Thursday, April 23, 2015

April 17-19, 2015, Governor Dodge State Park, Dodgeville, WI

With another gorgeous April weekend forecasted in southern Wisconsin, we couldn’t pass up the opportunity for another weekend camping trip. Camping at the state parks in April is probably my favorite time of the year because the crowds have not begun to form, the days are just long enough and there’s no insane heat wave to worry about. It can get chilly, but this weekend’s weather was about as good as any April weekend could be.

We arrived at Governor Dodge shortly before 7pm and was told the ranger station would be closing soon, so we hurried over to the campground to locate a suitable site. The downside to April camping at the state parks is that many do not take reservations, but there were more empty campsites than full ones. We basically let Amber pick the site, which she chose because of proximity to the park. We quickly checked in and got busy setting up before nightfall. Amber wasn’t much help, so Lorraine and I set up the tent, then I began rigging a tarp while she set up the bedding. The site was not ideal for our tarp, but I made it work surprisingly well. Once we were setup, I was able to get a fire going right around dark. I like that Governor Dodge sells kindling, making the need for splitting the firewood unnecessary.

It was a nice night, and the only eventful part was Amber freaking out over a spider that got on her leg. It’s funny (well, not to her), but she has a very unique scream for spiders. I was returning from the restroom when I heard the distinct sound of spider screams. Usually, she just screams and returns to normal, but this night she didn’t even want to let her feet touch the ground, so I found her standing on the picnic table bench begging to be carried around. I guess my little baby isn’t so grown up after all.

As is typical on spring camping trips, I wanted to try out a new piece of gear I had recently acquired, an Exped Downmat Winterlite. We all use Exped mats, and I really like them, and although I don’t have a ton of experience with different mats, they are more comfortable than any other I have tried camping or in the store. So, I was excited when I heard Exped was coming out with a new line of ultralight tapered mats. Since we plan on doing some backpacking, we all need to squeeze into a smaller tent for those trips. Therefore, I picked the medium size, which is about 20 in. wide. I knew this would be small for me, but hoped I could make due. Unfortunately, I found the mat quite uncomfortable and didn’t sleep so well. I convinced Lorraine to trade with me the second night, so she slept on it on Saturday night while I slept on her Downmat 7 (medium size). She too found the new mat to be uncomfortable and even slept in the car after getting up for a trip to the restroom rather than return to that mat. Meanwhile, I found her 20 in. downmat to be quite comfortable, especially for the small size. I also found that using my Zpacks sleeping bag as a quilt worked really well with the moderate temperatures we had. I ended up returning the Winterlite and ordered a Downmat UL 7. I hope it’s as comfortable as the non-ultralight version.

We had the entire day Saturday for hiking, canoeing and playing in the park. Saturday morning, Amber and I awoke to find Lorraine once again hiking, so we spent some time playing at the park. Once she returned, we had eggs, bacon and bagels for breakfast. We decided to paddle Twin Valley Lake, and Amber was interested in swimming, but the water would turn out to be too cold for that. We stopped at the beach, got out to “swim,” which turned to just be a calf-deep walk in the frigid water, and to build sand castles. We paddled four miles, and I found it refreshing to spend a couple hours on the water. We saw a number of birds and numerous turtles in water and sunning. The only challenge of the paddle was some high winds, which result in the squiggles in our GPS track, especially on the SW portion of the lake. Untrimmed and unloaded, it’s difficult to keep our 17 ft Prospector on course. Nonetheless, it was a nice leisurely paddle.

Paddling Twin Valley Lake

Nice bluffs visible from the lake

Sunday morning we packed up fairly quickly to avoid the rain we heard was forecast. Once we were done packing and with breakfast, we found the weather to still be pleasant with little hint of any storms on the horizon. Interestingly, Amber wanted to go on a “nature hike” to fulfill her requirements for a patch from the Wisconsin Explorer program. Every since she was a toddler, Stephens Falls has been one of her favorite places to hike, so she decided she wanted to go there instead of walking to the beach from our campsite. We packed the final items and drove down to Stephens Falls parking area. We walked to the falls, along the trail and back around the Lost Canyon Trail. Amber had enough walking, so we decided to call it a day and headed back home after picking up her patch from the Ranger Station. 

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Zpacks 10 ℉ Sleeping Bag Review

After all the trips we took last year, I feel really hooked on wilderness camping and hope to keep taking my family deeper into the wilderness. To help facilitate that, I’m looking to lighten my pack, especially for some backpacking. As a big (ok, fat) guy, it’s not easy to find an appropriately sized, lightweight sleeping bag. Fortunately, though, it’s not impossible. I picked up a Zpacks 10 ℉ sleeping bag over the winter and thought I would provide a brief review.

Zpacks 10 degree bag in Ventum ripstop nylon

I ordered an X-wide, X-long 10 degree bag in the blue Ventum. The bag is reportedly 66 in. wide and will fit around the neck of someone 6’4” tall. I measure 56” around my shoulder and 5’10” tall, so I hoped this bag would provide just the right amount of room for me. As you can see from the pictures, it’s a hoodless bag, so I wanted a little extra length to be able to pull it up around my head. I think it would have been fine to got with the long, but I don’t regret the extra length as I can fit my head in the bag, although I find it a bit suffocating to do for more than a few minutes at a time. The total length of the bag is right about 6 ft laying relaxed and lofted, and I measured the widest part of the bag to be 66" on the inside. The final measurement I made of the bag was a loft of about 6", although it was difficult to get an exact measurement. I’ve never had a high-quality down bag, and I’m pretty impressed with how the 900 fill power down lofts in these bags.

Full length zipper option
Close-up of zipper at last baffle

The other options I went with on the bag include a full length zipper and a draft tube. The basic bag is designed to essentially be zipped quilt, and Joe Valesko (founder of Zpacks) suggest sleeping with the zipper under you so that a draft tube is not necessary. However, I wasn’t sure how I would like that as I have not used a quilt before and am a restless sleeper. So I ordered the bag to be more like a traditional sleeping bag. I did find it a bit difficult to keep the zipper directly under me, but I’m not sure these additional options were necessary. Another reason I went for the full-length zipper is that it can be opened from the bottom to act as a vent. I plan on using this bag for all but the warmest months, so I wanted to have some additionally flexibility. When the zipper was kept toward the bottom, I didn’t notice any drafts, but when it was on top, I noticed that the draft tube did not exactly cover the zipper. It’s not incredibly stiff and is fairly narrow, so it doesn’t give the best coverage of the zipper. Obviously, the upside is that it’s not heavy. The bag, along with the cuben fiber dry bag, weighs 30.5 oz, so remarkably, I was able to find a sub-2 lb, 3 season bag to fit my large body.

I used the bag two nights inside a double wall tent (REI Half Dome 4) on an Exped Synmat 7 LW with temperatures down to about 27 ℉ according to Accuweather. On the first night, I slept without virtually no insulating clothes on except for my Merino wool socks, and I ended up being more than warm enough by the end of the night. However, I did have a bit of trouble warming up after catching a chill the first night. It probably took me an hour to warm up, but I don’t think that’s the bag’s fault as my skin was quite cold when I climbed in. I started out with a Polartec balaclava but found myself overheating after a few hours. I suspect that with some insulating underwear or additional light clothing I would be comfortable in this bag into the mid to upper teens. I don’t think I would push it to 10 degrees without some additional layers, though. I did expect the bag to bit a bit warmer than it is, but I should note that I don’t really have my system dialed in for 10 degrees, so it’s hard to judge exactly. I can say that it’s warmer than my Big Agnes Summit Park 15 ℉ bag, so I’m pretty satisfied with its performance.

I was initially concerned with the ultralight materials used in the bag, but I’m coming around to think this is the way to go. Zpacks offers this bag in two ripstop nylon fabric options, green Pertex GL or blue Ventum. I emailed Zpacks to find out the difference, and Joe told me his gut feeling was that they were very similar. Shortly after that, Richard Nisley reported on that indeed they are quite similar in both air and water permeability.

One thing that really concerns me, especially as a canoe camper, is keeping my gear dry. Cuben seems almost too good to be true, so I wanted to test out the dry bag that came with the sleeping bag. I recruited my 7 year-old daughter to help me with an experiment, and we decided to stick the sleeping bag in the dry bag in the shower for thirty seconds to see if any water would get in. I stuffed the bag in, closed the velcro, folded the closure three times and buckled it. We directed the water spray on top of the dry bag and adjusted it a couple times to ensure the water had plenty of opportunities to enter the dry bag. After taking it out of the shower, we dried the outside with a towel and inspected the sleeping bag and dry bag. The sleeping bag was dry without any noticeable moisture. However, we did notice that the velcro closure was wet, so I don’t know how much longer it would have kept the sleeping bag 100% dry. Nonetheless, I’m pretty happy with the results and am confident enough to continue using the cuben dry bag in my pack. I think I’ll give it another test toward the end of the camping season.
Soaking the dry bag

After the shower

My initial impression of this bag is extremely positive, and I don't see much that's not to like about it. Probably the biggest downside to this bag was waiting the five weeks it took to receive it. Plus, any bag with 900 fill down is not cheap. The upside, however, is that the warm to weight ratio of this bag is amazing. There are obviously trade-offs for the ultralightness. For example, you give up a hood, but a hood is not always necessary, and when it's cold a fleece or down balaclava can be worn. Another trade-off is in the durability of the materials. Although the 0.7 oz/sq. yd. ripstop nylon is likely durable enough, it's not going to be as strong or abrasion resistance as a heavier fabric. Even the drawstring used on the Zpacks bag is an ultralight option; I think it's about 1.5 mm in diameter and seems adequate for its purpose, but it's definitely smaller and feels less substantial than drawstrings on some of my other heavy weight bags, which range from 3.5 to 6 lbs. I'm also not in love with the draft tube, but it does seem to reduce drafts, especially when the zipper is toward the bottom. 

Ultralight drawcord and cord lock.

I look forward to putting this bag to this test in the northwoods this year and hope to report back after dozens of nights in it.

April 10-12, 2015, Devil’s Lake State Park, Baraboo, WI

Spring is finally here, and we are eager to get out camping again. Although this winter wasn’t particularly harsh, it was difficult to go so long without camping. Maybe we’ll have to take up winter camping one of these years…

Anyway, with the weather forecast for 60s and sunny in Southern Wisconsin, we searched for some place that we could car camp to shake off the cobwebs of what to pack and to try out some new gear. With the state park system still in winter mode, we found the options fairly limited, but we decided to give Devil’s Lake another a try, especially since it’s usually too crowded for us in the summer months. That park gets well over a million visitors a year!

Our two-night trip was not very eventful, so I’ll try to keep this post short. Since I haven’t written in awhile, though, I thought I should update the blog.

I took Friday off to volunteer at my daughter’s school, so I had some time to pack and load the car in the afternoon before Lorraine got home from work. I even squeezed in a 20 minute nap by accident! After a quick stop at Culver’s, we made it to Devil’s Lake in plenty of time to set up camp before dark. Amber was dying to play with us, but we were in camp chore mode and had to keep reminding her that there was work to be done. We got a good fire going just after dark, and Amber got to roast a marshmallow but didn’t manage to talk anyone into playing.

It was a nice but chilly night Friday. I stayed up a little staring at the fire, but I was tired and made it to bed before 10 pm. I was eager to try out my new 10℉ Zpacks sleeping bag, which I found to be pretty nice, especially for the weight. Here is my review of it. It was definitely sufficient for the low of 27 degrees, although it took me a while to warm up after getting chilled sitting out without warm clothes.

Saturday morning Lorraine got up crazy early as usual, but Amber and I slept in until nearly 8 o’clock. Within minutes of me getting up, she called from the tent asking for her mom. Since Lorraine was still out hiking around the lake, she asked if I would play with her. We agreed on chess and cards, so she was ready to get up even without Mom to snuggle. After about an hour, we decided we would go to the park but half-way there, she complained of a stomach ache and we returned to find Mom back. Mom was hungry from her hike and offered to cook us bacon, eggs and toast!

I hung the hammock I got for Christmas, and I’m worried it might no longer be mine since Amber loved it so much. She probably spent a few hours climbing in and out and even agreed to trade Christmas presents, but since I don’t have a lot of need for Magna Tiles, I wasn’t ready to seal the deal. I did get a chance to take a short nap in it when they were at the park, and I can see the appeal of hammock camping, but I’m not sure I’m quite ready to take the leap.

Amber stole my hammock!

Later in the afternoon, we took a paddle around Devil’s Lake. It’s not exactly an exciting lake to paddle, but it was neat to check out some of the rock formations. We were also able to see some of the climbers doing their thing. Interestingly, there was a loon fishing on the lake. Lorraine said it was vocal when she was hiking but I never heard it while we paddled.

Nice beach for launching
Can you find the climber?

GPS track of our paddle

Later, we managed to drag Amber up to the East bluff to watch the sun set, then we headed back to start a fire and make her a pudgie pie. Even though it was a slow day for the park, there were numerous people coming and going, so I’m glad we got a chance to camp here before the busy season.

Sunset over Devil's Lake

We ended up leaving fairly early on Sunday morning because Amber had stomach problems through the night. It was a good first camping trip of the season.