Category Archives: Tech Tips

Crag Pack Essentials

When it’s time to pack for a day at the climbing crags we all know to pack a rope and anchor set-up, but so many other things can sneak into your bag! There are lots of other pieces of gear out there with the potential to make your day safer, more efficient, and more fun. The trick is to make thoughtful choices that will improve your experience without overloading your pack. We’ve asked SYMG Rock Guide Riley West to share some insight as to what he carries in his Deuter Guide 35+ cragging pack.  

Through my years of guiding and climbing, I’ve experimented with many different pieces of gear. I’ve gone ultra light, ultra heavy, blue, orange, big, small. Name a piece of gear and I probably have one buried in the back of my closet, waiting for a yard sale. After sinking all my expendable income into aluminum and nylon whatchamacallits, I’ve finally settled on six staples that make it into my pack every time I go climbing, whether leading Guided Rock Climbing Trips or just with my own friends.

The Essentials

  1. ATC Guide

I’m not talking regular old ATC or gri-gri. The plaquette device, as it’s also known, serves purposes beyond giving a top rope belay. My ATC Guide is an important rescue tool when used in “guide mode”, enabling me to work hands free. I can haul someone through a tough section, belay off my harness, and rappel with two strands of rope, all with a reliable piece of metal.

  1. Prussik Cord

Every time you rappel, you have two options: rely on your superman grip strength to hold the brake strand, or put a friction hitch on the brake strand. A small loop of 5mm cord is all your need to back up your rappels. They weigh almost nothing, cost almost nothing, and keep you safe. I promise it’ll be the best 2 dollars you ever spend.

  1. Double Shoulder-length Sling

A sewn 48-inch runner, as it is also known, is the transformer of the climbing gear world. I use my 4 -foot slings as anchors, friction hitches, chest harnesses, tethers, and ascenders regularly. I think this is a piece of gear that will always exist, purely because of its versatility. For a few ounces, you cannot find a more useful piece of climbing gear.

  1. Belay Gloves

As a full time rock-climbing guide, there are certain things that need to keep working every single day. My hands may look broken, cracked, and callused, but they are my most precious resource. They pay my rent and keep me safe. I use my belay gloves every time I belay or rappel to prevent the all-too-common cut, scrape, or nick. And as an added bonus, I don’t have to scrub aluminum and dirt from my palms every evening.

  1. Camera and Phone

My favorite pastime is to text my parents pictures of me swinging around in scary places. They love it, I’m sure. And if you take nothing else from this article, at least remember to send your mom pictures now and then. Joking aside, it’ll be pretty hard to call for a rescue if you forgot your phone at home. Don’t get stuck without a way to call for help.

  1. Snack

I get really hungry. Not like waiting for delivery pizza hungry, more like a hobbit skipping second breakfast hungry. Hunger leads to afternoon yawns and yawns lead to me dropping carabiners, cams, etc. My suggestion is to buy a handful of Clif bars and distribute them among your climbing packs as a secret stash of energy in the event you forget lunch (or second lunch).

How to get in shape for your next adventure!

By SYMG Guide Scott Morris

You’ve decided where you’re going, and you’ve decided when you’ll go there. Your travel plans are coming together and you’re wrapping your head around the packing list. One important step remains – in order to get the most out of your mountain adventure, you may want to revisit your fitness before you arrive in the Sierra.

Lifestyle
Before starting any kind of fitness regimen, examine your lifestyle, and ask yourself if your daily routines are setting you up for success. Getting the right amount of sleep, drinking enough water, managing stress, and eating a diverse diet of healthy foods are all going to have you getting more out of your fitness work and will have you arriving on the first day of your trip ready to immerse yourself in the splendor of the High Sierra.

Light Cardio

If you’re just starting out a fitness regimen, it’s important to have patience with yourself. Everyone is starting out at a different point, so if you haven’t exercised in a while, start out with a thirty minute walk on flat ground, a few times a week. Add ten minutes per walk or an extra walk each week until you’re at an hour of swift walking five days a week. Once this is comfortable, aim to maintain sixty minutes of active movement most days, but work to increase the intensity. To do this you can add a day per week of running, cycling, or hiking, whatever you feel comfortable with and enjoy. You can expand your walks and get into some hillier terrain, always shooting for that goal of sixty minutes of challenge per day in the weeks and months leading up to your trip. Cycling is a popular way for many people to increase their cardiovascular fitness. It’s a good next step because it simultaneous engages respiratory endurance with the muscular systems of the leg that are relied on while hiking.

Muscular Cardio
The last step of preparation is muscular cardio. There’s two exercises here I’ll recommend above all others, and the first is swimming. Swimming provides a good combination of muscular endurance and cardio, all while providing a full-body workout to a range of muscular systems. If you’re not an experienced swimmer, get a kickboard and hold it in front of you while kicking with your legs; you’re strengthening the muscles of your core and legs and getting a cardio workout at the same time.

The second and, in my opinion, best way to prepare for a backpacking trip is to move your body uphill with a bit of weight on your back. Start small – just a few books in a backpack is a good place to start. If you live near a steep hill, make a few laps up and down with your backpack on, while wearing the shoes you’ll be using for your trip. If you don’t live in hill country, go to your local gym with your pack and boots and get on a Stairmaster machine, or a treadmill that has a variable inclination function. As this becomes more comfortable, add more weight – books, water bottles, whatever you have at hand that’s heavy – and do more laps. After a few stories on the stairmaster or laps on a steep hill, your lungs will start to burn, well preparing you for the challenge you might find at the end of a day in the mountains, at altitude. Remember that lifestyle is an important part of preparation: get into the habit of staying hydrated, and always make sure you’re giving yourself enough time to recover after each workout.

The Take Home Message
Physical challenge is an important part of getting into the mountains. If that which is gained too easily is esteemed too lightly, then by working to get to these places we’re increasing the payoff for ourselves. It’s a challenge, but a manageable challenge, and with a bit of preparation beforehand you can arrive for the first day of your trip confident, ready to dive fully into the adventure and appreciate your surroundings for all they have to offer.

SYMG Guide Scott Morris specializes in our long-distance backpacking trips. He has through-hiked Vermont’s 280-mile Long Trail in just 9.5 days, has participated in several 100-mile ultramarathons, a few Ironman Triathlons, and many more trail races. You can read more about Scott and the rest of the SYMG Guide Staff Here.

Tech Tips: Alpine Daypack Essentials

Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada certainly have their share of classic Alpine Mountaineering Peaks. Mt Conness is certainly one of our Yosemite favorites that quickly comes to mind. While the immediate planning requirements surrounding these trips become route choice and technical gear choices, choosing what to bring in your pack is just as important. Following are some considerations for single-day alpine pushes:

SYMG Guide David Merin on the N Ridge of Yosemite's Mt Conness

SYMG Guide David Merin on the N Ridge of Yosemite’s Mt Conness

 

  • Pack. 25-40 liters is typical. The larger volumes make sense if you need to pack climbing gear to the route.  I prefer a very streamlined pack with few features. One big compartment, maybe a second zippered lid for small items. Top-loading is the way to go, as zippers will undoubtedly be the part of the pack that fails.  The waistbelt and harness system should be thin and not restrict your movement. Always choose fit over styling when purchasing a pack. Lately I’ve been using the Mountain Hardware Summit Rocket, which fits the above description plus is made from reinforced fabrics for durability and has hauling loops for more difficult climbing sections. It also has a removable framesheet that doubles as a sleeping pad for unexpected bivys. And it only weighs one pound.
  • Raingear. You’re probably not planning on climbing during a storm, but mountain weather is notoriously unpredictable. Storms do kick up and ultralight rainpants and jacket are essential for survival. You can improvise a lot of things in the backcountry, but waterproof isn’t one of them.
  • Extra clothes. Let’s face it: We’ve all been benighted. Perhaps you underestimated the time it takes to complete the route, or maybe there was an accident requiring you to spend the night or hike move slowly in the dark/cold. A wool hat is essential. Most of the guides here also bring a lightweight wool under-layer to throw on. It weight only ounces and adds an exponential amount of warmth during an unforeseen bivy. A synthetic “puffy” jacket, preferably with a hood always makes the trip, regardless of the season. If you’re not already wearing a mid-layer piece (my favorites is the WildThings power-stretch hoody), pack that in your bag too.
  • Headlamp. Get one with varied beams. Save battery life with weaker settings and route-find with the strong beam. Lots of time can be lost searching for descent routes and/or rappel stations with a weak beam. Make sure you have fresh batteries.
  • Food. High calorie snacks with a good mix of quickly digestible sugars and slow-burning fats. Consider some Gatorade to make a weak mix for flavor, enticing you to drink more often and for an electrolyte boost.
  • Small first aid kit. Everyone has his/her own acceptable level of risk. Some folks bring cigarettes and a flask whiskey. For others, gauze, athletic/duct tape, and alcohol swabs fit the bill. The key is to minimize weight and space while bringing along more essential items.
  • Route map/description. Consider covering it with clear packing tape for protection.
  • Compass/whistle. A compass is always a good idea, and you should know how to properly use it (by the way “orienting a map” using a compass does not constitute knowing how to use it). Get a compass with a mirror for signaling in the event of an emergency. Also bring a whistle for the same reason. These two methods are much more effective than trying to yell to rescuers (and your injury might dictate you not being able to yell).
  • Water. Nalgene and stainless steel bottles are fine, but heavy. Try an old Gatorade bottle with a custom (re: dirtbag) duct-tape handle. An extra 2-liter soda bottle can ride in the pack for refills and crushes down to save space as water is used. In springtime or in rainy/wet regions, consider bringing a straw. Keep it in your chest pocket and drink as you go when trickles and pools turn up on the climb. This can save a lot of water weight in your pack, but don’t depend on it entirely. Personally, I’m hard on my stuff and I’ve had so many issues with various bladders that I wrote them off years ago.
  • Knife/multitool. Terribly useful.
  • Sunglasses. Easy to forget during those 3am alpine starts.
  • Sunscreen/chapstick. Depending on the region and weather.
  • Cellphone/camera. Sure, why not. For a few additional ounces an iPhone or equivalent does double duty for documenting and checking in with your support crew.
  • Bivy/Foam Pad. For really big days in less than ideal conditions and/or when there’s a good chance of getting benighted, a lightweight bivy sack and ½ piece of foam pad will keep you warmer and drier than your clothing alone can provide. It just may be the difference between a comfortable night vs emergency situation. For bivy’s forget about comfort features. Get something lightweight and small because chances are you won’t actually use it. I use the MSR E-bivy. For really lightweight packs, the insulite pad also does double-duty as a back pad/structural component and makes for a nice seat in spring snow conditions.

Of course, don’t forget to leave a few celebratory Sierra Nevada Pale Ales in the car for your return!

Tech Tips: Mountain Training

Lacing up for pre-trip training in anticipation of  the Yosemite Grand Traverse Backpacking Trip

Lacing up for pre-trip training in anticipation of the Yosemite Grand Traverse Backpack

Just like everything in life, the best way to get better at something is to keep practicing it. While most of us don’t have the luxury of practicing hiking up mountain passes on a daily or weekly basis, we can try to simulate the rigors of our endeavors through training. With many of SYMG’s longer high-mountain trips, the issue most people have physically isn’t whether they can climb the pass, but instead is one of repeat performances. That is, can they hike with a full pack day after day over high passes? With that goal in mind, it is the concept of recovery and rebound that we will focus on here, particularly geared towards our longer backpacking trips such as the Trans-Sierra Trail, Yosemite Grand Traverse, or the Yosemite High Passes Loop.

A slow, steady ramp-up of activity leading to the date of a trip is the ideal, starting with general cardiovascular fitness and endurance about 3 times a week, eventually growing to being able to do it everyday of the week with little or no soreness at any point in the week. Strength training can then be added in, ultimately giving you an edge for uneven trails while wearing a backpack. This schedule is by no means prescriptive, just a suggestion of what could be done. As always, consult your doctor before starting any training program or embarking on any trip.

  • Screen shot 2013-03-19 at 11.19.08 AMOn “Cardio” days, go for a run, a hike with loaded pack, or a bike ride. For an additional challenge in later weeks, train onhilly terrain.
  • On days when the schedule says, “Do something Fun!” do exactly that. Do something you enjoy outside like go to the beach, play frisbee, hike in your local park; whatever you like to do that’s active and fun. Keep it fresh!
  • On strength training days, be sure to warm up for at least 10 minutes by doing light cardiovascular exercise, ideally including stretching and range of motion exercises.
  • Lower body strength work would be things like squats, lunges, and step-ups.
  • Core strength includes sit-ups, planks, and mountain climbers.
  • Upper body strength exercises includes push ups, pull ups, and upright rows.

 

Tech Tips: Meal Planning

Fresh veggie wraps along the Yosemite Grand Traverse.

Fresh veggie wraps along the Yosemite Grand Traverse.

Just because you’re in the backcountry doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy great food. At SYMG, we pride ourselves on cooking amazing food in amazing places and our “Backcountry Gourmet” cuisine has even been acclaimed in Sunset Magazine. Here are a few tips from seasoned (ha ha) John Muir Trail Guide Alex Steiner on backcountry chef-ing.

Many of our guests are surprised when we serve the first backcountry meal and it isn’t mac-and-cheese or something dehydrated in a pouch. While dehydrated foods can occasionally be lighter (keep in mind that you’ll need to pack out all the trash they create), they definitely don’t make the trip any easier. Having nutritious, fresh food provides better nutritional value and arguably creates an all around more enjoyable experience. If you’ve been eating nothing but dehydrated pasta sauce for 4 days, you won’t have quite as much pep-in-your-step as if you’ve been eating sea bass tacos with fresh guacamole.

I’d like to share some tricks-of-the-trade of a creative backcountry pantry.

  • First and foremost, be accurate in portioning food. There are certain averages that can be worked with for all sorts of food, and obviously, a group of teenage athletes will probably eat more than my grandparents, so there is some room for flex. That being said, when in doubt, hedge on being a little lighter for a comfortable carry while beefing up more nutritious items such as quinioa.
  • Tied to the first point, have calorie-dense snacks or desserts available if people are still hungry after a meal. Things like candied walnuts or cookies go a long way towards filling people up, can be eaten without any preparation, and are great for morale.
  • Have at least one fresh food every day, regardless of trip length. This one tip makes every meal something to look forward to. On day 21 of our 23 day John Muir Trail, my co-leader Wilson and I pulled out some green onions, a package of chevre (goat cheese), and some prosciutto (fancy Italian ham) for pizzas – no one could believe that we still had some good, fresh food left in our packs and it brightens everyone’s mood to still see real food.
  • Having fresh food is not easy and it needs to be packaged properly to last.

    ◦      Know the shelf life of your food – i.e., kale will keep much longer than spinach, so eat the spinach first.

    ◦      Keep things that need to stay cold all together in one stuff sack or bear can. I pack all the cheeses and vegetables in a bear can and put the whole bear can in the refrigerator. Then, when I’m hiking, I put this bear can in the center of my backpack, and always out of the sun. Consider freezing some items as well.

    ◦      Package things like tomatoes and fragile fruit tightly, but not squished, in hard tupperware-like containers. If there is empty space, stuff it with paper towel.

    ◦      Certain types of produce such as leafy greens can turn bad fairly quickly without refrigeration. Besides bringing more stable substitutes, another is to wrap the produce in dry paper towel.

Going into the backcountry is an amazing experience, there’s no reason not to have equally amazing food. I’m looking forward to hiking with you all this coming season. Bon appetite!

Tech Tips: Tarp Shelters

Reaping the benefits of a tarp shelter in fickle weather at Mt Whitney basecamp, Guitar Lake, John Muir Trail. copyright Colby J Brokvist

Reaping the benefits of a tarp shelter in fickle weather at Mt Whitney basecamp, Guitar Lake, John Muir Trail. copyright Colby J Brokvist

Let’s take a moment to think out of the box, or tent as the case may be. Most SYMG guides don’t carry a tent, but a tarp shelter instead. Take, for instance the Black Diamond Betamid. These types of shelters take a bit more care to set up and live in, but there are some benefits also. Compared to most full tents, they are more lightweight, compressible, and don’t have extra poles (you use your trekking poles instead). Since there’s no floor, you can cook in them if the weather is poor, the major benefit for the guides who manage camp for larger groups. And when it’s time for bed, you just lay out a groundcloth underneath the shelter.

Tyvek is the best choice for a groundcloth. This is a product that is used as a “housewrap” for waterproofing and as an insulating barrier in newer homes. It is a siliconed paper that is extremely durable and tear-proof. It’s feels stiff and papery at first, but with a few uses becomes just like cloth. It is supremely lightweight, durable and completely waterproof. It’s sold in Home Depot-like stores in giant rolls, but is inexpensively available on ebay in small sheets. Tyvec can be custom cut to your own shelter or needs. We suggest a double-wide sheet that’s big enough to sleep on and keep your gear on, keeping you out of the dirt and rain.

The Tarp-Tyvek system is perfect for those who prefer to sleep under the stars and just use the shelter in the event of rain. Your Tyvek groundcloth may also be used as a rain awning for groups eating together, tied vertically for wind protection, or can be used for a hypothermia wrap.  Of course, just like any other system there are drawbacks too. Tarp shelters take more care to set up and are not freestanding (i.e. they need to be staked out). They also won’t do much to keep mosquitoes away. Finally, in very windy weather some do not perform well, although most just need to be oriented in a particular direction.

In all, the tarp shelter-Tyvek system offers backpackers a lot of flexibility in a very light-weight package if you’re willing to do without the convenience factor of a heavier fully enclosed tent.  Especially here in the sunny Sierra, they just might be the best choice for you.

Tech Tips: Tent Groundcloths

Ground Cloths

Camp below North Peak Couloir

Anyone who has purchased a new tent in recent years knows that salespeople are pushing slickly designed groundcloths hard. They are touted as a sort of insurance for your new badass tent. We beg to differ.  Not only is this accessory not needed, but also it adds extra weight and bulk to your pack. Let’s take a harder look at tent groundcloths and their place in today’s backpacking arena.

There are two potential reasons to use groundcloths with a tent: (1.) waterproofing the floor and (2.) durability so the floor won’t tear or wear out.  In the good ol’ days, tent fabrics were very different than they are today. They weren’t always waterproof, the laminates dried and peeled off, and the floors wore through quite quickly. Groundcloths were needed to combat these issues and were very effective. Today’s backpacking tents (late 90’s and on) are constructed of much more sophisticated fabrics. Silicone impregnation offers waterproof-ness and durability, as does seam taping and welding. “Bathtub” designs keep would-be leaky seams off of the ground. So, the manufacturer has already solved the waterproof issue. Regarding durability, SYMG’s fleet of tents can offer perspective. These are tents that in one summer see more use than 10 years of the average person’s tent! It’s the zippers that bust, not the floor. While it is possible to get the occasional hole or tear in the floor of the tent, a gore-tex patch will fix it right up. The zipper, however, is another story. The better companies will warranty the zippers, but taking care during use is your best insurance.

The take home message: groundcloths don’t help your tent in any meaningful way, so save yourself some weight, bulk and money by leaving them at the store. Happy backpacking!

Tech Tips: My $350 coat leaks!

Here comes the storm… is your rain-jacket ready? Chief Lake from the John Muir Trail. copyright Colby J Brokvist

This happens all the time to expensive waterproof jackets, but no worries; the jacket is most likely fine. It just needs some love. Let’s begin with a little background regarding waterproof-breathable (W-B) fabrics. These products (such as Gore-tex) are a plastic layer or laminate embedded within the nylon fabric of your shell. Additionally, the outer layer of nylon the shell is treated with a Durable Water Repellant (DWR) coating to shed water off the nylon.

This outer DWR coating is the key to the “leaking” issue. If the DWR wears off the outer nylon, the nylon wets out. The W-B layer still prevents the water from soaking through to you. However, with the outer nylon saturated, the W-B cannot “breathe” properly because the moisture you are creating as you move cannot escape. So, any moisture you create becomes trapped inside your jacket and you become wet. This all gives the appearance that your jacket is leaking. After all, it’s wet on the outside and wet on the inside in the same places!

So, the issue is not that your jacket leaks, but that the DWR has worn off and the jacket cannot function properly. This is not a quality problem with your jacket.  As you use your jacket and stuff it in and out of your pack, the DWR coating is abraded and wears off. This is normal. Periodically, re-treat it with an after market spray such as Revivetech. The spray-on stuff is best (wash-in is the alternative). A simple spray once or twice a season will keep your jacket in good working order, with no more apparent “leaking problems”. Every other season or so, it’s also a good idea to throw your jacket in the dryer on medium heat. This will warm the W-B layer and it will “even out” the surface so that the jacket continues to breathe well.

A rainy day is no excuse to not have fun in the backcountry. So grab your rain-jacket and hit the trail!

Tech Tips: Down vs Synthetic

SYMG Guides Colby and Laura wearing Columbia's Ultrachange synthetic jackets on a damp and snowy day in Yosemite Valley

One questions we get a lot in the SYMG office is regarding down vs synthetic insulation. These are fill choices for all of the sleeping bag and “puffy” jackets. Let’s explore the differences of each and discuss situations where each one excels.

Down fill is very light and compressible. It is typically given a “fill” rating between 500 and 900, indicating the quality of the down. The higher the number the lighter, more compressible and more expensive the piece will be. For any given temperature rating, down is lighter and more compressible than a synthetic fill. It also has a longer lifespan. The major drawback of down is that if it gets wet, it is utterly useless and takes a very long time to dry, even in ideal conditions. A waterproof dry-sack will keep your bag dry even when dunked in a creek, but humidity is more difficult to contend with, and accidents do happen.

Synthetic fills are man-made hollow fibers that trap heat. Their major benefits are that they retain up to 60% of their warmth even when wet and are less expensive than down for any given temperature rating. The downside is that they are heavier and less compressible than down.

So, which to use? I like to think of my gear choices in terms of a system.  In this case, we want our system to be lightweight, take up a minimum volume in our pack, and we need insulative value even in the event that our gear gets wet. Packing a synthetic bag and jacket will certainly keep us warmer if wet, but will be heavier than we’d like. All down runs the risk of having no insulating pieces if it gets wet. So, the combination that works best is perhaps a down sleeping bag and synthetic jacket. Since the bag is heavier and bulkier than the jacket by nature, it’s a good candidate for down. Meanwhile, the synthetic jacket will work if the down bag gets wet.

Especially in the sunny Sierra, this system works great. However, there are times when other systems are preferable. For instance, on kayaking trips or backpacking in rainy, wet forests of Olympic National Park, you may prefer to have all synthetics since there is a good chance of getting your stuff wet. On winter mountaineering trips, all down might be best because there’s little chance of getting them wet (everything is frozen). This minimizes weight and space, making room for all the extra winter gear.