Friday, September 16, 2011

Orienteering I.U.P. Co-op Park 2011

I decided to volunteer to help out at this event and got scheduled to do the time keeping for the afternoon shift. I got there early to get started on the red course and finish before my shift. I thought that running all summer was going to put me in good shape to run the course, maybe get a better time than last time, but the truth is that this course kicked my butt. Compared with the last event at Blue Spruce Park this course was longer, hillier, and I think the navigation was more difficult. I only got half way through before I was going to be late, so I bailed and came back.

I made two small navigational errors right away, and then a big one. On the second leg, a long leg up a big hill, I didn't watch the compass and in trying to not drift downhill I overcompensated and ended up too far uphill and at the wrong control. Then, a couple of controls later, I didn't notice a powerlines right of way on the map that should have been a big landmark. Instead, I guessed on where to head downhill off the trail, and ended up below the control. The big mistake I made was coming up on the sixth control, which I could see was on the side of a very steep knoll. I got to the knoll, but I didn't check which direction to go down and ended up in very rough terrain with poor visibility looking for a control in a pit that I couldn't see until right on top of it. That cost me a lot of time.

The next three controls were fine, and more or less downhill, but when I came to the ninth control (at the bottom of a steep hill) I found I had lost my control card! These are supposed to be stapled to the map inside the plastic bag, and punched through the plastic, but I had been carrying mine in my pocket. In my other shorts this was never a problem, but in the running shorts I wore that day the pockets rode up and ejected the control card. Demoralized, I walked back up the hill and found the control card not too far up the trail. I went back down, punched the control, went back up, and determined that I couldn't finish the course in time. Jogging back on the most direct route I lost the control card again!

The error was embarrassing, but I reminded myself that I had gotten some good exercise and gotten out in the woods, so it was still worthwhile. It was also good to work as the time keeper and to help pick up controls afterwards. I got a better sense of how the event was run, and I had a chance to talk to the other participants.

Orienteering Blue Spruce Park 2011

This was the first WPOC orienteering event I had to drive a significant distance to get to, and the first time I tried the red course (the longest and most difficult). This was the first time I didn't feel like "well,it's in the neighborhood, so I might as well go". It was also the day of the Pittsburgh Marathon, and Frances and I got up early to cheer on our friend who was participating.

The park is located a little north of Indiana, PA, home of Indiana University of Pennsylvania, whose orienteering club formed the basis of the WPOC. It's a county park centered on a small reservoir, which was brim full after heavy rains overnight.

The red course ran counter clockwise around the lake from the shelter on the south side. Highlights of the course included some very rocky ground. Between the soccer ball size stones and the fallen tree limbs I had serious concerns for my ankles. I lost my shoe in a muddy grassy patch. I found one control when I heard the bubbling spring it was hanging over. I made a wrong turn when I mistook an oil tank for a gas well. I wiped out a couple of times slipping in mud. I got turned around in a large open field and had to reorient to figure out which corner I was in. Another competitor passed me. I was totally exhausted and dragging when I had to get up the last big hill, but coming back down it I was able to get back up to speed and finished strong on last downhill and flat legs.

I was very happy with the day. The course was difficult but I got through it. I made some navigational errors, but nothing embarrassing. I got passed, but I came in very close to most of the other runners.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Lightweight Backpacking Gear - Summer 2011

After far too much thought, and definitely not enough actual practice, here is the collection of stuff I used to go camping this summer.  This is meant to be for one overnight trip in warm, but not necessarily dry, weather.  Below is the whole kit, spread out.

Sleeping bag (REI Travel Down) and bivy sack (REI Minimalist).  Blue sleeping pad, orange dry sack.

Beat up running shoes, hood of big green poncho with tarp tieouts, one liter waterbottles, backpack (REI Flash 18).

Trail clothes: running shirt, cargo shorts for trail, adventure undies.  Running shorts for camp.
Warm clothes: windbreaker, long underwear, heavy socks, hat.  Light socks for trail.

Food: dehydrated meal, beef jerky, energy bars  First aid, book.
Cooking: pot, alcohol stove, wind screen, triangular pot stand (sits on stove), lighter, spoon, bandana, sponge (not needed).  Hygiene: soap, towel, toothbrush, toothpaste.  Wallet: phone, key, ID, map, cash, emergency medical and contact info.
Miscellaneous stuff: head light, cord, sharpie, tent stakes, water tablets (chlorine dioxide), safety pin, glue, tape, matches fire starters, disinfectant wipe.

Pocket items: monocular telescope, pocket knife, emergency whistle (Coghlan's) with matches, fire starter, compass, mirror.

 Hygiene and cooking items fit nicely inside cooking pot.

Miscellaneous stuff fits in ditty sack.

Almost forgot my hat!  Keeps sweat, rain, and branches off my glasses and sun off of, ahem, vulnerable areas.

Pad, sleeping bag, clothes, and first aid go inside dry bag.

Leaving a little room on top for food and miscellaneous stuff.

Remaining items attach to outside.

Everything else goes on me, or in my pockets.

Total weight, including food and water, just under 14 pounds.

The gear in action.

Backpacking Raccoon Creek State Park, July 16, 2011

Two backpacking trips in two weeks! Must be some kind of a record, and definitely an excellent birthday present from A. Having had such a good time on the previous trip, and constrained by the same considerations of time and planning, I had no choice but to return to the regular R.C.S.P. loop. Differences from last time: warm up activity, shoes, heat, wildlife.

R.C.S.P. is a twenty mile loop, but I upped the ante that morning by running a 5k race held by the YMCA in our neighborhood. Thanks to our friends for helping out with moral support, technical advice, and babysitting! We've been practicing on the 5k route, but this was the first time we ran a race on a official timer and without the baby, stroller, dog, poop breaks, stop lights, pedestrian traffic, etc. We squashed our previous time into pulp. A. and I are doing this as a team sport, so we stick together even though she's working harder at it. The upshot is that I had some energy left over, and plenty of time to rest and eat before making a late start on hiking.

On the second day of the last trip I kicked a big pointy stick and tore a big hole between the sole and fabric of my right shoe. It didn't stop me from finishing the walk, but the shoe was pretty badly damaged and I didn't trust it to hold together for another 20 miles. Just to be clear, I've been using two pairs of running shoes, the newer comfier ones on concrete, and the cheaper thinner older ones on trails. I could probably get away with just one multi-use pair, but I don't spend a lot on shoes, so I think it's ok. The newer ones have nice support and padding, which is good for jogging pace on hard concrete, and I don't want to get them torn, scratched, and muddied on the trail. The older ones were super cheap, so I don't mind punishing them on rough terrain, and I don't think I need as much foot protection going at a walking pace. In any case, I'm now down a pair of sneakers, and I decided to go with the medium hiking boots I got last year.

The boots definitely didn't slow me down the first day. I didn't feel quite as light on my feet as on the last trip, but I didn't have any trouble keeping up a good pace, and didn't have any discomfort. I do think that everything was a little more damp by the end of the day, and I don't think they dried out as well as the smaller shoes did. The second day I was little slower, but that probably wasn't the boots' fault.

The weather was not any hotter than the previous trip, but it was a little more humid. I definitely felt it on the trail, ended up drinking some more water than before, and had a much harder time cooling down and drying off in camp. Last time I slept really well and was comfortable inside my bivy and under (not in) my light sleeping bag, but this time I was too hot. I'm ok without a tent, but I'm scared enough of bugs and critters that I really want the bivy zipped closed, and with the small mesh face panel it doesn't ventilate well. I'm thinking that a bug bivy with a waterproof floor might be an appropriate choice for this warm weather. I was not as well rested as last time, but I did get to bed early, and I was ready to get up at 5:00 AM.

I saw a lot of wildlife on this trip. At the beginning of the hike there is a stream and marshy area below the dam. I saw some enormous fish swimming in the shallows of the stream, and I saw a largish bird swoop out of a tree. A birdwatcher I talked to later suggested it might have been a green heron. Later on I watched a family of raccoons cavorting around a tree a little way off the trail. At dinner a deer walked slowly through the campsite, 20' from where I was sitting. At night I heard something scratching in the bushes and scared it off by rustling my sleeping bag. The next morning I surprised an owl that had been munching on something on the ground, and it took off noisily before gliding silently away.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Backpacking Raccoon Creek State Park, July 2, 2011

Here's a trip report from a camping trip earlier this summer (my first in a while!).  I also have some reports queuing up for the second camping trip, some orienteering, and some discussion of lightweight camping gear.

Planning for this trip came about suddenly, when it became clear we would celebrate Baby's first birthday next weekend, not the same weekend as the Fourth of July. Luckily, I've been experimenting with how to cram enough stuff for an overnight trip into a ridiculously tiny backpack, and I was already pretty much packed up to go.

I considered trying a longer trip at Oil Creek State Park, or on the Laurel Highlands trail, but I thought, given the short prep time, the long gap since my last trip, the hot temperatures, the experimental gear, and the fear of shirking from my parental responsibilities, that I would stick with the well practiced itinerary at Raccoon Creek State Park.

The main goal of my trip (after the main purposes of exercise, solitude, and exposure to trees and fresh air) was to test out my best try at lightweight backpacking. I started that with my trip last year, trading in my tent for a poncho and a bivy sack, but I did my best this time to really minimize my equipment. The three biggest changes from my trip last year were to my backpack, my water, and my shoes.


The back pack I used was an REI Flash 18 day pack. The "18" is for the liters of volume it can contain. Using such a small bag makes bulk almost as big of an issue as weight, but it was an important concession because the other backpacks I have are more than five pounds and way too big for what I need. I got the Flash 18 on the theory that I might be able to get enough into it for an overnight, and if I couldn't it would still be useful as a day pack or a holder for a water pouch (and it has been serving those purposes admirably). After a little testing earlier this year I got it to work. Almost.

I couldn't quite get everything I need IN the pack, but with a little tinkering I was able to get it ON the pack. I know, I know, it's bad form to have stuff lashed onto the outside of the backpack, but it's the best I could do. The items attached to the outside were (1) a ditty sack with my cooking pot and its contents, (2) my poncho, and (3) two water bottles. I'm particularly proud of the water bottle holders that I fashioned, passing some velcro straps through the daisy-chain loops on the backpack. I also strung the daisy chain with elastic cord which I used to cinch down the poncho. The ditty sack was held under the elastic, but secured by a carabiner to a loop.


For water bottles I used two one-liter gatorade bottles. They're tougher than most plastic water bottles, but not as heavy as nalgene. They have a nice wide mouth, not too hard to fill up at a hand pump, and enough shaping to the body that they won't slide out from my home-made holders. I was worried about whether this would be enough in the heat. The first time I went out on this trail in the heat of July I really suffered carrying just two liters of water. On some subsequent trips, carrying the water pouch and two bottles I've been able to get through 10 liters per day! So I was a little worried about that, but I knew that water would be available at the halfway mark on both days, and there are lots of streams I could use for water (after treatment) if I really needed to. Luckily, I didn't have to. Temperatures were 85-90 degrees and the humidity was moderate but not stifling. I didn't have to work as hard, carrying a lighter load, and I've been doing some running so I'm in a little better shape than on past trips. In fact, I only drank one liter per day on the trail (more in camp).


I skipped out on hiking boots this time and wore my beat up running shoes. I've been wearing them for orienteering, and they're not perfect, but I figured if I could wear them running through open woods I could wear them on the trail. They worked just fine. I wore some light smartwool socks with them, also fine. There was one misstep where I got close to twisting my ankle, but no harm done. I was slipping a little on the muddiest sections of the horse trail. Also, I did damage the shoes when I kicked the pointy end of a stick. It went between the sole of the shoe and the fabric of the toe and poked me pretty hard, but didn't break the skin. The verdict is that they worked, but probably aren't durable enough for extended or repeated abuse. Hopefully there is a pair of trail runners or lighter hiking shoes in my future. I've gotten a bit of use out of the last pair of hiking boots, but I may have to promote them to general purpose winter footwear if they aren't going to be dedicated adventure gear.

On the trail

It worked! Carrying a little under 14 pounds, including food and water, I really bounced along. I even jogged on some of the downhill sections. The day was warm but not humid. Thunderstorms were forecast, and one passed nearby but all I got was a nice breeze and a few big raindrops coming through the canopy. Actually, I didn't spend much time on the trail. I skipped along for nine or ten miles and got into camp well before dinner, and not completely exhausted.

In camp

I had a tricky time finding two trees exactly where I wanted them for the tarp, and the length of cord I had was probably a little too short. When I got the tarp up it was probably a little too low. I didn't get much breeze underneath, which was too warm late in the evening, but helped when the rain came later on. I propped up one edge with a stick, which helped keep things ventilated. I ate dinner early, lay down early, read for a few hours, and went to sleep. I woke up to the sounds of incredible thunder and deafening rain coming down on the tarp. After determining that everything was staying dry under the low pitched tarp and inside the bivy I listened to the storm and then fell back asleep. A few hours later and several hundred miles away, lightening from that same storm would injure five Civil War reenactors camped out at Gettysburg

At 4AM I woke up again, a little sore where I had been laying on my hips, needing to pee, and completely rested and awake. Having strong motivation to get up and no need to stay asleep I decided to pack up and hit the trail early. Another nice thing about not having too much stuff is that it's easy to pack. Less than an hour after waking up I was up, packed, and on the trail.

Second day

The only trouble I had hiking in the dark before dawn was finding the trail the first time. The little paths around the tent camp site are not well used, and actually a tree had fallen across one of them so I had pretty much just been picking my way through the bushes. I actually made a point coming back from the pump to be able to locate the campsite relative to the camping shelters that were on a bigger path and were easier to find. After a few minutes I couldn't find the trail I wanted, so I got out my dinky emergency compass, and headed in a direction I thought would take me to the trail, with the idea that if I didn't see it right away I could turn around and come back. Luckily I found it right away.

Hiking at dawn was a lot of fun. The leaves, covered in rain or dew, looked like little pieces of foil scattered across the ground. Mist rose up through the trees and morning light slowly brought color to everything. The dampness and fog in one of the ferniest sections of the park gave a much more ancient and exotic feel to the Pennsylvania woodlands, which have begun to feel a little "back yard" to me.

After the early start I had no problem getting back to the car well before lunch, and was back home before noon. All around it was a very quick, but very satisfying trip.  The gear worked, the running helped, and the short duration of the trip made it very easy to fit into a busy schedule.  I also feel like I'm outgrowing Raccoon Creek and I feel like I've built up enough experience to consider trying some more challenging locations.

Stay tuned for details from the follow up trip I made to this same location two weeks later, and for photographic evidence that I own camping equipment.