Afton Shakedown - What went right... and what went wrong.

If I learned one thing from my one-night stand at Afton State Park, it's this: it's always important to test your gear before heading out with it on a longer trip.

My aim with this overnighter was to test out some of the new gear I'd accumulated but not had a chance to use yet. I wanted to get a sense of how it all worked together to be better acquainted with the skills I'd need on a more demanding trip.

This was a very simple overnighter to what the park service calls a 'remote' camp site, almost a whole mile away from the car park. At the weekend the camp sites are overrun with people dragging giant coolers up the steep path, but during the week it is pleasantly empty, and in many ways is an ideal place to test out gear. If everything goes to pot, you can easily bail out.

So, let's take a look at what I was trying out, and see how I fared.

Temperatures on this trip were in around 30C in the evening, dropping to a cooler 15C around 3am. There was no rain, but humidity was very high at 90%.

Clothing

I got a Haglöfs Intense synthetic tee for my birthday, and I felt obliged to try it out instead of taking my usual merino tee. Big mistake. The material didn't seem to be particularly breathable, nor very good at wicking. A cold sweat made my back feel clammy for hours until I eventually decided to take the shirt off and risk the wrath of the mosquitoes. After that, my back dried off nicely. I don't really know what climate or activity this shirt was designed for, but "intense" would appear to me something of a misnomer. I won't be using it for hiking again.

On the positive side...

My inov-8 Roclite 295s were fantastic. I felt like I was walking on air! These are very light shoes, and extremely comfortable. I went for a walk around one of the trails to give them more of a test, and found that most of the time I wasn't even aware that I was wearing shoes. I still need to get them wet and see how I cope in those circumstances, but for grip, comfort and weight I've never been happier.

My Montane wind shirt saw some brief use in the morning, fending off a slight chill and mist. I didn't use my Montbell ExLight down jacket, however it didn't really significantly impact my pack weight, and I'd rather carry it just in case than not at all.

What did impact my pack weight was the 5 liters of water I had to carry because the pump on the prairie was broken, and there was no other water supply conveniently near. Fortunately I knew about this in advance and too a MSR UL Dromedary with me.

Another pointlessly carried item was my book (Margaret Atwood - The Year of the Flood, for those interested!) which, of course, I never read. I should know by now that I never read when backpacking. There is always something to do around camp, or somewhere to explore, or something to think about or look at.

Shelter

I took my SpinnTwinn with me to see how I managed with it. I could have taken my DuoMid, but to be honest it was so hot and humid, I really appreciated the openness of the tarp. The DuoMid gets incredibly hot inside in the sun, and my chosen site didn't have much shade. That was intentional on my part though - I wanted views across the prairie.

I used my GG LT4 poles to put the SpinnTwinn up, having marked the correct height on one pole earlier. The rear pole, when collapsed, is 1cm over the recommended height, so I just added 1cm to the recommended height of the front pole.

The LT4s are very nice poles. They are so light when walking you hardly notice them. They obviously gave my upper body a nice workout though, judging by the aches I had yesterday.

I noticed that the extended front pole didn't lock fully under the pressure of the tarp. I had to tighten the lock several times to get a secure lock. Because the carbon fiber poles are so lightweight I was worried that over-tightening might crack them. To get a truly secure lock I had to tighten them a lot, and even then they still slipped a few millimeters.

For stake out points I used Vargo Ti Stakes. These were fine for the corner and side wall guys, but for the front and rear poles I swapped them out for a couple of Easton 9" Alu round stakes, which were much more secure.

My plan was to stake out the corner guys, and then adjust them using the linelocs to get a nice taut pitch. I found that whenever I tightened one corner -- FTWANG -- the opposite corner would slip in the lineloc. Quite annoying after the fifth time. I put this down to the width of the guy cord. I was using the cord provided with the tarp by Gossamer Gear. It seems a little too narrow to fully lock in the linelocs.

 In the end this wasn't a problem as I just used them at full length, which might well be the thing to do in the future anyway. You can still re-pitch it close to the ground if necessary. The other alternative is to use thicker, heavier cord. Still, I was happy with the pitch.

Sleeping under the SpinnTwinn is a very special experience. It was very nice to look out from under it and see all around. Fireflies were buzzing around, the stars were out, and in the morning a little mist rose off the dew-covered grass.

The tarp was covered in condensation both inside and out, but in humid conditions like that, that's to be expected.

Sleeping

It was so hot I only needed my GoLite Ultralite Three-Season around 3am, and I found it quite ideal. I still need to test it in more demanding conditions to get a full sense sleeping under it.

As for the TiGoat Ptarmigan bivy... well. That wasn't so successful. To start with the positive notes, it was very breathable, and I slept most of the night using only that as a cover and bug protection.

I took a NeoAir Small pad with me, and this was where the problems began. Although it fits inside, the bivy seems to be designed mainly for closed cell foam pads. The height of the air mattress pushed me too close to the top of the bag, limiting my movement. As a frenetic side sleeper, this was annoying. I just couldn't get comfortable. I tried moving the pad under the bivy, but then it just slid around all over the place.

I didn't find the short length of the pad too annoying, but I did notice my back ached the next day.

It seems that, for me at least, I need a full length pad that fits inside a bivy which has enough of a "bucket-floor" to accommodate the pad and quilt, and still allow some extra space above my head when the hood is lifted.

The issue was exacerbated when I added my pillow, raising my head even further.

And then things got really bad.

Yep. The sodding bug netting tore.

The Ptarmigan Bivy is, in other respects, very well made. If you are using a CCF mat, are not too tall, sleep on your back, and don't move around much, it's pretty nice - and a bargain price. However... the way the tie-out loop is attached to the fragile bug netting is really weak.

To give TiGoat credit, they have agreed to repair it free of charge, but in my opinion, this is a design flaw.

I've been looking at the MLD Superlight bivy as a replacement, and from what I can see, the tie-out loop on that is attached to a stronger material crossing the width of the hood - a much more sensible design. The thing I like about the Ptarmigan bivy is that you can roll back the waterproof hood allowing you to choose, according to conditions,  on either a fully waterproof hood,  a full bug netting hood, or half and half. With the MLD Superlight it seems to be wither a full netting hood, or a small "half-moon" netting window. I like the visibility provided by a full-net hood, but I'd also like the flexibility of a waterproof hood should I need it. Maybe some MLD Superlight users could give some commentary on this, I'd also like to know how much room it has with a air pad inside.

Misc

I used an emergency blanket as a ground sheet. It worked well. The bivy slid around on it a little, but I was glad I had it - the ground got very damp overnight.

My Bushbuddy Ultra was, as expected, wonderful. It tool a little longer to boil water as the wood was quite damp, but I'm really enjoying the silence of cooking with wood. Smoke has the additional benefit of discouraging mosquitoes.

Conclusion

Its always worthwhile testing your gear before heading out on a longer trip. I would have been seriously annoyed to be out in the woods with torn bug netting. Of course, you can try fixing it (I did try, by the way, but as I left my duct tape behind accidentally, I had to use first-aid plasters which didn't work for long. I resorted to stuffing my hat in the hole, which worked but it fell outside all the time), and on a longer trip I'd have some kind of repair kit with me.

In the end, I didn't sleep at all that night, which made the drive home on the freeway at rush hour most interesting. And yet, I still had a good time.