söndag 18 september 2011

Major highs and minor lows in the Haut-Verdon

This year we spent a large part of the family holiday in southern France. Most of it on the overcrowded riviera, but also a splendid week in the southern alps. The Haut Verdon valley around Colmar to be exact.
This was the first time I spent any longer time in the alps in summertime and I must say the surroundings exceeded my high expectations. Beautiful weather, almost no mosquitoes and excellent paths for family hiking.

Little M on the way to Lac d'Allos
 The day after arriving at our "Gîte" (house or apartment for rent), very conveniently booked on the Gites de France site, we went for a day-trip to the fantastic Lac d'Allos not far from the ski resort Val d'Allos. This is an easy walk with a lot of scenic bang for your efforts. The trail is wide and marmots are commonly seen. 6 year old F and 4 year old S had no problems whatsoever in keeping pace with the adults during the 200 vertical meter ascent. Little M traveled comfortably in the new Toddler Patapum Baby carrier (He had outgrown the baby edition). This baby carrier proved to be a big hit. In my view it is a lot more comfortable than the backpack style baby carriers we've used before. This is probably due to the fact that the child sits so close to your back. A major disadvantage though is that you cannot really put the carrier on yourself alone, but you need someone to help you put the child in it.

To get the most out of our holiday and get inspiration for walks we bought a guide book from Edisud: "Haut-Verdon - Val d'Allos". This book contained a lot of good advice and complemented with a visit to Colmars excellent Tourist Office we had no trouble finding interesting activities.

Sheep grazing on the slopes near Col d'Allos
One of the better walks suggested was to take the car to the Col d'Allos and then walk along the ridge towards La Grande Séolane. The walking was super easy and the views superb all along the way. Cows and sheep grazed on the hillside, the ground was full of flowers, and the marmots greeted us with their alarm chirping. Things couldn't have been much more idyllic (well, perhaps the ski-lift pylons detracted slightly from the beauty.). It was one of the major highs during the trip.

Full speed ahead close to Col d'Allos

Towards the Tete de Vescal - There is something about kids walking with backpacks that makes me profoundly happy 

F with the Val d'Allos in the background

Little M fell asleep in the Patapum near Tete de Vescal
We tried to keep an easy tempo during our holiday so we would only go for more exhaustive walks every other day or so. One of the rest days was spent around the river in the village where we lived. An excellent place to practice river crossings.

S practicing stream crossing in Villars-Colmars
Another day the idea was that we would just do a short walk close to the house up "a small hill". 250m up is no small hill however and what looked like a kilometer from the house was more like a two hour walk. No harm done though, and we were rewarded with magnificent views of the valley. 

View to the north of the Verdon valley from Croix de Puy, Villars-Colmars
The week passed quickly and soon the last day was approaching and with it our greatest planned adventure: The overnight wild-camping hike to Lac d'Allos. We had already hiked up to the lake in the beginning, but it is such a beautiful site that it was worth visiting again. The fact that you are allowed to put up your tent in the Mercantour national park was also a factor.

Gathering all the stuff needed for night in the tent with all three kids took some time. The main problem is bulk, since the kids cannot carry too much in their small backpacks and the one carrying our youngest, little M, aged 1,5 years, cannot carry that much. My main anxiety however focused around if we would be cold in our sleeping bags at 2200m altitude. I got quite mixed answers, but most seemed to think that we would be ok with 10C sleeping bags provided we had good sleeping mats and some extra clothes on. To be on the safe side however I decided to buy a new 0C comfort temperature down sleeping bag for my wife. A cold wife is an unhappy wife and women tend to sleep colder. The price at Decathlon for the S0 Ultralight down bag was very competitive, around 100€, but 1kg for a 0C bag does not really merit the label "Ultralight" in my view.

A Decathlon S0 "Ultralight" 0-degree sleeping bag strapped to the Patapum
A family of 5 also require a bit of space so we had to bring two tents. Cooking gear was skipped however since we could eat dinner at the Lac d'Allos mountain hut. Anyway my Mariposa pack was stuffed like a sausage.

Wild camping with small kids causes bulky loads
Since I knew from the start the kids backpacks were too small I had adjusted the shoulder straps of my homemade silnylon pack to fit S. This allowed for some more space. But unfortunately the fit was not excellent and we had to carry his pack for awhile.
S in front of Lac d'Allos with a modified MYOG 150g silnylon pack

Although modified the bag was too large to fit properly
Having climbed the 200m from the parking the views opened up. Lac d'Allos sits beautifully inside a kettle of mountains. If I remember correctly it was formed by an ancient glacier. The water looks very inviting for a swim, but it is forbidden by park rules. Well, it is probably too cold anyway.

Lac d'Allos with the Towers of Allos in the background

A marmot just a few meters from the trail
View to the west of Lac d'Allos - I probably heard mountain goats battling on this slope
Having arrived at the mountain hut we just had to wait for our pre-booked dinner. The hut proved to be quite well equipped and even had a bar so I could try to relax with the vacations first and only Pastis before supper and enjoy the view. Dinner didn't disappoint either, it proved to be the best dinner we had during our stay. The service was great too. It might not be real wilderness, but the luxurious huts in the alps definitely have their advantages too. I must be careful so I don't get accustomed. Repeat after me: "Freeze-dried food, spiced with mosquitoes devoured in pouring rain IS better than beef casserole washed down with red wine and hot blueberry pie"

The Lac d'Allos mountain hut - a most pleasant establishment
Well fed and happy we sat out to find ourselves a good camping spot for our two tents. My initial plan was to hike one or two kilometers to Plan de Méouille north of the lake, but a nice supper takes it's time so it was already getting dark when we rolled out of the dining room. Luckily there was no shortage of good grassy spots close by with splendid views of the lake as well. I chose a nice clearing somewhat sheltered by big larch trees. My hope was that this would be a warmer spot.

M beams with joy after having "helped" with the tent by removing the front pegs
We split ourselves up between the tents so I would sleep with the older seasoned campers F and S in the Lunar Duo and my wife would sleep with little M in the Cloudburst. "Don't worry", I said, "He will sleep like a log with all the fresh air". In the beginning everything worked according to plan. F and S soon fell asleep after a long and exciting day and M eventually dozed off in his mothers arms.

F and S enjoy the view while winding down before bedtime

SMD Lunar Duo and Tarptent Cloudburst - Having two tents proved to be a great idea
Sleep doesn't come so easily for me in a tent however and after an hour or so I was just starting to fall asleep when M started crying. After a few minutes M was handed to me with the short words: "You take him". The tone hinted that there was no room for arguing. The wild camping was my idea after all. After a few minutes of cradling him in my arms and rocking him gently he fell asleep, but as soon as I tried to put him down on the mattress he started crying again and the delicate procedure of creeping out of the tent, baby in arms, slowly rise up and walk around had to be repeated again. At first there was something very romantic about calming him in the moonlight surrounded by the beautiful landscape, but at 2am after two failed attempts, that feeling faded somewhat. It did not end there either, he would wake up every two hours or so, just when I had found a good position around the annoying rock under my Thermarest. At 6am he was full awake and wanted breakfast. It was starting to remind me of "Strapatz-exercises" in the military, the ones where you could fall asleep while walking. By some miracle however he fell asleep again at 7am and then slept like a proper baby until 9am when we all had to wake up to take down the tents. I've had better camping experiences.

A quite camp in the moonlight
To further enhance the experience it also started to rain during the night. Not that it was a big problem, but it took away the reward of a beautiful morning with a calm breakfast in a stunning environment. Luckily the rest of the family had slept very well in the other tent. No one had been cold. Slowly we gathered all our stuff and set out downhill towards the car one more experience richer. In hindsight I should have trained little M in camping before the trip to make him accustomed to the new surroundings. As I write these lines however, the memories of sleep deprivation have mostly faded away, and despite this minor low, the main recollection remains one of adventure, moonlight over alps and a sense of accomplishment. However, the temptation of good life in the form of hot mountain hut beds, three-course dinners and wine, is luring in the background. After all, there is a time and place for everything.

torsdag 2 juni 2011

A weekend stroll through the local woods

This blog has been a bit quiet lately. Being on parental leave with three small kids tends to take up a bit of time and also a fair amount of energy. Luckily however I managed to squeeze in some time for a weekend walk in the forest close to our summer house north of Stockholm. The plan was to spend two nights outdoors and to have a nice time. There was not really any gear to be tested and quite frankly still my pack ended up a lot heavier than usual due to poor planning. On such a short trip however that didn't really matter.

A female moose near lake Largen spotted from the car on the way out

We started the walk a bit late on friday night since we were delayed by the pleasant company of my parents. So late in fact that when we started to walk through the forest next to the beautiful lake Malmsjön it was already getting dark. Finding a good site for the tent when night is falling is seldom a good idea. Luckily we managed to find an OK spot for our two tents and soon the night was filled with the noise of amateurs in the woods: breaking twigs in the darkness. I also had to use my new lightweight Muela pocket-knife to clear my tent spot from aspen saplings that would otherwise threaten to ruin my sleep. I'm sad to say the knife did not pass the test. When used for serious cutting duty the handle was simply too uncomfortable due to it's rectangular shape. I will switch back to my beloved Opinel. It has a rounded handle and is beautiful in it's simplicity.

A nice roaring campfire

Luckily our chosen campsite was full of dry wood (As is most often the case in the boreal forest) and within minutes we had a nice fire to warm ourselves by. It was quite welcome since the evening was in fact a bit chilly. As always the fire got us in good mood and my hiking buddy Jesper skillfully prepared marshmallows which we washed down with some nice Serbian šlivovic.
A master marshmallow roaster at work
After a large amount of banter it was time to retire to our tents and I found good use for my head-torch.

The Canon S90 working at iso 12800 conveys the darkness. I find the noise adds realism in this case.

I slept reasonably well under my Gatewood Cape. One of the pleasures with sleeping in the woods are all the sounds. This night we were treated with the characteristic cries of a Tawny Owl (Kattuggla, Strix Aluco) just a few meters from our tents.

A bit of condensation on the Gatewood Cape, but nothing too bothersome. I find the Gatewood Cape to be quite ideal for lightweight forest camping.

In the morning we packed up early and left without breakfast in the "Ultralight style" propagated by Mike Clelland!. It was still pretty chilly and we did not feel like lingering around. Jesper even had frost on his tent. It was the first time I tried the postponed UL-breakfast technique and I think it has some merit in cold weather. After an hour or so we had warmed up from the hiking and sitting down was a lot more pleasant.

 Birches in beautiful spring light (not properly conveyed by this photo I'm afraid)

We hiked north along Malmsjön and then turned northwest towards Långsjön by compass bearing. We had no trails to follow on this hike. I just used my Iphone maps and sometimes took compass bearings to keep the course through the forest.

Remnants of a more agricultural age

From Långsjön we just had a few hundred meters to our intended breakfast spot, the lake Mörtsjön in the nature reserve with the same name. Apparently this lake was used by a fly-fishing club. They had installed jetties on several places around the lake. I found that this took away some of the untouched charm from this nice typical forest lake with no road access, but I guess it makes it a very nice place for fly-fishing. There are thousands of lakes like this in Sweden so there is not much harm done.

Preparing hazelnut boosted blueberry soup oatmeal on the Bushbuddy

Jetties or no jetties, the lake was still a nice place for cooking breakfast. I prepared my favourite hiking porridge on the Bushbuddy. I still have some things to learn about this. I managed to severly burn the bottom of the pot. I still haven't managed to properly clean the pot. I must learn to simmer better. Any hints are welcome. I guess one thing I could have done was to put the pot in the pot cozy a bit earlier when the porridge was boiling.

Homemade pot-cozy made by padded aluminium from Bob and Rose doing it's work

The pot cozy really is a nice invention. It saves fuel, time and energy since you don't have to maintain the fire. The extra weight is negligible. In this case we prepared the coffee while the porridge was having a nice time.

Breakfast is finished

After breakfast we walked through the forest roughly following the old boundary between two properties. Somewhere east of Mörtsjön we found what was likely wolf droppings.

Wolf droppings?

This trip took place at the end of April and there was an abundance of spring flowers around. 


Blue anemone and Wood anemone (Blåsippa and Vitsippa)

Vätteros, Lathraea Squamaria. A strange parasitic plant which feeds on it's host.

The sun was shining and we weren't the only ones enjoying it. I nearly stepped on a poisonous black adder in a forest clearing. Lots of dogs have been bitten by these this year. Unless you are allergic their bites are not dangerous, but you should go to the doctor if bitten. From what I've heard you get an an extra tetanus shot.

Black adder

Soon after the snake encounter it was time for lunch. We found a nice place near a hunting tower close to a moss. Out came the frying pan and we had a delicious meal of Nurnberger rostbratwurst and homemade french potato salad (prepared in advance before the trip.). Frying on the Bushbuddy is a bit of a technique as the flames are normally too hot for the pan. You need to hold the pan a bit above the flames and move it around a bit to cover the whole area. When using a normal fire the best thing is to fry over embers, but this doesn't work with the Bushbuddy since the embers are too far away.

Luxury food

After lunch we continued walking. My chosen campsite proved to be quite far away and we noticed that my route was perhaps a bit too long for one day, 20-25km off-trail through forest is quite a distance. The wind was also picking up and it was getting a lot colder. Anyway we plodded along towards the lake Däningen where I had intended to camp. Here we ran into some trouble. The water in the lake really didn't look or smell nice. We had almost run out of water, we were tired and it was almost cold even when we were walking. The lake itself wasn't too interesting either and we didn't really feel like putting up camp there. Maybe I'm starting to become old, anyway we decided to go back home. The last few kilometers to the car we realized just how tired we were. Next time I will research my route better and reduce the distance. Better research as to reliable water sources would also be a good idea.
Even though we aborted the trip a bit early it was great to get out and a great way to switch environment. 

måndag 14 februari 2011

The Bushbuddy as a multi-fuel stove

Heating water for coffee on a hot summers day in the Stockholm archipelago

The Bushbuddy is a superb wood-burning stove. This is a well known fact. However, what is less known is that just the pot-stand can work well with alcohol burners and Esbits too. The big advantage of this is that you can have a backup solution if the rain is just pouring down and you don't feel like testing your fire-making skills just at that moment.

The Bushbuddy pot-stand

I've read that some hikers used the Trangia alcohol burner with success. I have only tried with a homemade Pepsi-can stove and that worked very well and also has the advantage that it is extremely light.
When using either alcohol or Esbits, a windshield becomes much more important than when using just wood as fuel is not unlimited (I tend to use a windshield with wood as well to decrease the boil times.). I simply use a folded piece of aluminium from a take-away dinner package. Those who find that too simplistic can probably find themselves some nice titanium at a premium.

 Setup for Esbit use - note the use of the stone and aluminium foil to get the flame at a good distance from the pot

For the Esbits to work best it is important that the burning base is at a good distance from the pot. I don't know what the exact distance should be, but around 3 cm seems good. See this review of Esbit stoves for more info. In order to achieve this I put the Esbits on a stone and a piece of aluminium foil. A more sophisticated solution would be to use something like a Gram Cracker, but frankly this is such a simple thing to build yourself.

Esbits or Alcohol?
What fuel to take as a backup system is a tricky question. Alcohol is easy to find, but it is a more complicated setup and can also add quite a few grams if you have a heavy burner. The Trangia burner, and I guess others as well has the advantage that they can be used for simmering though. Esbits have the important advantage that you can use an Esbit tab as a firestarter in combination with wood. You can also fly with Esbits checked in as far as I know (I have asked and done so on an international flight with the Esbits in the checked-in luggage, but that is no guarantee that all airlines will accept it.).

Field testing?
When it comes to proper field testing on real hiking trips I'm afraid I have to leave that as an exercise to the reader. Even though I bring Esbits on my hiking trips I haven't needed them yet, but I haven't been on any longer trips either. So far I have always found wood even above tree-line in wet conditions. Nevertheless my backyard testing seemed to indicate that the boil times for around 5dl of water was about 6-7 minutes with four small Esbits and probably something similar for alcohol. Perfectly acceptable for solo use I think. It would be nice to know what other peoples experiences are.

söndag 2 januari 2011

Happy new winter year - try a Quinzhee!

In order to burn some calories and have some fun in the snow after christmas I decided to build a Quinzhee snow shelter. You can't get much more lightweight than that since the shelter only requires that you bring a shovel. It's also a lot warmer than a tent since the snow is a great insulator. The downside however is that it requires lot of energy and time to build, but it's also quite fun. It goes without saying however that you should not leave your tent at home unless you are very experienced.

Compared to other snow shelters the Quinzhee is less demanding of the snow conditions. You don't need very deep snow (as is required by a Snow cave or Snow trench for example.) or hard packed snow which is required for Igloos.

The snow heap freezing before being dug out

The process of building a Quinzhee looks like this:
  1. Pile up as much snow as you can in a heap using a shovel
  2. Compact the heap  a bit by pounding it with the shovel
  3. Let the heap freeze for at least 30 minutes
  4. Insert 20-30cm sticks evenly into the heap all around the top so that you will not dig through the wall when digging out the living compartment
  5. Dig out the living compartment and watch carefully so that you don't dig through the wall when you hit the sticks
  6. Optionally create a door of some kind
Step one is by far the hardest one. It took my about 45 minutes with a big shovel and this was for a heap that would probably only fit me in curled up position. It should help to have several people do the shoveling. It is very important to let the heap freeze properly, otherwise it will collapse. Especially when build out of cold powder snow like this Quinzhee. I let this one freeze for 2 hours.

The biggest reason to build a quinzhee - The fun factor

I have heard that those who have tried sleeping in Quinzhee say that it is quite comfortable and very warm, but also a bit damp. So far I have only built mine just outside the house for fun purposes. It's a great activity for the kids, especially the digging. I must say however that the hard work makes me long for the ICEBOX Igloo Tool.

Happy digging - observe the sticks on the roof