Category Archives: Big Blue Room

Playing in the big blue room

Last year I aimed to camp at least once a month for the year. Between April and November I managed 9 trips out, so on the whole I would say I hit my goal. I’ve been thinking about what will be a lofty, though attainable, goal and saw in a ZS forum signature that one member is going to attempt 50 nights outside. Averaging just over 4 nights a month may be difficult, but I think it’s worth striving for. Effectively that doubles my last years goal as well as requiring 12 months of activity instead of the 8 months I managed in 2009. This may be a little too ambitious considering the amount of out of town work I’ve got lined up in the first 5 months of the year, but I think with a little determination and a lot of crazy I should be able to make it happen. Here’s to a obscenely fun and educational 2010!

AAR: 2010/01/02 Amisk Wuche Trail


AO: Amisk Wuche Trail, Elk Island National Park, Alberta
Conditions: -16, slight wind, mostly cloudy
Trail Distance: 2.5km
Time Taken: 1 hour
Photo Album

I’d done this trail before with Steve in November but I decided to tackle it again now that a blanket of the white-stuff had fallen. I picked up a pair of MSR Denali Evo Ascent snowshoes last week on clearance at my favourite toy store and decided I needed to start the year off right with a quick hike through the park. I got to the park just before noon after having spent the morning fretting about what to pack in. As per usual with most of my endeavors the answer was: too much. I really wasn’t sure how quickly I was going to tackle the trail so I brought more than I needed with me, partially in the hopes of testing out my Vargo Ti alcohol stove in the cold, but I didn’t stay out long enough for that to come up.


I re-waterproofed my Montrail GTX boots in preparation for the outing, as well as picked up a pair of inexpensive GoreTEX gaiters from the aforementioned toy store. Feet stayed quite dry with the above combo, and warm enough with a pair of medium weight merino wool hiking socks. Wore my expedition weight long johns under a pairof cargo pants, the expedition weight thermal vest over a long sleeve merino wool shirt and my NorthFace Honcho jacket. MEC mitts (waterproof shells and polarfleece liners with chemical handwarmers), OR NinjaClava, Northface Hoser Hat and a cheap pair of Bolle goggles rounded out the clothing.


Unfortunately the ninjaclava and the goggles were not a good combination, the moisture I exhaled was directed into the lower vent of the goggles and they fogged up quickly. The balaclava and hoser hat work together though, I may look into some other form of face shield to keep the goggles fog-free. Luckily there wasn’t much wind and dropping the goggles didn’t make things significantly more uncomfortable. About halfway through the hike I did have to seriously start opening up my jacket to keep myself from overheating. The merino wool works well to pull moisture away from the body and I was able to regulate my body temperature pretty well. The dummy strings on my mitts were a great feature allowing me to pull off my mitts and grab the camera without having to find a pocket to stuff them in. Having the chemical warmers stuffed in the mitts meant that no matter how long my hands were outside of the mitts they were always ready and waiting to warm up my fingertips. I have rather poor circulation in my hands so this was a great help.


I need to rethink the snacks I bring on winter outings. Either I go with mostly cookable dehydrated stuff or I find foods that I don’t need to worry about trying to eat while semi-frozen. I would like to have tried out the alcohol stove this trip as I do wonder about its real cold-weather performance, I’ll make a point to do so next outing. Goals for the next snow-shoe trip will include finding some undisturbed powder and try my… foot? at breaking trail. I will most likely need the tail extensions for my Denalis for that and should look into a set of hiking poles with snow baskets so I can use them in the non-snowy months as well. At some point in the future I would like to go out snowshoeing at night as well, but that is going to require a better headlamp than I currently have.

All in all I’d say it was a successful first test of my gear and I look forward to upcoming trips. I think I’m going to seriously consider getting a parks pass by the end of the month.

Breaking radio silence, though I’m composing this offline

I’m actually writing this while on a plane at 30-some thousand feet, between Yellowknife and Rankin Inlet. I’ve neglected this blog, as is fairly normal for me to do, over the summer as I was mostly consumed by my new hobby of playing in the big blue room a using that as a justification to buy new toys.

So far I’ve manged 9 camping trips in three provinces since April of this year. From camping in William Switzer Provincial Park just outside of the Rockies to in the badlands near Drumheler lakeside at Lesser Slave Lake, AB and Emily Lake, SK, in the sand at Sombrio Beach on Vancouver Island, next to the river in Red River Lodge Provincial Park and two weekends in a row in Elk Island National Park, I’d like to say that this is one of the rare times I’ve decided to throw money into a hobby and made proper use of the gear accumulated. That’s not to say I haven’t picked up gear along the way that I no longer use, I’ve a few kits that I could probably stand to shed. But I’ve researched and tested and refined my gear, trip after trip, for many different environments. Lessons learned while camping on the edge of a temperate rainforest sometimes do translate to camping in a grassland/prairie forest mix. I’ve challenged some of my childhood notions about what it takes to stay warm during an Alberta winter, not that it’s anywhere near full on winter though. I’ve been acquiring wool clothing, something I’ve never really done in the past.

I’m going to attempt to document the lessons learned so far.

Stoves and Food

I switched from an Swedish Army Mess Kit with a trangia alcohol burner to an MSR Whisperlite Internationale liquid multi-fuel stove. The Swedish kit, while bombproof was too big and heavy for what it provided. While it worked decently while camping on Sombrio beach it simply couldn’t put out enough heat to be useful when temperatures dipped below freezing and I was trying to make some morning tea in William Switzer Park or down near Drummheller. I liked the concept of a multifuel stove and wasn’t ready to accept a canister stove as an option. I paired my Whisperlite with a 1.8L pot and bowl set, the GSI Dualist. I immediately ditched the sporks that came with the set, and after the first weekend in Elk Island Park, I ditched the two bowls it came with as well, leaving me with a 1.8L pot, something similar I’m sure I could have acquired for a much smaller pricetag. Most of the food I bring with is homemade dehydrated single-servings, all prepared in the Freezer Bag Cooking method. I have a GSI FairShare mug that I eat my meals out of and a GSI insulated mug that fits inside the fairshare for my drink. I appreciate the upgrade that the Whisperlite has been and it will always have a home in my coldweather loadout, but I believe come spring I will be looking into some lighter weight canister stoves, the MSR Pocket Rocket is a prime contender.

Shelter and Sleep Systems

I started the season with a Mountain Equipment Coop Tarn 2 tent, a 3+ season 2 person single entrance tent, well made and relatively inexpensive I found it a compelling place to start. As a single person shelter it did well, however in the colder temperatures as well as with a second person in the tent, condensation becomes an issue. The single entrance to the tent is also the only vent in the fly. Despite there being a good amount of no-see-um mesh in the canopy of the tent, the single vent doesn’t provide enough airflow to reduce condensation in cold temperatures. Mid summer I attended the MEC Gear Swap and I picked up an Exped Aries Mesh tunnel tent (3 season, 2-person) and a MSR Fusion 2 (4 season, 2 person). The first weekend in Elk Island we tried both tents. The Aries Mesh will serve well for a two person backpacking shelter in the warmer months, it is a single entrance tent and the canopy is almost entirely mesh, much like the Tarn2. However the Aries has a larger vestibule, more floor space and a vent at the back of the tunnel for much improved ventilation. Due to the dual-hoop tunnel design though, it will not serve well into the winter months as I doubt it could take much of a snow load. I do look forward to taking it out in the summer months, perhaps lucking out with a few clear nights and setting it up without the fly. The MSR 2 is a good sized 2 person tent that is well built and has a great number of venting options, however once I started factoring in the bulk of winter gear, it quickly became apparent that during the colder months it would only be comfortable as a solo shelter. The vestibule is not as large as that of the Aries Mesh, but it is still quite usable for a single person. The 3 pole dome design is quite sturdy, the fly attaches with SRBs on 1” webbing and has many guy-out points to sturdy the tent in inclement weather.

My first weekend out in April I brought both my Thermarest RidgeRest and MEC Kelvin 2.5 sleeping pads. My intent that weekend was to try them one night each. After laying on the RidgeRest for 20 minutes the first night, I could feel the cold seeping up, and quickly stacked the two pads on on top of another. This worked, but I quickly learned that such a setup would not be practical if I intend to keep camping in colder weather. As the temperatures rose I picked up a MEC Kelvin Summer pad, a 7cm inflatable with no insulation. While it was quite comfortable it did eventually start leaking as many reviews on said it would. I returned the pad for a credit (which I used towards a hiking pack) and in September I bought an Exped Downmat 9 Pump sleeping pad. A down filled inflatable pad with an integrated pump and a listed R-Value of 8.0. The lesson I learned with the Kelvin Summer pad, outside of trust the reviews on the MEC site, was that I need a thick inflatable pad, I find myself sleeping on my side often and a thick inflatable is the only thing that keeps me from waking up sore. When I picked up the Downmat I also picked up the Exped Pillow Pump. While not necessary to inflate my pad I hoped being able to have a more substantial pillow than the compressed synthetic one I’d been using would also improve my sleeps which it did quite handily. There is an adapter tube that can be used to connect the pillow pump to the Downmat which I may look into, I do believe the pillow will inflate the pad quicker.

Last year I purchased a MEC -20 Hybrid sleeping bag for my solo drive to Vancouver and Victoria, partially as I was couch surfing and partially as backup in case I spent the night in the mountains. The bag is synthetic on the bottom and downfilled everywhere else. I’ve found it quite warm, especially paired with the Downmat. Unfortunately the spring-summer-fall bag I used doesn’t get quite a glowing review. I picked up the MEC Oasis bag, which has two different fill weights, giving it a dual rating of 0 and +10 depending which side is up. While it makes sense in theory I found that I would roll with the bag exposing the less insulated side in fall and end up rather chilled in the middle of the night. Rearranging the bag would return the warmth until the next time it shifted with me. It’ll make a fine bag for summer, but I think I’d rather replace it with a 0 down bag or lightweigh sleeping quilt to be paired with my Downmat.

Under other notable mentions, the Gerber Sport Axe combo with the hand saw that slips up the handle has proven to be quite useful. The head has taken a bit of a beating, but sharpens up nicely despite the abuse. My leatherman k503 works well as a stout utility knife, though the extra features aren’t really necessary and it could be replaced with a sturdy fixed blade. Filling a 1L Nalgene with boiled water, slipping a sock over it and tossing it in the sleeping bag before turning in to the night adds a nice amount of heat to the bag and helps me get to sleep. Another bonus is that you have liquid water in the morning even if your water resevoir freezes overnight. On that note, I have 2 10L MSR Dromedary water bags. They’re very convenient, pack down small and are easy to suspend from a tree or table with some paracord and a carabiner. Another option for ensuring water that can be cooked with come morning is to fill your cookpot before going to turning in. It may freeze overnight but it will warm quickly over the stove, and the heated water can be used to thaw out the water resevoir and break up the ice inside. Cotton balls smeared in petroleum jelly have proven to be the most convenient premade tinder and work nicely with most fire sources, I quite like using a swedish firesteel with them as I don’t need to worry about keeping the firesteel warm, unlike a butane lighter.

That’s about all I can pull off the top of my head. More as I think of it?