (both as a Scout and a Leader), a 23 year Army career, and a number of years of family camping, one of the principle lessons I’ve learned is that there is absolutely no reason to be uncomfortable when you go to the woods. Camping is not an exercise to see how much hardship one can endure. It’s supposed to be an enjoyable experience. If it’s not, why do it? We have clung to that basic tenet through our search for lighter, better ways to accommodate our passion to enjoy the wonders of hiking and surviving in the wilderness.
We began our quest to lighten our loads by doing some basic research. We searched the internet for lightweight hiking sites and read Jardine’s book, “Beyond Backpacking”. We didn’t buy in to the whole ultra-light concept initially but tried to apply the principles to our style of hiking. We refused to compromise on either comfort or safety, and whenever possible looked for multiple use items. What goes in your pack to be carried on your back is a matter of personal preference. What works for one person may not be the optimal solution for the next guy. The adage “hike your own hike” applies to what goes in your pack as well – pack your own pack.
Through our initial research we learned that the place to start lightening our loads was to eliminate unnecessary stuff and to attack the big three: backpack, shelter, and sleeping bag. We also discovered that this could become an expensive enterprise real fast if we tried to replace all our gear with commercially available lightweight equipment. So, we spread the pain out over a couple of years and our Christmas and birthday lists became populated with lightweight hiking and camping gear. However, the big ticket items remained a problem.
Internet searches continually came across people making their own gear. Neither of us had any experience with sewing, but Jack had a couple of yards of military spec, 3 ply GorTex® that he proposed we use to make our own backpacks. Eventually, he convinced me we could do this. He scrounged up pieces and parts from book bag backpacks he found in thrift shops and we proceeded to design a backpack. My wife showed me the basics of how to use her sewing machine and we went to work. In the end, we surprised ourselves. The result was a one pound frameless pack with 3000 cubic inches of internal capacity plus an additional 750 cubic inches of mesh pockets on the outside. It was completely waterproof and had all the functionality we wanted. And, amazingly, it looked pretty good. Final price for two backpacks was a little over $20 each.
Our next project was transitioning to hammocks. I have a couple of army survival hammocks that we used on our family camping outings for lounging around the campsite. They’re simple mesh hammocks that roll up to the size of a softball. I didn’t advocate them as a solution in and of themselves, but as we started discussing tarps for shelter instead of tents, the idea of getting off the ground was intriguing. Then we came across the Amazona from Byer in one of the local A&N stores. $18 for an 11 ounce hammock. The only problem was bug protection. We’d had a bad experience with bugs on our first hike when we made camp down in one of the valleys in Shenandoah National Park. I wasn’t going to convert to tarp camping unless we could solve the bug problem. Our solution was to order some no-see-um netting from Outdoor Wilderness Fabric and attach it to the Amazona. We sewed it on each end and used Velcro down both sides so you could get in the hammock from either side. A gross grain ribbon loop on top attached to a centerline cord between the hammock end loops held the netting up. (Interestingly, Byer has done the same thing now sewing the netting on three sides and using a zipper down one side for access. Their model sells for about $40.)
During the Christmas holidays in 2001 we took an overnight trip down to a local camp ground on the James River to test our new gear. Temperatures were in the low twenties. We hiked in, had lunch along the way to try some different food options, spent the night and hiked back out the next day. The packs were great and the hammocks were infinitely better for comfort than sleeping on the ground. However, this was when we discovered the difficulty in insulating the underside of the hammock. We each had our Therm-a-Rest® pads but discovered the difficulty of keeping them under you when sleeping on the diagonal of a hammock. We also learned the truth about the lack of insulating capability of a sleeping bag compressed under your body weight not to mention the difficulty of wriggling into your bag inside the hammock while trying to keep the pad underneath you. This would ultimately lead to our next project – our first down quilts.
We struggled with the idea of making our own quilts for quite awhile. The idea of eliminating about half of the sleeping bag was really intriguing, but the thought of trying to manage that thin, slippery material while sewing, and then having to deal with the down made this an intimidating project, to say the least. None the less, we finally decided to try it. The sewing itself turned out to be not as difficult as we had imagined. All of the seams are straight lines. Handling the down was initially a comedy to behold. But once we got the process figured out, it wasn’t as bad as we had anticipated either. We closed off a bathroom, cleared all the counters, and taped over all the vents and doors. We took the vacuum into the bathroom with us and set the sewing machine up in the hallway outside. I can’t imagine how some of these guys do this in tents! Once again we surprised ourselves with the quality of the result. We still consider our 24 oz., 78”x 48”x 2.5” quilts to be our finest piece of gear.
Our next outing was another loop trail in Shenandoah National Park over Memorial Day weekend. We slept in the modified Amazonas and used a piece of fleece for insulation attached to the underside of the hammock with Velcro and a piece of milar also attached with Velcro under the fleece for reflectivity. The fleece had a head hole and doubled as a serape for the mornings and evenings. The system worked but the milar proved to be way too fragile and the Velcro attachment system left a lot to be desired. The fleece serape however, was a wonderful addition to the pack.
Over the 2002 4th of July weekend we did a three day section in New York. We started at the Bear Mountain Bridge just south of West Point, NY and hiked north to Rte 52 near Storm Mountain in East Fishkill, NY. That part of NY was beautiful and we had perfect weather. Jack had converted to an Army Jungle Hammock and was using a set of cut down closed cell pads that formed a T across his shoulders and down his spine. I was still in the Amazona but was using the fleece serape underneath me inside the hammock. In the summer weather both systems worked, but neither of them were very convenient.
By now we had been working on this problem of lightening our packs for a year and the results (lighter weight and less volume) were telling in our inability to fill our backpacks. We were down to around 25 pounds (including food, fuel, and water) for a three day weekend. Our clothing had progressed from cotton and wool to polyester, nylon and lightweight fleece. Our kitchen gear had gone from a whisper light to a snowpeak and from a stainless steel pot set to a single titanium pot. Cooking consisted of boiling water. Nalgene bottles were replaced by hydration systems and we only carried a quart of water (2 lbs.) at a time. Water purification had progressed from a PUR Hiker through a homemade system to the 0.4 ounce Gatekeeper by TFO. Our tarps had gone from various sizes of polyethylene and coated nylon to 8’x10’ silnyl. Ropes became cords. Flashlights went from MagLite AAs to MagLite AAAs to photons. The bottom line was that because of the reduced weight and reduced volume – we needed a smaller backpack. We found some more GorTex® and went back to the sewing machine.
The new pack came in at 24 ounces and 2350 cubic inches of internal volume with the same 750 in outside mesh pockets. The added weight came from an integral back pad. We tried them out on a November trip in Shenandoah National Park. It was a simple hike in, overnight, and hike out. The weather was rainy and cold and down right miserable but we were well prepared and the new packs were marvelous. They rode very nicely on our backs and easily held all our gear. We were still struggling with cut down, closed cell, foam pads in our hammocks, which was less than ideal, but they did allow us to get through the night.
On March 25, 2003, Jack started his section hike at Springer Mountain. It would culminate in mid-May at Pearsburg, VA. In the first couple of days of the hike, he teamed up with three other age 55+ gentlemen and they became affectionately known on the trail as “The Geezers” – Peter Pan, Finch, Dreamwalker, and Kiwi. Jack started the trip with his military jungle hammock but after a few weeks began noticing wear on the end cords. He bought a Hennessy Ultralite Backpacker A-Sym at the outfitters in Hot Springs and sent the jungle hammock home. For bottom insulation he was still using a cut down closed cell foam pad. I drove to Pearsburg after work on the 17th of May to meet Jack and the other Geezers and spend the weekend at Trail Days in Damascus. We had a great weekend. Tom Hennessy was offering a deal on the Ultralite Backpacker A-Sym that I couldn’t pass up. That purchase completed our conversion to the Hennessy. Jack (Peter Pan) had to come off the trail in May due to other commitments. The remaining three Geezers all finished Katahdin within days of each other. Dreamwalker and Finch finished together on the 17th of September.
When we were chatting with Tom Hennessy at Trail Days, he suggested the best solution he had found to the underside insulation problem was a windshield reflector made of a thin sheet of foam with a reflective silver laminate. We found them in the automotive section at K-Mart and cut them down to an appropriate size. Armed with this new protective capability we went out for a week long trek the length of Shenandoah National Park in September 2003. We hiked from the Northern most AT crossing of the Parkway (Compton Gap) south to I-64 and Rockfish Gap. The windshield pads were good for most of the week, but a couple of chilly evenings (overnight lows in the 50s) toward the end of the week reminded us we still needed to solve the underside insulation problem. We began designing our first under quilts when we got back and ordered the materials in early October.
In mid-October we were able to get out for a weekend hike from Rockfish Gap to the Tye River while we were waiting for the materials for our quilts to arrive. Our gear list had become pretty stable and for the first time we weren’t testing something new. The windshield pads were still adequate but we knew they were not the ideal solution.
When you take a detailed, analytical look at the Hennessy Hammock you discover that the asymmetry is sort of an illusion. The hammock itself is a 60 inch wide, rectangular piece of nylon. The ends are gathered in a pleated fashion and the ropes are attached directly to the nylon. The asymmetry comes from the bug netting and creation of the side tie-outs. The bottom line is that a rectangular quilt, gathered on the ends, will match up to a rectangular hammock. You don’t have to create a special shape or put darts in the ends of the under quilt. The hammock doesn’t have darts! Draw strings on the ends of the quilt close up the sag on the ends. A rectangular quilt has the added benefit of being usable if for any reason you have to go to ground. The way the hammock hangs under a load leaves a lot of loose material on each side. This is what enables a 48 inch wide quilt to match up to a 60 inch wide hammock. A 72 inch length with a 48 inch width creates about an 86 inch diagonal which should provide adequate coverage for most people lying on the diagonal in the hammock. A Velcro closure on a slit in the quilt facilitates the Hennessy entrance, attaches to the Velcro on the Hennessy slit, or can be closed to form a rectangular quilt. Attachment to the hammock can be done with either buttons or some sort of clip at several points along each side with minimum modifications required to the hammock. That’s what we built. When we tested them in our backyards it was amazing. You could actually feel the warmth as soon as you laid down.
We went back to our cold weather test range, the James River Camp Ground, for an overnight trial in January 2004. The temperature was in the low 30s with an overnight low in the upper 20s and a wintry mix was predicted over night. The under quilts worked GREAT! We went to bed around 7:00 and talked for awhile marveling at our comfort. I finally went to sleep around 9:00 and woke up at 5:00 the next morning. That was the first time I’d ever slept straight through the night. Eight hours of solid sleep – no nature calls during the night! We learned two things from that trip: 1) the under quilt is THE solution to the underside insulation problem, and 2) the Hennessy tarp is insufficient in inclement weather. It turned out what woke me at 5:00 in the morning was cold feet because when the predicted rains came, the foot end of my under quilt got wet. We’ve since gone back to our 8’x10’ silnyl tarps and we’re investigating other alternatives.
O K. We’ve found what we believe to be the best solution. How do we get the word out to the hammocking community? And, recognizing that not everyone is going to take up sewing to make their own, are we willing to take that project on and provide that service? Our lives are pretty full as it is. And we’d like to be able to find more time for hiking. Then there are all the issues, known and unknown, about starting a business. We’re not entrepreneurs. We’re both retired Army officers. In the end we decided we really believe in our quilts so we put out a few feelers (Whiteblaze.com) and will test the waters with a limited quantity at Trail Days.