Up to this point my dad and I hand enjoyed many of the best parts of backpacking that exist at the very core of what draws people to love it so much– overcoming challenge, meeting new people, and being in a surrounding that in no way resembles your daily life. Day 2 would prove just as appealing but for a very different reason.
We both woke up at around 7am. It was my first night on my Thermarest Z-Lite sleeping pad. I will save any review until I’ve had more time on it. While I didn’t sleep great it had little to do with the pad, it was quite comfortable. On waking one thing was very clear… today we would be hiking in the rain.
The night before we discussed the potential of doing a few miles in the direction we had been going yesterday and then doubling back. The idea was that my dad felt confident in his ability to do the mileage we did yesterday, so why not try to do more (hell yeah!). When we woke up we both agreed to just head back.
When I say it was raining I mean RAINING. Growing up in Arizona I can maybe remember a handful of times that this type of rain happened but I’ve become intimately familiar with it in my 8 years on the East Coast. It is characterized by one factor– giant rain drops. I’m told that the size of raid drops and snowflakes is a good marker of the direction the weather is going. Big means this storm isn’t going anywhere. The sound of these drops hitting our rain fly was loud enough to prevent sleep. There was no chance this was going to relent.
We both did the hiking version of the snooze-button thing for another hour, hoping maybe the drops would lose some weight. Nope. Finally we decided to kill a little more time by eating breakfast- a plan we had initially negated on waking in the interest of getting more hiking in (hell yeah). I will diverge here to share my growing love of Grape Nuts as a trail food.
A cup of Grape Nuts is one of the most versatile foods I carry on the trail. I like to put them in individual portions in sandwich-size zip-lock bags. Usually I will also put a good sprinkling of powdered milk in as well. What’s great about this stuff is that you can eat it any way- hot, cold, dry, or mixed in ANYTHING. Add hot water and you have a warm, homey bowl of greatness that doesn’t get pasty like oatmeal can. Add cold water and you have a great crunch for breakfast, lunch, or even a trail snack. I am finding more and more that I crave crunch on the trail, a potentially unfortunate preference as it can be heard to actualize. I even like a good handful on a break. It has TONS of fiber which can be important because on the trail I… well… hmmm… lets just say it helps. But my secret weapon is adding a small handful to a spoon of peanut butter. The ole PB can be a bit dry and monotonous. Infuse some Grape Nut POWER and I can be talked into it being perfect. So there we sat and enjoyed some Grape Nuts inside our tent.
Let me talk about our tent too. A full review will come soon but here’s the insider’s edge. We used the Kelty Gunnison 2.1. I made the move to the 2.1 after Liz and I initially purchased the 4.1 for car camping. We loved it so much that we stayed with it for our backpacking tent. At just about 6 lbs with the footprint it is great when split between us but still far from ultralight.
After a night of two males sleeping in the Gunnison including a few hours of rain there was zero condensation. Now the temperature differential to the outside may not have been enough but listen– it was dry inside. If there was a storm that would expose an inability to be waterproof it was this. The Gunnison exceeded my expectations here. We did put a little extra time into guy-ing out the fly to maximize ventilation. Worked perfectly.
The Gunnison was the first tent I used that didn’t involve the whole “tent-pole-through-sleeves” set-up thing. Setting this thing up is a dream. Why that is significant now is that this would be my first time breaking it down in the rain. Like I said, this is the perfect rain for that test because any exposure of the inside of the tent to the rain will soak it. I spent the better part of the morning trying to prioritize in my head how to approach this.
I never realized how hard it would be to pack in the rain. Given my general lack of experience, this task seems like a Houdini trick. Pack everything up and put it in correct order into your pack so as to allow for the tent, one of the larger items, to pack last. Do all of this for two people from inside the tent. Oh and try to do it all under the vestibule but mind the ground, its a bit muddy.
I can’t remember the exact specifics of how I achieved it but it was far from perfection. If I had it all to do over again I would probably first change into all my hiking clothes for the day, then put everything into its respective sack/container/thingy, and then get it all into the pack. Regardless of the how, in the end we were fully dressed, footwear on, packs loaded, and standing outside an empty tent in the rain.
Someone can maybe educate me on a better manner for taking the tent down in the rain, but here’s how this went. First we reached under the fly and disconnected the inner tent from the poles. This allows it to fall to the ground but still remains fastened to the pole hub at the center. By releasing this last I THINK we allowed the inner tent to fall into as confined and symmetric a place as possible. Next we removed the poles from their attachments to the shoes on the tie downs. This was not as easy as I had predicted. When you pull one, the tension pushes the tent in the other direction. We were able to remedy this to some extent by having the second person stand on the opposite side to brace. I postulate that having staked down the corners may help fix this in the future. Once all four corners were de-poled the whole thing was now flat and more or less under the fly.
Now the confusion really begins. Flip the asymmetric vestibule portions of the fly on top of iteself thereby exposing the underside to rain or flip them underneath the fly to keep it dry but then get water on the inside. In the end we just folded the vestibules on top of itself. Next was the big fold. It was here I realized that the underside of the footprint was a muddy mess. The Gunnison is designed to be able to stow with everything but the poles attached. In theory this would make setting UP in the rain very easy. We basically just folded the whole thing up and shoved it in the tent sack. In retrospect I probably would separate the inner tent from the fly and footprint prior to doing this as the present plan basically got everything wet and dirty.
However that was the other reality I absorbed here. Yes it got everything wet and dirty- you’re in the damn woods. I guess for some reason I thought more experienced hikers have a way to take a wet tent down and put it up later that same day and maintain the inside in a dry fashion. In reality that probably doesn’t happen. The more I talk to thru-hikers it seems like you just do it and deal with whatever you got.
After getting everything packed up we set out on the trail. Its amazing what rain will do to efficiency. What took us around 2.5 hours going out took maybe 1.25 hours back. We just rocked it. Constant drizzle, one short break, done. I was glad my dad got to see this less glamorous side of backpacking. You aren’t stopping at vistas, you aren’t taking in the woodland creatures, you are just going. To me those are the experiences that really decide if this is something you can do for 4 days in a row. Most people can endure a day in the rain. Maybe two. But could you do a week in the rain? I have to admit the idea of getting back in that tent at the end of day 2 would have been very, very difficult. But I would have done it. I guess I can see how people find those Aprils on the AT demoralizing.
In the end it was a great trip. I was able to show my dad the aspects of this experience that have drawn us to it so much. We met great people, enjoyed nature a bit, and had some one on one time that we don’t often get much anymore. It also allowed him to see how fun it can be and how capable he could be doing it. The decision to do shorter mileage probably made all the difference. We could have pushed it. We likely would have made it. But to return to the house needing to tend to blisters, ice knees, etc may not have left the memory so favorable.
In fact the proof is in the pudding (I have NO idea what that means)- since returning to Arizona my dad got an REI membership, geared up with a hydration pack, JetBoil, and som trekking poles. He has now been up the hills behind our house more times in the last few weeks than maybe ever before. He writes me every time telling me how much he loves the exercise, the challenge, and the reward at the end. The last time he was up there was when he buried our cat KC well over a decade ago. Now he heads up there and enjoys a cup of coffee near the grave. Talks have just begun for he and I to do a multi-day hike somewhere in the next year. He even bought an Osprey Atmos. I forgot to warn him how addicting backpacking can be.