Tag Archives: Backpacking

Gear Review: Sierra Designs’ Convert 2, Two Person Tent

Sierra Designs’ Convert 2

I was recently given the opportunity to test the Sierra Design’s Convert 2, four season tent. I had not used a four season tent in the past, but was painfully aware of some of the shortcomings of using a very lightweight three season model during the winter months. By contrast, this was one solid shelter. There was a price to pay in the weight department, but not a terrible one.

Basic Specs

MSRP: $499.95

Packed weight: With vestibule 5 lb. 12 oz. Packed weight: w/o vestibule and 4 less stakes 4lb. 9 oz

Shelter Type: Four season, self standing

Dimensions:

Floor: 84” long x 55” wide (head), 49” (foot)
Interior: 30.3 square feet
Vestibule: 16.4 square feet
Peak: 43 inches

Materials:

Floor: 68D 210T poly ripstop nylon
Fly: 20D ripstop nylon
Mesh: 15D no-see-um
Poles: Yunan UL aluminum

The Tent

As always, before heading out into the field, I try new equipment at a location where my house is an easy fallback. Everything was packed nicely in a “burrito” bag now larger than a similar three season tent. The 15 stakes and three poles all fit within a single compartmentalized sack inside. I immediately noticed everything about this shelter was heavier duty than I was used to. Overall “fit and finish” was excellent. It was obviously well made.

The tent went up intuitively and quickly. Being four season, there was no exposed mesh. I did not turn the hose in it, but it seemed obvious that the tent could be set up in the rain without much water intrusion before the fly could be put on. Staked down and even using just some of the guylines, the pitch was rock solid.

The sides and doorway are nearly vertical, making the tent seem extremely roomy. Two pads and bags fit side by side with floor to spare. The high (43 inch) peak height was outstanding as far as comfort. The 16.4 square foot vestibule was cavernous, with the door set to one side to cheat the winter wind when entering or leaving the shelter. This was a tent I could see being livable through a winter storm if necessary. It packed up easily and fit back in it’s storage bag. It was time for a real world test.

Testing the Sierra Designs Convert 2

Former co-worker and fellow backpacker Bill and I were planning a November trip, but the weather doesn’t always want to cooperate at that time of year in Ohio. However, since I wanted to test the tent, the forecast of rain turning to snow, high wind and a low in the mid-20s wasn’t a deterrent.

We would be hiking the backpack trail at Tar Hollow State Forest. Despite the touristy name, the trails are fairly rigged for the Midwest. It was pouring rain on the drive out, so a second breakfast at McDonalds was in order. The delay ended up giving us around six hours of light to hike the 12+ miles we had planned. A light rain was falling as we began.

Bill, trying out Umbrella Hiking

Bill was carrying his Nemo 3 season tent, so I decided that I’d have no need for the Convert’s vestibule. That decision saved me a bit over a pound in the pack. That was a good decision as the trail was wet, creek crossings were numerous, the hills were steep and switchbacks were non-existent. It’s not often a trail is steep enough that I feel I’m hiking face to face with it, but that was the case in a few spots.

Conditions slowed us a bit, and with the late start, we arrived at the designated camp area in the dark. As no one else was enjoying the Tar Hollow camp experience, we had our choice of spots on the ridge and found a nice flat area without any standing water or apparent widow makers.

The rain had quit, replaced by occasional showers of ice pellets while we set up our tents by headlamp. Again the tent went up quickly and my sleeping bag, pack and all my gear fit in with room to spare. The large doorway is waterproof when closed, so the vestibule would not be missed.  I christened the tent, The Palace.

The Palace

With the wind beginning to howl, I made sure to guy out the sides of the tent. Utilizing a sliding ring, high and low guy out points are both used while only needing one stake. The Palace was quickly locked down and steady.

We kept a fire going for a while after dinner, but eventually the increasing wind, dropping temperature and ice pellet showers drove us to our respective tents. Since I’d be needing every bit of my 23 degree bag’s warming power, I kept The Palace zipped up tight with the foot area venting closed. It would be a good test of the material’s winter weather breathability.

Night’s are long in November, but I slept through the night, warm and dry. Despite the wind, the Convert’s fly remained taut and quiet. The temperature was in the mid 20s by morning. In Bill’s tent, his water froze. Mine did not. In addition, I had no issues with condensation whatsoever. For cold weather camping, this was one impressive tent.

Summary

Additional time spent with the tent only reinforced my positive initial impressions. The convert 2 is a well made, roomy, livable 2 person, 4 season tent. For one person, It’s downright palatial. However, as with any tent, there are compromises. While light and price competitive with other four season tents, it is heavy and expensive compared to most three season models. It all depends upon what you are looking for. This is not the tent to take on a summer thru-hike. However, if you’re thinking about expanding your camping horizons into the winter months or well into snowy mountains, this is a great piece of equipment.

  • The two-wall design with a breathable (not mesh) inner wall works well to keep in warmth and let out moisture vapor.
    • The weight, while heavy compared to a three-season tent, is light compared to other four-season tents of its size.
    • The removable vestibule can reduce weight when not needed but adds significant covered space.
    • The vertical walls and high peak make the tent very livable during bad-weather days.
    • Tent stakes are T-shaped, tough, and grip well. However, the tops were not machined off at all and are sharp. You’ll need to wear a glove when sinking the stakes by hand.
    • Two small pockets are adequate, but no more.
    • The suggested retail price is in line with comparable tents at $499.95.
    • A footprint is available. It will add nearly ½ pound to your pack and subtract $30 from your wallet.

Tent body w/o fly

 

Trail Report: Logan Trail at Tar Hollow State Forest, South Loop

Bill, a former co-worker and fellow backpacker and I were trying to plan a short November trip, but the weather doesn’t always want to cooperate at that time of year in Ohio. However, since I wanted to test a new winter tent (Sierra Designs Convert 2), the forecast of rain turning to snow, high wind and a low in the mid-20s wasn’t a deterrent.

We would be hiking the backpack trail at Tar Hollow State Forest. It was pouring rain on the drive out, so a second breakfast at McDonalds was in order. The delay ended up giving us a bit under six hours of light to hike the 10 or so miles we had planned.

Despite the touristy name, Tar Hollow’s trails are fairly rugged for the Midwest. They meander through both 600 acre Tar Hollow State Park and the larger, surrounding Tar Hollow State Forest (16,000+acres). Located in Ross, Vinton and Hocking Counties, east of Chillicothe, Tar Hollow is a rugged landscape originally named after the pine tar pulled from the native pines growing there. The park is not as developed as your typical State Park but does offer a 15 acre lake, trails and a few camping options.

The Logan Trail is a backpack trail which is laid out in a pattern resembling a figure eight. The only trailside camping permitted is within the state park near the center of the eight and a large fire tower. The area consists of five small campsites that share a latrine. There is no potable water at the camp area.

Stopping at the park office we paid the $4/person/night fee for the “backcountry” camping. There are two trailheads typically used by hikers. In an effort to keep things simple and easy, we began from the fire tower as a light rain continued to fall.

Of the two loops, the southern spent more time in the forest and less in the park, so south it would be. Trail intel gleaned from the Interweb stated the trail was marked significantly better if hiking in a counter-clockwise direction, so that’s the way we went. This trail was originally constructed by the Boy Scouts. It is generally maintained well and marked well, but don’t expect to see a switchback. Several sections have been maintained through the use of a small bulldozer however, and were not quite the immersion in nature a singletrack trail provides.

The two loops run together for a bit less than ½ mile, then the South loop splits off. A drop and a few subsequent climbs made me wish that the word switchback had been in the builder’s vocabulary. With the ongoing rain, the slopes were slick. It’s not often a trail is steep enough that I feel I’m hiking face to face with it, but that was the case in a few spots.

Creek crossings were numerous, but even with the rain, were not typically tough to cross. The late fall color was still pretty good and although wet, the scenery was ruggedly beautiful.

Bill trying out Umbrella Hiking

There was one spot where the trail marking failed us. Nearly five miles in, we were walking on a ridgetop on what appeared to be an old service road. An obvious trail, blazed in red, dropped off the ridge. There were no blazes or signs in sight continuing straight, so we followed the blazes. It was one of the steepest drops of the trail and the maintenance level dropped as well, but it continued to be well blazed. After a half hour the forest opened into a meadow that was obviously the Camp Dulen Boy Scout Camp. We were a mile off the main trail. A posted map showed the camp at the end of a loop, so rather than backtrack, we continued onward.

This was quite possibly a mistake as the trail degraded significantly. It seemed as if this portion of the trail had been abandoned. Where the trail “disappeared,” we navigated from one faded blaze to the next until we reached a better maintenance level in time to reclimb the steep slope.

On the plus side, the rain had quit by the time we were back on the main trail. We walked right by our mistaken turn and were reassured that it was poor marking, and not our poor navigation that resulted in our detour. However, the side trip cost us an extra two miles, conditions had slowed us a bit, and with the late start, we ended up hiking in the dark. Despite having to deal with the remains of some timbercutting in the dark, we arrived at the designated camp area without any other issues.

As no one else was enjoying the Tar Hollow camp experience, we had our choice of spots on the ridge and found a nice flat area (area 124) without any standing water or apparent widow makers.

The rain had quit, replaced by occasional showers of ice pellets while we set up our tents by headlamp. The “test” tent went up quickly and my sleeping bag, pack and all my gear fit in with room to spare. The large doorway was waterproof when closed, so my decision to leave the removable vestibule at home was a good one.  I christened the tent, The Palace. For a full review of the tent, check here.

The Palace

There was plenty of firewood in the area, but it was all wet. One plus to having a vehicle nearby was we had brought a little dry wood. This starter supply was enough to get a warm blaze going well enough that careful feeding of the damp wood continued to keep the flames strong. The vehicle also served as a cache for extra water (and other liquids).

We kept a fire going for a while after dinner, but eventually the increasing wind, dropping temperature and ice pellet showers drove us to our respective tents. Since I’d be needing every bit of my 23 degree bag’s warming power, I kept The Palace zipped up tight with the foot area venting closed. It would be a good test of the material’s winter weather breathability.

Night’s are long in November, but I slept through the night, warm and dry. Despite the wind, the Convert’s fly remained taut and quiet. The temperature was in the mid 20s by morning. In Bill’s tent, his water froze. Mine did not. In addition, I had no issues with condensation whatsoever. For cold weather camping, the Convert was an impressive tent.

In the morning, the sky was clear but the cold front had done it’s job. Bill’s socks, which had gotten wet on a creek crossing, were frozen solid. He was able to send of photo of them to his son for his enjoyment. We hiked a few more miles in the park, just to explore a bit then headed back in time to watch a little football.

Trail Info

Logan Trail is located in Tar Hollow State Park and Forest, near Chillicothe. Head east from town on US 50 for less than ten miles to State Rt 327 North. Ten more miles will bring you to the Entrance to Tar Hollow State Park. Camp permits are available at the camp office and signs can direct you to the fire tower.

The South Loop is approximately 9 miles long if you don’t visit Camp Dulen. Per my Garmin, the elevation varied between 680 feet to 1,270 feet. The South Loop is generally rolling with two major drops and climbs of 400+ ft (three if you make the wrong turn). There were several creek crossings, but, even with recent rain, none were overly difficult.

Overall, the South Loop of Logan Trail provides a relatively challenging hike with some beautiful forested scenery. Unlike the nearby trails of Hocking Hills though, there is no need to worry about crowds.

 

Trail Report: The John Muir Trail

Summary

Length: 211 miles
Location: The trail runs from Yosemite National Park to the peak of Mt Whitney
Trail Type: Shuttle
Scenery: Postcard views of the Sierra Nevada with beautiful streams, lakes and significant wildlife

Trail Overview

Cathedral Peak

(This article first appeared in thetrek.co) 

Named after the first President of the Sierra Club, the “JMT” winds from Happy Isles in Yosemite Valley, through three National Parks and two Wilderness Areas before ending at the top of Mt Whitney, the highest point in the continental United States. Sharing 170 miles with the PCT, the path is well constructed with grades that can be handled by mules. However, that does not mean it’s an easy stroll. It crosses eight passes near or over 11,000 feet including Forrester Pass, the highest point on the entire PCT.

Huge vistas, beautiful mountain lakes, plentiful wildlife and a taste of wilderness travel place the JMT on many people’s hiking bucket list. With good reason; the stark beauty of the Sierra Nevada is hard to beat anywhere in the world.

Terrain

Nevada Falls and some really old granite

One hundred million year old granite uplifted into mountains and shaped by glaciers results in some incredible sights, and also a trail that is challenging. While located and graded very well, nothing changes the fact that there are tremendous elevation changes. The vast majority of hikers begin at the northern terminus, (Happy Isles in Yosemite National Park) which sits at 4,000 feet. Twelve miles later, hikers are already near 10,000 feet.

If that first climb doesn’t leave you breathless, the scenery will. Iconic views such as Nevada Falls and Half Dome are just the start of a daily parade of incredible vistas. The climbs and drops, along with accompanying views, continue along the length of the trail.

The most difficult climb is saved for the end however. From a “low” point of 10,700 feet, the trail begins the assault on the southern terminus of the trail, Mt Whitney’s peak. Over 7 miles the path climbs nearly 5,000 feet through broken granite. The fact that there is only about 60% of the oxygen available at sea level doesn’t help either. The effort is worth it though. You’ve finished the trail and are at 14,505 feet, the highest point in the continental US. Take some time to enjoy the views and your accomplishment.

Although you are done with the trail at this point, there’s no shuttle standing by. There’s still a bit of hiking to do. The closest road (Whitney Portal) is 10 miles and 6,600 vertical feet away.

Getting There

Most thru-hikers hike from North to South. The northern terminus is at the eastern end of Yosemite Valley inside Yosemite National Park. From the San Francisco/San Jose area, CA-120 East get you close enough to follow the signs to the park. In addition, there are public transportation options  to the park and free bus service throughout the park. There is also public transportation between Yosemite and Lone Pine, the town closest to Mt Whitney.

Why hike this trail

Think about all those inspirational quotes from John Muir. Most of them were written about this very area. There are “take your breath away” vistas on a daily basis. The iconic views are just one of many reasons to hike this classic trail though.

The distance (211 miles, plus another 10 to get to a paved road) is short enough to be doable for most hikers with a two week vacation, but is packed with challenges and wilderness experiences. The last 150+ miles are nowhere near a road.

With the entire trail within a national park or wilderness area, wildlife is plentiful. The change in elevation brings a variety of both flora and fauna to experience. I saw a variety of wildlife but was struck by the large predators that roam this complete ecosystem. Bear, bobcat and coyote shared the spotlight with deer, marmot, pika and more. Not seen by me, but in the park are beaver, bighorn sheep and mountain lion.

Climate and Weather

Normally pleasant, but not always

John Muir called the Sierra’s the “gentle wilderness” and summer/early fall weather lives up to that name; being typically sunny and dry. There is all that pesky winter snow to consider however. Depending on the year, snow can remain deep on the higher passes into July. That snowmelt can also mean difficult stream crossings and plenty of mosquitoes through early summer. The best time to hike is generally July through September with my personal preference towards the September end. This period is typically dry and pleasant, though thunderstorms and/or snow at higher elevations can happen at any time.

I hiked the trail beginning just after Labor Day. Most hiking was done in shorts and a t-shirt but I was glad to have brought a hat and gloves for one snowy pass. I used a 20 degree bag and needed all the insulation on a couple higher camps.

Camping

Note the bear canister

With the number of hikers restricted by the permit process, there is no issue finding a spot to camp. I used both the JMT Pocket Atlas (Blackwoods Press) and the Guthook phone app and either reliably showed where camping options were located. There were sometimes other campers in the areas, but I never felt crowded.

Bring a tent. There are no shelters and with long stretches at high elevation, there will be times when there’ll be no trees to hang a hammock from. Bearbagging your food is not good enough. Bring or rent a bear canister.

Water Sources

Deer in a reflective mood along Lyell Fork

One of the beauties of the JMT is all the lakes and streams along the way. Despite hiking late in the season, and during a drought, water was never an issue. The guides mentioned above both listed water options and I never carried over 2 liters. While much of the water appears crystal clear at high elevations, I filtered all my water. It just seems like cheap insurance to  avoid marmot poo.

Resupply Options

Resupply options are interesting, to say the least. They start easy and get progressively more difficult as you travel north to south. Twenty miles in, there is a post office at Tuolumne Meadows. At sixty one miles, Red’s Meadow Resort is just off the trail. They will hold packages for a fee and also have a grocery on site.

At around 90 miles, the Vermillion Valley Resort (VVR) is an option. It is either a 7+ mile hike off the JMT or a shorter hike and a boat ride. Take the boat. They hold packages for a fee, have a small grocery and with a restaurant, laundry and hotel, provide a nice spot to spend the night. This was my last resupply stop. It took a bit of work to fit 130 miles worth of food into my bear canister, but by standing on the lid, I made it happen.

At 110 miles, Muir Trail Ranch (MTR) is another resupply option. They offer overnight accommodations and will hold a resupply, but I did not use them for a few reasons. For 2018, their cost to hold a resupply bucket is $80. The charge to stay in their tent cabins is $170/person/night. Despite the costs, they were actually booked solid when I was in the area. In addition, they closed for the season on the day after I planned to be passing through, too close for comfort. Everything at MTR must be hauled in well beyond any roads so I understand the prices. It doesn’t mean I have to pay them however.

Someone ordered a very expensive resupply

Beyond MTR the options get difficult or significantly more expensive. There are either long walks down side trails or rendezvous with a pack animal at a premium price.

Permits

Perhaps the biggest challenge with the JMT is just scoring a permit. If you want to start in Yosemite, plan on faxing in an application 24 weeks before your planned start date. By the end of the day, you will find out if you were successful. You probably were not. Apparently, there is such demand that well over 90% of all applications are denied. One hiker I met on the trail had been denied 22 times before she received a permit to start at Happy Isles Trailhead.
The National Park Service is in a difficult position. They have a legal duty to protect the wilderness from overuse and want to provide access to a true wilderness for those that do receive a permit. Based on my hike, the existing quota system seemed to result in a quality experience. While I was not always alone, the trail was not crowded and I always found a good spot to camp. That does not makes getting the permit any easier, however. You’ll need to plan ahead, yet be very flexible.
BTW –The permit comes with a special bag to carry in case the need arises on Mt Whitney itself. Apparently the mountain is a “no poop zone.” I don’t know if there’s much of a learning curve to using the bag, but thankfully I didn’t have to find out.

Closing Thoughts

McClure Meadow, Evolution Creek

If there was ever a “bucket list” trail, this is it. It is hard to imagine jaw dropping views, numerous wildlife sightings, a complete thru-hike and reaching the high point of the lower 48 states, all in one 200+ mile package, but here it is.

All this hiking goodness does come at a cost though. Permit aggravations, carrying the weight of a bear canister over big climbs and through thin air just add to the satisfaction you’ll feel at the finish though. Is the JMT worth the trouble? You bet it is.

Start planning your hike waaay in advance by going to the National Park Services website. My JMT Pocket Atlas is one of “Erik the Black’s Ultralight Trail Guides. The Guthook phone app will be in your App Store. If you’re interested in what my hike was like, along with hikes of the Colorado Trail and Long Trail; there’s a book about it.

Not sure whether to hike this trail? Perhaps a few quotes from John Muir himself will help you decide.

The coniferous forests of the Yosemite Park, and of the Sierra in general, surpass all others of their kind in America, or indeed the world, not only in the size and beauty of the trees, but in the number of species assembled together, and the grandeur of the mountains they are growing on

All the world lies warm in one heart, yet the Sierra seems to get more light than other mountains. The weather is mostly sunshine embellished with magnificent storms, and nearly everything shines from base to summit – the rocks, streams, lakes, glaciers, irised falls, and the forests of silver fir and silver pine.

Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees.

Keep close to Nature’s heart… and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean

The mountains are calling and I must go.

And my personal favorite: Of all the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt.

View from the top of Whitney