Sunday, May 31, 2015

Backpack Evolution: Less is More

Do you want your backpacking experience to feel more like hiking and less like lugging your heavy load to the next campsite? One of the simplest ways to carry a lighter load is by carrying a smaller backpack. I know this sounds too obvious to mention, but it's a principle overlooked or ignored by most new hikers.

When shopping for a backpack, the voice of common sense says to make sure you get one big enough to carry all your stuff. And, when in doubt, size up for good measure. Obviously your backpack needs to hold everything you're taking with you. The problem is a big pack also encourages more stuff. More stuff equals more weight to lug down the trail. Nature abhors a vacuum, and empty space inevitably fills with "just in case" stuff. This leads naturally and relentlessly to a heavier load. More stuff equals more weight.

Below is a summary of my own backpack evolution from big and heavy to small and light. Now that my typical load is 19 or 20 lbs., it's hard to believe I used to carry as much as 44 lbs. Lighter is more fun, believe me.
2005 – Gregory Palisade (6 lbs, 14 oz.) 4800 cu.in.
2009 – Granite Gear Vapor Trail (2 lbs 7 oz) 3600 cu.in.
2015 – Mountain Laurel Designs Prophet (1 lb, 1 oz.) 2900 cu.in.
A large pack weighs more (sometimes a lot more), even when it's empty. A smaller pack weighs less and holds less, so you carry less. It's fairly simple.

Backpack Evolution (pictured left to right)
2005 Gregory Palisade, 2009 Granite Gear Vapor Trail, 2015 Mountain Laurel Designs Prophet

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Wild Journeys (Reflections from Savage Gulf, May 1-3, 2015)

Smoke curled from my tiny woodstove. I fed a few more thumb-sized pieces of pine into the fire, and the water in my pot jumped to exuberant dance. I poured some of the boiling water into a bowl of powdered milk and maple granola. More of the water I poured over a teabag and filled my waiting cup. A few minutes later, after eating and tidying up a bit, I took my tea and found a comfortable place to sit. I couldn’t imagine a better place for a morning break.

I sat at Rattlesnake Point, which at that moment seemed a rather ominous name for a spot so serene. As I sipped my morning tea, my view looked out over a sea of green waves beneath a clear blue sky. During the morning I had already walked through hemlock groves, marveled over Pink Lady’s Slipper orchids, and breathed a waterfall’s therapeutic atmosphere. Now I sat sipping tea and gazing down a forested gorge that was over 800’ deep and 5 miles long. This moment, this place, I wanted somehow to soak it in—to breathe and know this place with all of my senses. All I could do was sit and stare. I was enchanted.

This gorge is called Savage Gulf, and is one of many such gorges on the western edge of the Cumberland Plateau in Tennessee. I had camped the night before a couple miles away and had spent the morning exploring the area around Savage Falls, a 30’ drop on Savage Creek. All I could think about now was how thankful I was and how good it felt to be a part of this landscape. I had come to begin a quest, a new journey, to explore and breathe deeply of wild places.

A few months earlier I had committed to make room in my life for more backpacking, to make a conscious effort to get out on the trail regularly, to recognize I was created to be nature’s celebrant and reorder my priorities accordingly (see “Sauntering in a New Direction”). I had even resigned as Scoutmaster of Boy Scout Troop 17, because—although Scouting had me camping on a near-monthly basis—I was burned out from all the details and responsibilities of the job. Although Scouting gave me over a decade of introducing young boys to the outdoors, it also ironically kept me from my own dreams of outdoor adventures—especially backpacking. In preparation and as a commitment, I completely overhauled my kit to bring my pack weight into the ultralight category (my pack for this weekend was 19 lbs., including food and 2 liters of water). With my wife’s encouragement, I began penciling in trip dates on the calendar. I’d taken several long day hikes for conditioning, and now this trip to Savage Gulf was my first trip on this new journey.

From my vantage point over the gulf, I thought about what draws me to wilderness. Why was I here? Beautiful views like Savage Gulf are reason enough to hike. And there’s no doubt the physical challenge of backpacking is good for me. But the attraction to wilderness is clearly more than the fun of exercising in scenic places. I was here for reasons that are hard to understand, let alone explain to someone else. I was here to connect with—commune with—wild nature, and I was here for intangibles only found abundantly in wilderness: silence, solitude, simplicity, timelessness.  I know I must return to these ancient forested gorges soon and regularly. With this one hike behind me, I know my journey has just begun. In all seasons, and in all kinds of weather, I need to be in wild places. For my sanity, for my soul, I need them. Wilderness is a spiritual necessity.

Below are a few photos from the trip.
Access to these pictures and a few more can also be found here at Flickr.

Camp at Savage Station

Trillium catesbaei (Catesby's Trillium)

Aquilegia canadensis (Eastern Columbine, Wild Columbine)

Savage Creek just above the falls

Savage Creek just below the falls

Savage Falls

Cascades just above the falls on Savage Creek

Cypripedium acaule (Pink Lady's Slipper, Mocassin Flower)


Breakfast break

Viola hastata (Halberd-leaved Yellow Violet)

Rattlesnake Point looking into Savage Gulf

Savage Gulf overlook on the North Rim Trail

My bedroom for the night at Hobbs Cabin Campground
(Mountain Laurel Designs Grace Solo Tarp & Serenity Shelter)


Rubus argutus (Southern Blackberry)

Conopholis americana (Bear Root)

Fern Shadow

Calycanthus floridus (Sweetshrub, Carolina Allspice)

Polygonatum biflorum (Smooth Solomon's Seal)

Dry bed of Savage Creek (the creek itself runs underground here)

Selfie at overview looking down Coppinger Gulf

Rhododendron canescens (Mountain Azalea)

Viola pedata (Bird's-foot Violet)

Hypoxis hirsuta (Yellow Stargrass)

Trip Summary
  • Savage Gulf State Natural Area
  • 2 days, 2 nights (May 1-3, 2015)
  • 25 miles, solo, 19 lb backpack
  • Trailhead: Savage Gulf Ranger Station
  • Camp 1: Savage Station Campground; Camp 2: Hobbs Cabin Campground
  • Route: Start at Savage Gulf Ranger Station, Savage Gulf Day Loop, spur trail to Savage Falls, North Rim Trail, side trip on Connector Trail down into the gorge to Savage Creek and then back up again, North Plateau Trail back to Savage Gulf Ranger Station.