Sunday, February 07, 2016

air bivy revisited

I’ve been tossing around this hammock shelter AKA “air bivy” idea for some time. The ultimate goal: something lighter, faster, more compact and versatile than a summer ground system. Ideal total weight would thus be around 8 oz., a seemingly impossible target. But if material costs were no object, a minimalist design could certainly crack half a pound.

With no major fastpacking adventure on the horizon (save for maybe a pedestrian Hurracan), I’m not all that inclined to dump three figures into a prototype. For now, I’ll stick with the $5/yard materials, which still yield some promise. Taking the less-expensive route, I’ve whittled it down to 11.5 oz. The evolution of this design is worthy of a few quick paragraphs.

My first DIY hammock idea for BMT 2009 was a flop. Even with the insulation built in, I was too cold on test hangs and took to the ground. It didn’t help that I’d never really gotten used to sleeping in a hammock. Fast forward to my AT 2013 hike: I longed to get my bony body off the ground in rocky VA. Shortly after finishing, I got back to brainstorming.

For the next iteration, I used a $5/yard WPB shell material available from milesgear. But its bulk and weight (2.3 osy) soon got me looking into non-breathable alternatives after a test on the CFAR. I also decided that a longitudinal zipper was worth its weight versus a fussy drawcord entry/exit. All along, I kept the black 1.2 osy polyD hammock body.

Air Bivy V3
The skunkworks continue with iteration #3 of the air bivy: An 11.5 oz. poncho/shelter with full rain/bug protection and a one-minute setup time. Inspiration came to me one night in Virginia during my southbound sub 60 AT hike. I was having difficulty finding a decent spot to camp. I longed to hang between two of the countless trees on the trail. After my hike, I began researching hammocks with the goal of finding a summer shelter/sleep system that was lighter, faster and more versatile than what I carried in 2013. More info available at
Posted by Matt Kirk on Tuesday, September 1, 2015

By repurposing a homemade cuben poncho/tarp, some scrap zipper and netting, I was able to shave 2.5 oz. off the next prototype (above). But some things still needed fixing. Though less than ideal for an entry/exit in the rain, eliminating drawcord ends on this prototype proved to be a mistake as they allow the hammock to be used separate of the bivy.

So here we arrive at the latest version. Although curious to try 1.0 or 0.9 osy hammock fabrics, I’ve stuck with the polyD (mainly because I’m stingy). The latest bivy/sock is constructed from membrane sil poly (acquired on sale for ~$5/yard), leftover 0.5 osy nanoseeum and a #3 zipper. Suspension: amsteel with tubular grosgrain sheaths for the trees.

I’ve yet to decide if I want to add the extra weight of a poncho hood to this prototype. At 6’2, I’m probably too tall of a guy to be playing around with a 9’ rig. Still, I think it’s safe to say that the concept is getting somewhere. As much as I enjoyed the recent “sub-$60 inside-out” tent project for my panhandle adventure, I’m now more tempted to take to the air...

Saturday, January 09, 2016

a tarp/tent for two (+dog)

11' x 10' membrane sil-poly tarp: 13.5 oz. 
The next rainy day project of 2016: this simple 11'x10' tarp. Shaped tarps may do a better job of shedding wind and reducing weight, but nothing can beat the versatility of a rectangular tarp. 

What to do for bug protection? Years ago in NC, I made a sil-nylon tarp with doors of no-see-um netting. The doors could be zipped open and tied back and the shelter still used as a rectangular tarp.

Here in FL, Lily doesn't want to camp without full enclosure from creepy crawlies, and I really can't blame her. So I settled on a simple net tent design that uses a ridge line zipper and clips into the tarp:

7.5' x 4.5' NS50 and PU4000 sil-poly net tent: 10.5 oz.
Textiles have come a long way in the last five years. Coated fabrics are approaching the weights of cuben fiber at a fraction of the cost. However, sometimes the heavier material is still a better choice.

Case in point: I wanted to try 0.5 oz./sq. yd. no-see-um netting AKA NS50 for this project. I found this lighter and stretchier mesh harder to sew. Durability is also a concern with this design. We'll see...

On the other hand, I'm very impressed with the sil-poly bathtub floor material and its ~4000 mm hydro-static head rating. The membrane sil-poly is also top-notch. Our old tarp/tent is now retired.

This is a lot of shelter for 1.5 lbs. (sans stake/cord weight). All three of us can't wait to try it out!

Saturday, January 02, 2016

the not-so-fastpack

One of my new year's resolutions is to do a better job documenting my adventures in tinkering. Sure, I've been plopping a few photos and blurbs up on the sub60 lab page, but this only scratches the surface. Considering my propensity to ruthlessly tear apart and re-purpose fabrics and materials, most concepts could be lost forever without proper documentation. Good riddance? Perhaps...

Perpetually inspired by Bill Fornshell's Ultra-Light Skunk Works blog among others, I realize there's a certain value to sharing ideas. So to kick things off in 2016, here's my latest pack design I'm calling the "not-so-fastpack" on account that 1.) it's built from materials acquired a year ago for a sub60 fastpack update that's yet to happen and 2.) it's fully padded to provide a more luxuriant ride.

Despite the full array of pockets (XL lycra back, double-decker shoulder, zipper hip and ergonomic bottle pockets) plus full padding (1/4" CCF in hip/shoulder straps, 1/8" woven CCF in back panel and bottle pockets), the pack weighs in at only 10 oz. I guess all that labor-intensive hole-punching and weaving of foam was not only beneficial for the pack's ability to breathe, but also its final weight!

Taking a closer look at the shoulder straps, you'll notice the elastic sternum strap threaded through tandem sliders on a #5 zipper coil. This is my DIY solution to a sliding sternum strap system, which seems to work really well. As an added bonus, this system creates a secure pocket within the shoulder straps (under the lycra exterior pocket) for wallet, first-aid, etc. just a click of a sternum strap away.

Like its predecessors this is a mesh pack. It's also a bottom-loader... And a top-loader! Even with a small load, it's no fun having to dig all the way through a pack to get to something on the other side. To date, this is my most complex design. For the sake of my sanity, I hope this pack lives a long and happy life and doesn't get sucked into the sweat shop and reincarnated too soon... 

Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 22, 2015


Here's a report with photos from seven days and 336 miles on the Florida National Scenic Trail. Back in mid-November, I identified a three-week window over winter break from school and work to attempt this hike. Not sure when/if another chance may come my way, I scrambled to put together a pack list, guidelines and track map for this impromptu adventure. Ready or not, the time was now.

On Tuesday, December 8th at 9:30 pm, Lily dropped me off at the Gainesville Greyhound station. I took a bus up to Pensacola, arriving on Wednesday 3:30 am Central Time. After biscuits and coffee at a 24/7 McDonald's, I took a series of local buses to get out to the gate of Fort Pickens National Seashore to begin a 7-mile approach on the road to the northern terminus of the trail by 8:30 am. 

I was hoping to hitch a ride to save my legs, but early morning traffic was minimal. Eventually, I caught a lift for the last two miles to the historic fort before heading south on the FNST at 10:10 am. I followed a hard-packed path through inland forest out to the softer white sand beach. For miles, I ran beside the Gulf of Mexico watching pelicans glide effortlessly over the glimmering green waters.

I was thankful to have packed sunscreen as I wouldn't see the shade of trees again until I got off the island in another 33 miles. I stopped for a swim and then made my way to a cafe at Pensacola Beach for lunch. In my haste, I neglected to hydrate adequately for the remainder of the island traverse. When I reached the next functional spigot, I had long since drained my two water bottles.

The sun began to set as I crossed the bridge over Santa Rosa Sound. Here in the town of Navarre, I stopped at a CVS store to buy food for dinner and breakfast to get me to the next convenience store 19 miles away. I sat outside the store, guzzled water and ate a couple cold cans of lentil soup with milk and crackers. Afterwards, I hiked on a few more miles in the dark to a riverside camp.

Early adventure jitters had me awake in my tent before my 4:00 am alarm. It was cold and damp in the predawn darkness. I couldn't quite bring myself to eat a cold breakfast, so I built a small fire and stuck my cans of soup and coffee over the coals to warm up. By the time I was packed up, breakfast was hot and ready. I ate quickly, extinguished the coals, crushed and packed out the cans. Time to go.

I faced a long detour to bypass Eglin Air Force Base, which was closed to public recreation at the time of my visit. Blackness of night gave way to a soft lavender light as the sleepy winter sun finally made its appearance. I followed a sandy utility road, which paralleled the forested Air Force property all the way to the Yellow River. By mid-morning, I arrived at a gas station for snacks and water.

According to my data book, the next section of single track was out of the Air Force property, so I eagerly made my way back into the woods and relished the peace and quiet along this windy and relatively hilly stretch of trail. At Burnt Grocery Creek, I refilled my water bottles and submerged my body in the cool crystal-clear waters meandering around the knees and trunks of cypress trees.

Before long, the trail turned back into road at Harold. For the rest of the day, I would follow US-90 into Crestview. I quickly learned to keep to the shade of the trees below the right shoulder. Still feeling fresh, the miles passed quickly. Stores and restaurants appeared every 10 miles or so. I took advantage of these aid stations as did a cross-country cyclist named Cliff, whom I met on the road.

To keep out of Eglin, I would remain on US-90 for many more miles until heading south on US-331 to rejoin the trail. After breaking my stealth camp in Crestview at 4:30 am, I made my way over to a convenience store for coffee and microwave biscuits before the long grind to a more substantial resupply at distant Defuniak Springs. The sun set by the time I finally left the road some 133 miles in.

My third night's camp was perhaps the most memorable perched above Steephead Ravine. I set up my tent, washed out my clothes and body in the creek and built a fire. As I feasted on sardine sandwiches, I gazed up at Orion and listened to the song of coyotes. A harsh reality would set in before dawn the next morning. In this darkness, I barely found my way through the mucky floodplain of Lafayette Creek. Even with my high-powered headlamp, progress slowed to a discouraging creep.

I knew this could be a serious game changer. In order to maintain 50 miles per day self-supported this time of year, I'd need to move efficiently at night. Although the sun now brought navigational relief, my spirits were hardly lifted as I jogged through a hypnotizing pine plantation. I felt the pressure to make up time on the road ahead, but my feet were starting to rebel to this ruthless routine. In Bruce, I aired out my feet, lunched on quickie mart pizza and ice cream while ruminating on my predicament. 

Rubs were starting to form above and below my toes. I took to washing, airing and lubing my feet as well as knocking out the sand and switching out socks at every stop. While eating an uninspiring dinner of chips and beef jerky at the third and last quickie mart for the day, I tried removing my insoles and doubling up my socks. This at least got me back on my feet and walking to the trail head of Econfina. By 9:00 pm, I had arrived to the Little Porter campsite and set up camp after 50 miles.

I awoke to 16 miles of single track through the acclaimed Econfina Creek section of FNST. Having backpacked this section with Lily, Uwharrie and friend Paul last March, I knew I was now entering a special place. Birds sang and squirrels scurried about in the fallen leaves among the laurels. If not for the swampy stands of cypress, I would have sworn I was back in the Southern Appalachians.

By the time I crossed over the last footbridge and climbed away from Econfina Creek, my frown was effectively turned upside-down. The dogs were barking, but I had just covered 200 miles in less than four days. For the first time in over 24 hours, I felt optimistic about the days to come. My pace now accelerated on the road ahead with my goal to cross the Apalachicola River before bedding down.

Of course, the long, hot and relentless road made quick work of bursting my bubble. I retreated to being grateful for the little things. I was thankful to have found a pair of women's sunglasses to shield my eyes after losing my pair on the trail days earlier. I was thankful for dollar bills in my wallet and outdoor soda machines after finding my mid-afternoon resupply closed. I was thankful for reflective pack straps on a harrowing road run at night into Blountstown for a Mexican dinner and resupply.

As I crossed into Eastern Standard Time, I watched shooting stars streak across the night sky above the mile-long bridge. I decided that I would keep going on the trail into Apalachicola National Forest rather than request a pick-up from Lily and Paul as they drove north from Gainesville to WNC the next day. The gravity of this decision weighed heavily on my tattered mind. I took extra time in the early morning dark to purchase antibiotic ointment to doctor up my feet at a quickie mart in Bristol.

Apalachicola National Forest is known as a very wet place. Fearful of what ill-effect the miles of mucky terrain might have on my damaged feet, I embraced the gospel according to an accomplished hiker I met named PJ Wetzel, who had hiked Bradwell Bay just days earlier. He reported water no higher than his knees and a swamp section shorter than advertised. We wished each other happy trails and got back to outrunning our own maddening cloud of mosquitoes in the humid overcast forest.

For a short while, PJ's promising report resonated in my head. I hiked through a smoldering section of burnt pine forest and passed by many wonderful specimens of pitcher plants. But then the sun set and a darkness enveloped the overgrown, boggy and poorly-marked trail. I resorted to a free GPS track I had downloaded on my phone, which got me through several tricky intersections. Finally, after 41 miles, I reached a campsite along Indian Creek with barely enough room for my bivy-sized tent.

Though not yet in Bradwell Bay, the swamp tromp was well underway with numerous sections of trail inundated with shin-deep muck. What's more, I was beginning to develop extensor tendinitis likely due to an altered foot strike from a painful blister on the ball of my right foot. I endured mosquitoes for the time it took to switch socks in a futile effort to keep my feet happy after each muddy stretch.

By the time I had reached Bradwell Bay Wilderness, it was mid-morning and the sun was beaming down through the pines. Having anticipated the next few miles for days, I was eager to get started with the swamp and promptly entered into an enchanting world of thick kaleidoscopic growth. In places, water reached up to my thighs. In others, it was only calf-deep.

Somewhere in the middle, the swamp opened up. I stood silently among the cypress. I was grateful to be here. The sun warmed my body and reassured me that I had plenty of light to find my way back out into the pines. For the time being, I savored this wilderness experience. When I crossed Monkey Creek, I was out of the swamp and on familiar ground. I had just passed a significant milestone.

As expected, Bradwell Bay had taken a few hours to get through. I hurried along to the next watering hole and ate most of the leftover food I carried for this 80-mile stretch for lunch. I would hike the remaining miles out of the forest to a quickie mart for dinner. Not wanting to waste time, I filtered water on the go. I wasn't sure when the store would close, I figured I could get there by 8 pm.

The Monkey Creek segment was a joy to hike. Most all of the eastern Apalachicola was in great shape. I only wished my feet were in proper shape to allow me to move at top speed. With seven miles to go, I took up a painful jog. I made it to the store by 8 pm. I had an hour to charge my phone, dine on microwave sandwiches, chips and hot chocolate before they closed. I set up camp nearby.

The proprietor of the quickie mart was kind enough to let me fill a bag of ice for my foot. The swelling had spread above my ankle. I used both compression sleeves to hold the ice in place. My shortest day of 38 miles was just about to get a lot shorter. As I entered into the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, the trail took a turn for the worse along the tidal creeks.

At points, the path completely disappeared and I had to find my way through a tedious obstacle course. Slippery logs and stumps were my only alternative to thigh-deep shoe-sucking muck. I was thankful at least get to hike this section in the daylight. When I emerged on the other side, I found a sign advising northbound hikers to take a road detour around the section I had just hiked.

I needed fresh water to drink, so I made my way as quickly as I could to Shepherd Spring. The miles were passing slowly and painfully. No longer could I think in terms of 50, 40 or even 30 mile days. Today was going to be in the 20's. I would need to get off my feet ASAP and let my body heal. Fortunately, the FNST trailer in St. Marks where I worked last spring was just around the bend.

I arrived to the trailer by mid-afternoon just as it started to rain. I took a shower, washed out my clothes by hand, iced my foot, ate some food and then collapsed onto a bed. The next morning, I turned my back on the trail and hitchhiked to Tallahassee where I rented a car and drove up to WNC to join friends and family at ALTAR #15. After a challenging week, the panhandle had left its mark. 

Sunday, December 13, 2015

backyard beckons...

Taking it one step at a time and seeing how far I can get over winter break. Here are my guidelines:

+Walk into and out of towns to purchase supplies, no mail drops.
+Hike as a backpacker, carry all food and gear between towns.
+Do not accept planned or unplanned support or trail magic.
+Do not get into a vehicle for any reason during the hike.
+Follow official FNST route currently open to hikers.
+Respect other trail users, practice LNT ethics.
+Honestly and thoroughly document the hike.

Thanks to Tatu Joe for the inspiration! Pictures will be uploaded here:

Friday, December 11, 2015

pack list

50 fl. oz. water50
~1000-8000 calories food8-64
trail runners (worn)18.5
sub60 tent prototype14
Town's End primaloft quilt13
long sleeve wool zip Tshirt10.5
sub60 modified fastpack9
phone (in plastic bag)6
sleeveless polyester zip shirt (worn)5.5
lithium AA batteries (x8)4.5
soap, lighter, vaseline, leukotape, toothbrush, toothpaste, multi-tool, needle, floss, multivitamins4.5

silnylon rain jacket4
running shorts (worn)4
nylon dress socks (x3 pair)4
tech sack (chargers, cord)3.5
watch (worn), wallet, dry bag3.5
visor with h51 flashlight (worn)2.5
1/8" CCF sleeping pad2
synthetic briefs2
wool balaclava2
0.75L water bottles (x2)2
screw-on water filter2
data book in plastic bag1.5
stake sack + 4 stakes1.5
compression sleeves (worn)1.5
sunglasses (worn)1.5
0.5L collapsable water bottle1
argon nylon wind pants1
Base pack weight (pounds)5.5
Maximum full weight (pounds)15

Sunday, November 22, 2015

the agony of almost

data log... or it didn't happen (click to open map)
Today I almost joined the 10 mph club. Key word: almost. Total elapsed time was 1:00:36. The venue: our backyard trails with 2-mile out-and-back addition to tail end of 8-mile loop. Weather: overcast in the mid-60s. I carried my phone with GPS. Weighing almost as much as my racing flats, it seemed rather silly to lug along this mini-computer, but the 58 pings do tell an interesting story.

I started way too slow with a couple of 6+ minute miles, but rallied with a solid middle third. At this point, only the most heroic negative splits could've pulled me from my deficit. In short, I didn't pace myself that well. What's more, the route may be up to a quarter mile short, so "almost" is a relative term. Still, I'm happy with this effort given setbacks with illness and injury over the past few weeks.

It's unlikely I'll meet my goal before fattening myself up over holidays. However, I'm plenty thankful for health and fitness to pursue such silly endeavors. If nothing else, these faster-paced forays have earned me a healthy respect for shorter distance runners and inspired me to get back to my LSD jogging, which is much easier and a lot less painful! Safe travels and Happy Thanksgiving!