Stitching and Bitching: Building My Own Gear
Cut to my last big camping experience: in January, on the slopes of Mt. Kilimanjaro. Temperatures at night dipped into the high 20’s. Using a sleeping bag, foam pad and tent provided by the guide company, I dreaded my nightly attempt to sleep. Despite wearing every piece of clothing I had brought, I absolutely FROZE. And each morning I had to deal with a wet sleeping bag, thanks to all the condensation from our breath and bodies building up inside the tent.
Once home, I reconsidered the one-person Big Agnes Copper Spur tent I had bought for my 2017-18 AT flip-flop hike. Darling tent, but I didn’t want to have to deal with all that condensation again. I had read that the human body can release up to a liter of moisture per night. This all collects on the inner walls of the tent, making this human cold and her sleeping bag damp.
Poring over lightweight backpacking guru Ray Jardine’s website (www.rayjardine.com) and book, Trail Life, I realized that I had to think outside the traditional box. During a previous long distance trek, I had much success with a lightweight backpack I had made from one of his kits. I decided to go the “RayWay” 100%. Time to bite the bullet and put my trust in his form of shelter: the tarp. Tarps have a relative small following these days, but provide much better air circulation than enclosed tents. I was ready to give it a try.
The order was placed and multiple items arrived just a couple of days later.
All of these slim packages would be made into a tarp, insect-resistant net tent (the “Spitfire”), several stowbags, a sleeping quilt and another, larger backpack. I was excited about getting back to sewing, after a hiatus of several years.
Let the stitching (and some bitching) begin
The room that I have called my sewing room for years once again earned its name. The tarp was first to tackle, with its yards of lightweight nylon to measure and sew together, using the easy-to-follow instructions. I learned the hard way, though, to measure FOUR TIMES and cut once, and to call it a day when fatigue set in.
Several evenings were spent watching Ray’s instructional DVD and reading his Tarp Book Essential. I needed to learn how to made this fluffy white mass into a reliable sleeping structure.
Just a few days later, my tarp was done! Guy lines were attached, essential knots were practiced and the tarp was unveiled and setup between two trees in our back yard. Victory!
It stayed up, thanks to the butterfly clove hitch knots used on the guy lines. Any slanting rain that might appear wouldn’t enter the open ends of the tarp thanks to the beaks that work sort of as triangular awnings. And I could be further protected from a storm by the adjustable “batwing” door that could be attached to close off one end. Very cool designs!
I wasn’t quite done yet. Practicing my knots again, I set up the tarp in the protective garage (don’t judge us by its condition) and sealed the seams with silicone. Not the most fun job, but I’ll appreciate it when it rains.
Don’t stop sewing yet!
The tarp would work perfectly fine as my future lodging on the AT, if it weren’t for the most annoying creatures on the trail: insects. Particularly ticks, which are a real problem, thanks to Lyme Disease.
Thus, the “Spitfire,” Ray’s best net-tent design he has to offer, was next on my to-do list.
Working with the fine netting for the walls and ceiling and the slippery vinyl floor was challenging.
Patience and reading instructions at least four times to get it right resulted in another finished project, after just a few days’ work.
Back to the backyard to see how the tarp and Spitfire worked together. After setting up the tarp again, the net tent was placed underneath. It got its structure by being held in place with adjustable guy lines that fastened to the corners and roofline of the underside (inside) of the tarp.
Beside me in the picture below is my first, smaller RayWay backpack that I made back in 2009.
To quote Ray, the Spitfire isn’t meant to be palatial. That’s the truth! You have to back into it through an opening made by 3 zippers coming together. My twice-weekly Pilates sessions sure paid off here! And, to keep the weight of the net tent low, it’s not tall enough for me to sit up in, although the tarp itself can be. But I figure that, by the time I get inside the thing after multiple hours on the trail, I’ll be ready to just zonk out. And will be grateful to be in a bug-free but ventilated space, especially in July and August.
It’s actually very fun snuggling into the Spitfire. Here are my two darling granddaughters peeking out of the lower foot end of the net tent. Cute, aren’t they? Too bad they aren’t up for a 5 month hike.
Time for bedding
Ray Jardine also offers instructions and materials for making sleeping quilts. Basically, you make a quilt (synthetic filler, not down), shape it slightly to fit your body, sew one end into a cozy pocket for your feet, and voila, you’re in business. Having his precise cutting and assembling instructions made it “voila.” Without those, I couldn’t have figured it out.
In process: putting all the layers together:
Because you basically don’t get added warmth from the part of a traditional sleeping bag that is under you, these quilts save weight by eliminating that part. In warm weather, you just cover yourself as you would with a regular blanket or quilt. In colder situations, you can tuck the edges of the quilt and its single layer border called a “draft stopper” slightly under your body. I love the freedom and flexibility of this technique.
With the added assistance of those two darling granddaughters, I was able to finish my lightweight summer sleeping quilt and several stowbags in three days. I had made a heavier quilt for early spring hiking a few months earlier, so I was now set for 3 seasons. I love how cozy it is to sleep under these!
Our “grandcats” showing typical feline disrespect for my diligent sewing efforts:
To store the quilt, tarp, and spitfire, I made several stowbags with the girls as well. I love sewing with them.
The final, most important piece in the backpacking puzzle: THE BACKPACK
Back in 2009, I made my first RayWay product, his 2200 cubic inch backpack, for a 1000 mile hike in Europe. I didn’t need a larger one because I didn’t camp or cook on this trip, staying instead in hikers’ refuges and inns. Light and easy! But I absolutely loved this backpack, which weighed in at…are you ready?…..just 11.8 ounces! Ray believes that hipbelts aren’t needed when you carry light enough of a load. I agree completely.
But for the AT, I definitely needed a larger pack. I’d be hauling camping and cooking gear, as well as warmer clothes for some months of the trip. After debating which one of the three larger sizes of backpacks to order, I decided on his largest, the 2800 cubic inch (45.8 liters). Again, the same design, in the size that was correct for my measurements, and in colors I personally chose (well, the darling granddaughters chose). In addition to the 45.8 liters, there’s an expansion collar that can add much more storage at the top of the pack, as well as three very spacious net pockets.
I was nervous about this project. Would the backpack be big enough for all that I wanted to take? Even though I have been meticulous about researching lightweight gear and eliminating objects that were simple indulgences, I knew I’d be taking more than more experienced backpackers would. Ray Jardine has thru-hiked the AT four times, so he has this process nailed, and often uses his smallest backpack.
But I need not have worried. It went together beautifully. Well, I won’t point out my late-night sewing errors, accompanied by very colorful language. But the mistakes are well hidden.
My gear fits in just right. I’m crazy about the pack, and love the blue color the girls chose.
So the gear is finally made…was it worth all the effort?
A big YES! Making your own gear gives you such a feeling of success and ownership in the whole process of this thing called a thru-hike. No one else on the trail will have what I have, although I’m sure I’ll see a few RayWay tarps and backpacks along the way.
Besides saving money (his kits aren’t overly expensive), another huge advantage is the weight savings. Ready for the numbers?
16.6 oz: tarp with one batwing (covers one end) and tent pegs in stowbags
11.8 oz: spitfire net tent in stowbag
1 lb 5.4 oz: summer-weight synthetic sleeping quilt in stowbag
2 lbs. 3 oz: heavy-weight, wider, cold weather synthetic sleeping quilt in stowbag
10.1 oz !!!: 2800 cubic inch (45.8 liters) backpack, plus expansion collar & 3 large pockets
Can you believe the weight of that backpack? His new design is even lighter than the smaller backpack was 8 years ago. The heaviest things involved are the comfortable, padded shoulder straps. There’s no pack frame, but it’s not needed. I arrange my items carefully in the pack, putting my 1/8 inch thick Gossamer Gear foam pad folded against my back, and my Thermarest NeoAir mattress likewise. It’s all very comfy.
My total pack weight for chilly early spring hiking (minus consumables) comes in under 14 pounds. I’m not exact on the final numbers, but I do know that it’s a very easy load to carry.
Tested and approved…so far….
I’ve been out on two weekend backpacking trips to test everything, and have been very pleased. My two biggest challenges so far haven’t been with the gear, but working out how many layers to take for cold weather sleeping (I sleep COLD!), and making myself crawl out of the Spitfire net tent at 2 am when nature calls. I hate getting out of our flannel-sheeted bed at home, so leaving a cozy sleeping quilt for a 37 degree potty run is REALLY t0ugh! I’m sure I’ll eventually train myself to end this early morning bladder discomfort.
Will the tarp and the net tent work out? So far, so good, but only time will tell. But I’m sure willing to give it a try. I have faith in the system.
Off to the AT in 2.5 weeks for a shakedown hike
Since I can’t begin my SOBO hike from Harpers Ferry till mid- to late-July, I am itching to get on the trail before then. So I’ll be going to Harpers Ferry for the ATC’s Flip Flop Festival during the weekend of April 22-23, and will hit the trail NOBO that Sunday for a weeklong practice hike. I CAN’T WAIT! Now that I have my gear, clothes and dehydrated meals ready, I’m eager to get this show on the road!!!
Thanks for your interest, and check back in a couple of weeks to see how all the gear…and this body…worked out on the trail.
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