Monday, July 21, 2014

Ultralight Gear and the Curse of the Were-Goat

Sometimes I sit down to write out a piece and it's formed out perfectly in my mind. I just sit down and the words, thoughts and ideas flow from brain, to fingers, to keyboard and to you- the reader. Sometimes the idea that I want to convey has already taken crystalline form long before your ever click onto the url or read it in your feed.

There are other times, however, that I sit down and wrestle with thoughts and opinions in print as if the act of writing were some form of catharsis and you, dear reader, are mere spectators to the inner workings of my thought. I must report that this piece is much more that latter than the former.

Among activities this fall, I am joining a hunt with my friends John and Gary in pursuit of Rocky Mountain Goat and Black Bear and to access that rugged country we will require the assistance of a bush pilot and the standby of bush aviation- the Super Cub. I must admit that even though I have some experience in light aircraft I never really used one to support a hunt before even though it's a  fairly common occurrence here. We'll leave a dirt strip in a nondescript field somewhere south of Glenallen and about 45 minutes later we'll be deposited one by one on top of the Chugach Range along a long spine of a ridge at 5000' above sea level. With any luck we'll look down on the goats and spot bears for miles.

The restrictions placed on the access by Cub are that we each can take ourselves and 70 pounds of equipment maximum into the hunting area. While that doesn't present any significant challenges with some good planning and discussion of who will bring what with them. It does somewhat complicate things in that certain sacrifices have to be made. Vehicle based hunts that I do tend to veer heavy since I usually have the family or a new hunter along. We go for comfort and why not? The vehicle carries the weight and we day hunt from a fairly luxe camp. Float hunting or ATV hunts are just slightly lighter versions of the same. I do comparatively little backpacking these days but the durations are shorter and I tend to stay within a day's march of the road system in any case so planning for every possible contingency just isn't required- a Spartan camp and we bail if the weather gets bad or someone falls ill.

Not so much in the big mountains. None of us really have substantial goat hunting experience in this area and goats tend to live where sheep fear to tread. Every year more Alaska goat hunters perish in the field than in all other hunting excursions....combined. Even within my fairly small circle of friends I count two who have been evac'd after bad falls that broke bone. Bad weather is common and hampers those efforts, so with that in mind we get to work planning our gear and the trade offs become apparent. Most comfort items are out, more safety items are in and we're always right on the razor's edge of weight limits.

It is working within those limits that have caused me to realize exactly why so many remote hunters and backpackers are so weight fixated and veer toward the lightest such equipment available. But I wonder...Does that always make sense? I will admit outright that UL gear is better than it's ever been and far more available. In the olden days when UL backpacking was basically Ray Jardine and a couple dozen misfits, we hiked the Appalachian Trail with 50 pound base loads and those guys in sneakers carrying a knapsack with a sheet of visqueen and a  tin of peanut brittle seemed to be on a stunt or a dare more than anything else. These days a base load for a 7 day backpack hunt can be under 40 pounds including your rifle and as I age the idea of walking around on a day hunt with a feather light load appeals to me and I've messed around with the ultralight gear off and on with a confusing mixed bag of results.

When I drew my sheep tag I bought some UL gear in earnest since that was a 7 day walk in hunt. I bought the "State of the Art" carbon fiber framed uber light pack and it was such a miserable P.O.S. that I nearly burned it on the mountain and hauled my stuff rolled up in my tent like a giant hobo pouch. That state of the art has now been upgrade/redesigned three times since then even though that was only 2011. I went back to my Mystery Ranch 6500- which is a huge and nearly bombproof pack that weighs 10.25 pounds...three times more than the wunderkind new kid but it works and has hauled a literal "ton of meat" off of the mountains. I gotta admit though, when working within tight weight restrictions such a heavy pack seems a bit egregious.

I'm also a proponent of light rifles. Or used to be. Never mind- I'll illuminate. In the way back when, when I was learning to hunt, rifles were heavy. An average scoped sporter weight rifle of average dimensions tipped the scales at about 10 pounds or more. One of the first serious attempts by an American maker at a "lightweight" was Winchester's beautiful Featherweight model. Even then. It weighed 7.5 or so pounds without a scope and ready to hunt it's closer to 8.5 or even 9 pounds. So when the more recent crop of rifles came out that could deliver a 'ready to hunt' '06 or .270 at an honest 7.5 pounds that was something. My Steyr Scout at 6.8 pounds was among the lightest production rifles available when it was released and even then the gun press howled about the fierce recoil. It's now regarded as chunky by the UL crowd.

My friend John just bought a new Kimber 84L....scoped it weighs exactly 6.5 pounds in .30-06. I kicks harder than I thought an '06 could. John named it "the angry little gun". But beyond recoil, it's a difficult rifle to shoot. Every slight twitch is magnified and every stiff breeze seems to sway the muzzle. It's an accurate rifle but you really have to work your butt off to put it to use. After sprinting up a mountain or thrashing through a bog I wonder how it will shoot with the hunter huffing and puffing? I'm betting it'll be tough to settle down in the field. Back in the day O'Connor wrote about not dropping a rifle below about 7.5 pounds- he might have been on to something with that but it's common now. Playing around with an even lighter Mountain Ascent at under 5 pounds makes me think we've hit diminishing returns in that department. It felt like shooting a high powered soda straw.

Lightweight tents are another area. Some of what passes for shelter gives me the heebie jeebies...especially when you go into the mountains in fall. A good tent is a make or break piece of kit and while I totally get the awesome weight reduction by using a tipi or a tarp supported by a couple trekking poles, what do you do when the wind hits 75 mph? Could be trouble of the hypothermia kind. Another acquaintance of mine was rescued after spending 3 days rolled up in his super light weight tent that failed under wind and snow load during a late summer blizzard. I'd have no issues skipping along the AT with one of these tarp tents in the summer or even fall but in the mountains you might need a more durable shelter. I've got friends that swear by them, but I've not come around to the idea yet.

I'm all for carrying less pack weight but I still need the equipment to do what I need it to do. A tent has to protect me from crappy weather, a pack has to both carry and stabilize a reasonably sized load off a mountain, and a rifle has to be able to shoot accurately under field conditions. It also can't weigh so much that I can't get it to where I'm going.

On the ultralight front I will say that most of the gear is reasonably good but often misapplied in the north but several of the ultralight gear adherents that are friends of mine seem to never take the same setup twice. One friend of mine spends 100+ days a year in the field but he's constantly changing tents, packs, rain gear, etc., I truly believe that he hasn't taken the same basic gear on two trips in a year yet. There's nothing wrong with that of course, but it doesn't tell you much about the longevity of the equipment either. A justifiable retort would be that heavy gear can wear out or fail just like UL gear can and that's true. Some heavy gear is no better and sometimes worse than a UL counterpart that weighs in at two or three times less.

Longevity and durability though tie directly to price. Most of the UL gear is priced according to its niche market status. That means that the UL 1 pound down sleeping bag rated to 20F is likely going to cost you well over what a generic synthetic 4 pound 20F bag is going to cost.  How much? maybe something like 20X more. The majority of the UL gear is priced like that- some of it has production numbers in the dozens and a lot of it is produced domestically which is something of a bright spot for me since mass produced goods in Asia typically have quality control issues but you are going to pay for that.

The other part of outdoor gear in general and UL gear in particular is that it seems that the industry is very fashion oriented. Everyone is producing gear and changing specs and materials year to year and many of the enthusiasts just budget to replace substantial portions of their kit annually. Nothing wrong with that but I'm a slightly frugal guy too. I can't justify a $500 pack every spring or a "new and improved" tipi shelter or titanium spork for every season. It seems though that for the true UL enthusiast that is the price of admission and many are willing to pay it. On the counterpoint, many of the traditionally minded folks scoff at such dainty gear and those who like it and will say that a hunter should just "man up" and carry a real gun and sleep in a canvas tent, etc, etc, etc. I primarily see those guys, however, hunting from trucks and huge ATVs. Once I walk a mile or two from the trail or road I seldom see any of that crowd.

So I'll close this out no wiser than when I started. Only realizing that a balance is required and that's true of most things in life.

1 comment:

Jess | Scimitar Oryx Hunting said...

Nowadays, a hunter can be overwhelmed by the wide selection of hunting gears. In my observation with the tools and gears that are available for hunters nowadays, hunting got more exciting. It has also made way for a convenient and successful hunt.