He could be intelligent. He might be productive. But he’s still just a primate with a powertool.

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Falling Into Winter: Backpacking in November, Part I

It started off like most camping trips: talk of gear and schedules, repeated trips to REI, and sugar plums dancing through our heads.  We had 4 guys, gear, and a plan.  Originally, we had picked a section of the Superior Hiking Trail for this trip, but the deer hunting opener was the same weekend as our scheduled hike.  Much of the facilities/parks along the trail were closed for The Opener, and advice seemed to steer us away.  We couldn’t move the date up due to other commitments, and we didn’t want to push it any closer to winter, so the location had to change.  Josh, had been following a fellow (shugemery) on the YouTubes a bit, and he had a few appealing videos on the Snowbank Lake Trail.  A small discussion, a few clicks around the interwebs, and we were inspired.

Snowbank Lake Trail

The Plan

The plan was to leave The Twin Cities on Friday at 4:00pm, hit Ely at 8:00pm, grab some late dinner and then arrive at the trailhead about 10:00pm.  From there we would hike the estimated 5-6 miles in about 3 hours, set up camp, and be asleep by 2:00am.  Saturday, we would hike 10 to 12 miles, depending on the route, and then finish up on Sunday with another 8 to 10 miles.  That sounded perfectly fun and delightful.  Checking the weather early in the week, it looked like temperatures would cooperate and be pleasant for the weekend.  On Thursday, the forecast shifted just slightly, adding a prediction of less than an inch of light snow and temps around freezing.  If only that would have been true.

Friday arrived and things were going as planned.  Josh, Torry, Cooper, and I departed; traffic was a non-issue, and as we neared Ely, flurries appeared in the headlights.  Over an inch had accumulated by the time we pulled into the Ely DQ parking lot, and the first winter snowfall was in full swing for the last leg to the trailhead.  Thick, wet snow-covered the road and provided a couple of exciting moments as we finished our drive (note to self: truck beds need weight for traction).

Ely Snowy Drive

Flurries?

Once at the trailhead, we suited up and headed out fairly quickly.  The temperature was probably in the lower thirties which made the three-ish inches of snow cling to everything.  We set out with high spirits and dry feet, and started covering ground (except for when Josh had to go back to the truck).  The fresh snow didn’t mask the trail too heavily, and it felt like we were moving pretty quickly.

Snowbank Lake Trail

Snowy Night Hike

A couple of hours in, previous warnings would prove themselves relevant.  The trail would occasionally disappear from beneath our feet.  Due to the cloud cover and precipitation, we were in pitch darkness.  We could only see the distance our headlamps would illuminate, 20 to 30 feet if we were lucky.  We were mostly just navigating by faith: following the trail, believing that it would lead us to our campsite.  We used a McKenzie Map (number 9) of the area and a compass for general navigation, and a pre-downloaded map of the area (iPhone) for rough GPS assistance.  There were a couple of situations in which we found ourselves really scratching our heads.  The trail not-so-clearly crossed over beaver dams that appear to have been added after the map was printed.  (It’s a feature!)  In one instance, the trail actually lead straight into the pond created by one of the dams.  We burned at least an hour “navigating”, waffling, discussing, and backtracking throughout the night.

Snowbank Lake Trail Creek Crossing

Creek Hopscotch

Wet snow, sleet, rain, and creek crossings took its toll on us.  Once we hit 1am (when we thought we would be in camp) we started to question where the hell we were.  According to the GPS, we were only HALF WAY!  We were heads down without conversation, trying to cover ground.  Morale was low.  After a failed attempt at a shortcut, Josh said what we were all thinking.  We decided that our goal would change from hiking all the way around Snowbank Lake, to just getting to the campsite and re-evaluating.  Instead of a loop hike, perhaps an in-and-out hike was in order.  Spirits immediately rose. Despite being wet all over, things seemed better.

Snowbank Lake Trail Snowy Night

All smiles… we can change that.

We reached the area where we knew our campsite was, but as it was back off the trail a ways, we couldn’t find it.  In the daylight we would find that there was a signpost and a trail leading directly there, but we missed it in the darkness.  We settled to just to bushwhack until we came across it.  Within a couple of minutes I stumbled across the latrine.  From there, the rest of the site was easy to find.  With wetted out pants and cold feet, we arrived at our campsite at about 4am.  Two of us were pretty cold, so we set out to make a fire.  As everything was soaked, getting a fire going wasn’t easy.  We managed a small fire while the two least-wet hikers set up the tents.

We settled in for the night, hoping dryer clothes, tents, and sleeping bags would bring warmth and sleep.  The day was a lesson in patience, persistence, and adaptability.  The group was tired and uncomfortable, but we never broke down.  Hiking through this terrain in a wintry mix at night was challenging and awesome.  It adds a completely different perspective, both alluring and ominous.

Snowbank Lake Trail Darkness

Into the darkness

Stay tuned for Part II: Camp Day and Getting Home.

GORUCK GR1: Sternum Strap and Grimlocks

One of the few things the GORUCK GR1 is lacking is a sternum strap.  A sternum strap is a key feature when carrying heavy loads for an extended period of time.  It allows your shoulders to relax a little and stabilizes the load.  Add-on sternum straps are actually kind of hard to find.  I was surprised when the local REI said they no longer stock them.  The gentleman working the rental counter was kind enough to help me find some parts to piece one together, and I’m very happy with the results.

GORUCK GR1 Sternum Strap Grimlocks

The key to sternum strap placement is not positioning it too low on your chest and not overtightening it.  Otherwise, it will make it difficult for you to fully expand your lungs and rib cage.  I like it as high as I can get it without touching my neck, just below where your collar bones connect to your sternum.  Tightening the strap too much will place a lot of load on your chest as well.  I like to add just a bit tension to it so the shoulder straps are held in place without any effort from my shoulders.  The nice thing is that the sternum strap is easily adjusted on the fly.  I find myself constantly varying it for comfort.  Having the ability to make small adjustments goes a long way in making prolonged use comfortable.

The sternum strap had a plastic clip for retaining the drinking tube, but about 20 minutes into our mini-ruck, it was gone.  It was sheared off taking the pack on and off.  The kind of activities found in the challenge will certainly weed out items not fit for abuse.

A set of grimlocks on the shoulder straps also make great ways to restrain the drinking tube.  It’s easy to open and close and is rated at an 80 pound breaking strength.  These won’t replace a set of carabiners, but they are very convenient for smaller/lighter items.

GORUCK Training: Organized “Dry” Run

GORUCK Challenge Packing List

Last weekend, a GORUCK Challenge veteran was awesome enough to take a group of us rookies through the paces for about 4 hours.  It wound up being a great fitness check and gear test.  The weather was going to be challenging, probably my least favorite condition: precipitation and just warm enough not to snow.  It was about 34 degrees and raining for most of our mini tour of St. Paul.  With the weather forecast showing little indication of a warm-up for our Challenge at the end of the month, I think this will be nearly the same gear I will carry.

Primary Gear:

  • Merino Wool Base Layer
  • Merino Wool Kirkland(Costco) Sweater
  • Sierra Designs Hurricane Rain Jacket
  • REI Briefs
  • Solomon 3/4 Trail Running Tights
  • Mountain Hardwear Softshell Pants
  • IceBreaker Merino Wool Ski Socks
  • New Balance MT100 Trail Shoes
  • GORUCK TAC Hat (not pictured)
  • GORUCK GR1 Backpack
  • Blackburn HydraSak  Bladder
  • Petzel Tika Headlamp
  • Ansell Work Gloves
  • Sea to Summit Lightweight Dry Sac
  • Simple First-aid Kit: athletic tape, gauze, antibiotic ointment
  • Wallet, cash, cell phone
  • Panasonic Lumix DMC-TS4 Waterproof Camera

Snacks:

  • Water
  • Hammer Gel Shots
  • Perpetuem Solids
  • Generic LED Headlamp

Secondary Gear (carried, but not used):

  • Smartwool Beanie
  • Seirus All Weather Gloves
  • Extra Snacks

The only thing I am planning to change at this point is my backup set of gloves.  The Seirus All Weather Gloves probably don’t have the durability for the Challenge, despite being my favorite biking, running, multi-purpose winter gloves.  I was quite happy with how my gear performed in the cold rain.  My feet and hands got cold when we stopped at the end, but other than that, I was comfortable.  My rain jacket and softshell pants kept me dry, but still provided ample breathe-ability.  I can’t say enough about how much I love Merino Wool.  It’s by far my favorite fabric.  The biggest surprise was how great the GORUCK TAC hat was in these conditions.  It kept enough of the rain off my head, but vented enough to keep me from being uncomfortable.

GORUCK Training

Our (no so) dry run began at 4PM at a somewhat random street corner in St Paul, near Harriet Island.  Our stand-in cadre gave us a quick rundown on what we can expect, both that evening and during the actual Challenge.  Much of what we did that evening was to be expected, a little PT (much more to be expected during the Challenge), rucking up and down, buddy carries, etc.  But we also worked on some finer details.  The biggest thing our guide tried to drive home was teamwork.  “The sooner you gel as a team, the easier life will be.”  One of my favorite things he said was “if one of you has water, you all have water”.  He wanted us to be prepared to share everything: food, water, and workload.

Another thing he wanted us to do was think.  We were assigned missions, and we needed to use our resources to accomplish them in the allotted time.  We weren’t always given all of the info immediately, and sometimes it didn’t provide clear direction.  Our sensei wanted us to think through what we were doing and go about it logically.  Don’t assume anything, and ask questions.

After spending a few hours in the rain with some new friends, I am more excited than ever to start the Challenge.  I have no doubt that it will be hard, but that’s what makes it worth doing.

NB MT100 and REI Gaiters, Revisited… and Pants

New Balance MT100 REI Gaiters

Late winter is a wonderful time in the northern Midwest: temperatures rise, the roads clear, and the clouds give way to the sun… but not yet.  March began with a 9 inch snowfall, on top of the foot or so of snow already on the ground.  I decided that the additional snow warranted the (not so stylish) use of my REI Trail Running Gaiters.  I have also been running in my New Balance MT100 trail running shoes for the last couple of weeks.  I have been mixing them in with my Merrell Road Gloves, mostly while training for the GORUCK Challenge.  I thought I’d write-up a little long-term review of the minimalist NB trail shoes and REI gaiters to follow-up on my review over three years ago.

New Balance MT100

The MT100 trail running shoes have proven themselves quite durable.  With over three years of moderate trail use, they have worn incredibly well.  That is one of the side benefits of trail running, shoes can last many years with little wear.  This particular pair have been through a number of trail races and countless training days.  Although, in the last year they have seen little use due to my preference for zero-drop shoes.  After primarily running in Vibram FiveFingers and Merrell Road Gloves for the last two years, the minimal heel lift (around 4mm, I believe) is noticeable.  But I have found a great use in them when running with my loaded ruck for the GORUCK Challenge.  I don’t know if they will see much use after The Challenge, as I prefer the Road Gloves and FiveFingers.  For those looking for a shoe to help them transition to minimalist running, this is still a great option.

REI Gaiters in the snow

I have become a huge fan of the REI Trail Running Gaiters.  The softshell material has held up well to a few years of trail running and winter use.  They are comfortable against the skin in the summer, and as pictured above, do a  great job of keeping snow out of pants and shoes in the winter.  And though the fresh snowfall made my run require a little more effort, my feet and ankles were comfortable.

Sporthill ATV Pants

And lastly I wanted to give a quick plug for my favorite winter running pants: Sporthill ATV II pants.  I don’t believe they are made anymore, and seem to be hard to find, but the key to the greatness of these pants is the 3SP fabric used by Sporthill.  Sporthill still offers a number of pants made with the fabric.  The fabric is very soft and comfortable, dries very fast, is windproof to 35MPH, and highly breathable.  I’ve worn them from rain in the low 30s to single digits (with a base layer under).  I find them too warm for temps above 35F or so, but that’s not really what they’re meant for.

So there it is.  Who cares if the snow hasn’t cleared yet?  Screw your shoes or throw on some Ice Trax (or just be careful), dress right, and go run.

GORUCK Challenge Training: Snow Ruck

GORUCK GR1 Coupon Snow

My girlfriend, Sandy, lives in the woods.  She’s not really a girl, or a friend.  Sandy is a 60 pound sandbag that sleeps next to a downed tree in Lone Lake Park.  Today’s workout brought me to those woods to lift Sandy from the snow, and carry her up and down a few hills, lift overhead, and drop (repeatedly).  Hill climbs, squats, push-ups, lunges, more overhead carries, box jumps, and bear crawls made up my lunch hour today.  With only four weeks until the Challenge, I feel the need to step up my training efforts.  Experienced Ruckers have said that squats, push-ups, and shoulder presses are good areas to focus.  That’s good to know, because my upper body strength is probably lacking.

GORUCK GR1 hydration tube attachment

I added my 70 ounce hydration bladder to the GORUCK GR1 this weekend, and it added a bit of weight, bringing my total pack weight to about 38 pounds.  I used a short length of twine to secure the hydration tube; I should probably look for something more durable and permanent before the event.

The Minneapolis Challenge teams are planning a mini-ruck this weekend, a great gear test and a 3-4 hour taste of what the Challenge will offer.  It will be interesting to do a full load and see how it all fits and carries.

GORUCK Training: Carry Your Stones

GORUCK Stone Training

Saturday was a perfect day to visit Lake Calhoun, take in the sites, and carry 60 to 70 pounds of extra weight.  In preparation for the GORUCK Challege, a buddy and I met for a couple of laps around Minneapolis’ best known lake. Josh has put together a flag that we’ll likely use for the challenge, and we took it for the first 3 mile lap around the lake with our loaded rucks (bricks and bladders, equal about 40 lbs).  For some reason, you get a lot of comments and looks when you run with a 3′ X 5′  American Flag.

In the Challenge, the team has to provide and carry a 25 pound team weight as well as other coupons deemed necessary. So, it’s not just enough to prepare to carry you loaded pack, but also be prepared to carry additional items, and sometimes people.

For the second lap Josh had a couple of coupons: an extra pack with another six bricks in it and a stone of similar weight.  We each took one coupon and traded back and forth throughout the second 3 miles.  We weren’t allowed to use the straps to hold the extra pack, and the stone is an obvious pain in the ass to carry.  As Josh warned me, the first mile wasn’t difficult; the second mile started to wear on me; the third mile pretty much sucked.

It was an afternoon of good livin’, and I’m excited for more.

Late Winter Commuting: More with Schwalbe Marathon Winters

Winter Commuting Bike

Late winter has arrived in the Twin Cities.  For bike commuting, this means a mix of all conditions.  The morning ride was a pleasant 24 degrees, and the evening return felt spring-like at 35 degrees.  The freeze and thaw cycles create the full spectrum of challenging winter road conditions: glare ice, inches of powder, re-frozen crust, and the best of all, powder on top of ice.

My commute is mostly on well maintained bike trails, so there was a lot of clear asphalt, but even that had streaks of glare ice across it.  Once again, the Schwalbe Marathon Winter studded tires were amazing.  I could ride with confidence across glare ice and even brake with control.  I got to the point where I was seeking out stretches of ice to see what I could get away with.  It was remarkable.

Schwalbe Marathon Winter ice skid

The picture above is from one section of ice that I actually locked up the rear wheel to see how it would react.  Without studs, this would lead to total loss of control (ask me how I know), but with the Marathon Winters, it was predictable and controlled.  Full disclosure: these are my first pair of studded tires, so perhaps this is nothing that remarkable for any studded tire, but I’m very satisfied.

The Marathon Winters make fantastic winter commuting tires.  The studs are arranged to give a clear center strip for less stud wear and better rolling efficiency, but still close enough to the contact patch to provide that delightful whir and traction.  The reflective sidewalls are a nice commuter touch too.  I hope they keep making them, because I plan on buying them again when these wear out.

Enter The GR1

GORUCK Box

For a handful of reasons, I decided to pick up a GORUCK GR1.  It arrived at the end of last week, and like a giddy schoolboy, I unboxed it (and my new GR TAC) and wore it empty around my office.  (not really) ((ok, yeah, I did))

I’m not going to go into crazy detail about unboxing, and it’s features, because if you know how to use Google, you can see it’s been done many times already:  (here, here, here)  I’ll just throw a couple of pics up and compare it to my existing JanSport backpack (which was also made in the USA).

GORUCK GR1 vs JanSport

Side by side with my old JanSport pack, the GR1 is similar in size.  The straps are much beefier, with slightly wider padding and several more bartacks.  My JanSport hadn’t failed in any manner, the main signs of stress are on the attachment point of the shoulder straps.  The threads are stretched, but nowhere near failure.

GORUCK GR1

Don’t worry, the fake mustaches will make the transition to the new pack.  As all of the reviews have stated, the finishing inside and out of this bag is top-notch.  My immediate impression is that I will miss the compression straps and will need to add a sternum strap.

GORUCK GR1 loaded with Bricks

 

With the bricks loaded (and a foam canoe block), the pack is stable with what seems like plenty of room for the rest of the gear needed for the challenge.  I’m looking forward to breaking it in this week.  I’ll post again if I come across anything noteworthy.

Personal Responsibility: Own your mistakes

Personal ResponsibilityThe Art of Manliness has another great post about being a better man person, being open minded, and taking responsibility for your actions.  A good reminder is always needed.

If we can’t accurately perceive who we are, how we behave (and how others behave towards us), and how our behavior affects others and our own lives, life will always feel like something that’s happening to us, rather than something we are in control of.

-Personal Responsibility 102: The Importance of Owning Up to Your Mistakes and How to Do It

GORUCK, you win

GORUCK Brave Charlotte

I originally had reservations about shelling out the fairly serious cash for a GORUCK GR1, but after reading this post, I want them to have my money.  It’s an American company that behaves like I wish more companies did, making an American product with American workers, and caring for fellow humans.  ‘Merica.  (removes hand from chest)

To my JanSport pack, I have nothing but kind words to say.  It’s not you, it’s me.  You performed admirably, and I spared you no abuse.  You have slid around my truck bed for months taking great care of my bricks, but I have move on… I guess.

So I’m drinking the Kool-aid.  It better be the awesomeness that everyone proclaims.  I have 44 days to get my GR1, break it in, and figure out my kit.  Here’s to good livin’!

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