Love and Packrafts

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The Little Blue Boat on its first river excursion back in 2008. It didn’t end well…a shallow creek bed and deadfall led to a long, swampy walk out. 

My very first foray with the sport of packrafting was back in 2007. Sore-legged and weary after the Soggy Bottom 100 mountain bike race on the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska, I found myself navigating a rental car through back alley streets of Anchorage on a clear, crisp fall day in search of Alpacka Packraft World Headquarters. I’d first learned about these rafts by reading magazine stories of a mystical, distant group of bike riders in Alaska who would ride along beaches and then paddle from inlet-to-inlet along the Alaskan sound, strapping their bikes to the front of the tiny rubber boats. Even then, the rawness and authenticity of these type adventures appealed to me, because it was like nothing I’d ever seen. They seemed like a warrior clan from another land. I wanted to be like them.

After scouring the internet I found the contact information for Sheri Tingey, the owner of Alpacka Rafts. Legend had it a few years earlier, Sheri built the first packraft because her son Thor needed something the cross the water-clad Alaskan tundra in the summer. Sheri sewed the boat in her garage and Alpacka was born. I traded a few phone calls with Sheri telling her I wanted one of her boats. With a wry chuckle she told me she had a factory second with a cosmetic defect at a discounted price that she could sell me.

Turns out the world headquarters of Alpacka was a cluttered garage in the home of middle-aged yet spry looking Sheri. When I arrived, Sheri was expecting me, and pulled out of a pile in the garage a shiny looking royal-blue rubber raft. She rummaged through another pile and pulled out a perfect fitting spray skirt, and had an old five-piece fiberglass paddle that she sold me for $10. Walking out of the garage with my new boat was exhilarating, a freedom similar to that felt by a child when he or she gets their first bike.

As I boarded the plane in Anchorage heading back home to Colorado, I felt a strong sense that big world of adventure had just opened up.

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The start of the 2007 Soggy Bottom 100 Bike Race and the reason I was in Alaska to pick-up that first packraft. This was simply an amazing 100-miler on the Kenai Peninsula out of the fun and quirky town of Hope, Alaska. I strongly remember the endless singletrack across the tundra and the never ending jingle of bear bells as I pedaled for 12 hours across the wilds of Alaska. Thus far, it’s is the last bike race I’ve done. 

Turns out I didn’t use that first packraft much. Winter hit early that year freezing the waterways and the next few years of my life were filled with enough chaos to make relaxing trips into the mountains to go rafting a rarity. I did do some exploring of high alpine lakes west of home, and enjoyed the novel idea of hiking to a lake and then paddling around it. I wondered if some if these lakes had ever had a boat on them. I even tried to raft a way-too-low creek connecting two alpine lakes and almost lost my neck to an overhanging tree strainer. I loosely formulated a plan to be the first person to packraft every single lake in the Indian Peaks Wilderness during the next few years.

Alas, life had other plans. I ended up selling that packraft to a guy in Norway to fund a trip to meet my eventual wife in Ireland. It was a worthwhile sacrifice: we ended up getting engaged after a tipsy night in Gallway and have been life partners ever since. In a  weird way, that Alaskan born packraft made that possible. It was barter to get the girl.

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First paddle in the Blue Boat on Lake Isabelle. 

In the past few years Elaine and I have seen enough Banff Mountain Film Festival-style clips featuring packrafts to instill a serious case of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) in us. Our adventures seem puny compared to the unique, irreverent and quirky hike/raft, bike/raft, ski/raft excursions done by Luc Mehl and Roman Dial. These are the people we look up to, the people who make us dream bigger, folks creating adventures that are incredibly unique and authentic.

When Elaine and I came back from Greenland we were flat broke. Fortunately we were able to find jobs immediately upon return at the old gear shop we used to work at, and were able to get ourselves past the Raman noodle stage and into the pasta-and-a-decent-sauce stage fairly quickly. A lot has changed at the shop since we worked there last: the Little Red Lighthouse grew into the Great Grey Bridge. Synchronously, through a major remodel, a mostly new staff and reinventing its image, the store quietly started selling Alpacka Packrafts.

Alpacka had left distant Anchorage years earlier for a more business friendly factory deep in southwestern Colorado. The business simply outgrew Sheri’s garage. Ten years ago, when I mentioned packrafts to people I would get blank stares back. In 2018, almost all outdoor enthusiasts are familiar with packrafts and many people own them. It’s still a relatively small, niche sport, but it’s getting more popular exponentially.

The boats changed too. Instead of an oval they now had some shape that helps them cut through water better. The old packrafts required a substantial pack load on the bow to prevent the front end from jutting out of the water. The new ones are more balanced and handle better. Whereas the old rafts basically did a 45° rotation on every paddle stoke, the new ones track better than expected for a one-person raft with no rudder or keel. Features like cargo fly storage, thigh straps and removable spray decks have turned the early simple models into a game of “Pimp My Packraft.”

On our first day back at the shop we stumbled upon a packraft clinic accompanied by a tempting offer designed to get poor gear shop employees into a boat. It was slightly irresponsible, but we took the plunge and ordered rafts, from none other than Sheri’s son Thor, the recipient of Sheri’s first sewn boat. I ordered the same (but quite different) model as my first boat I picked up at that Anchorage garage: the Yukon Yaak. Besides the fact that it’s the right size for my six-foot tall frame, I like the name…the Yukon and my time there evoke strong memories for me. Elaine, who is 5’6″, ordered the smaller Alpacka model.

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The yellow and red dreamboat pack rafts.  

And then we waited. Six weeks to be exact, while the boats were created per our specs. I ordered mine in a bright yellow color – I figure it will look good on blue and grey glacial rivers with snow capped peaks behind, while Elaine got a shiny bright red boat. Elaine looks good anywhere, but the red boat will certainly compliment her well! We waited and worked and waited. And then finally, we got a notice of “package shipped and delivered.”

When we got home the first thing we did was rip open the packages to examine our new boats. They looked better than we imagined, and the folks at Alpacka tossed a calendar and some hats into the box for good measure. We didn’t get to bed until 1 am that night – too excited – but when we did the dream of floating down arctic rivers danced in our heads. In a way, packrafts have played a big role in our relationship thus far, and as such I can’t help but think they will play a big role for us as our relationship and adventures continue to progress. It’s time to fulfill that giddy excitement felt walking out of Sheri’s garage more than a decade ago.

But before all that, we need to practice…a lot. As such, to the lakes we go…

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Practice time on Lost Lake, our neighborhood lake. 

Greenland Ski Traverse Gear List

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Sometimes it’s hot, but you still gotta wear your new boots!

Here’s a quick and dirty gear list of what all we’re taking to Greenland. This isn’t a nice write up like the one I did for the Continental Divide Trail, but it gets the point across. The format is also what I generally use for our backpacking trips, where I really care about weight. And while I care about weight for this trip, I’m not sure I want to be alarmed by just how heavy everything is! It’s enough for me to know that it’s standard for a month long polar-style expedition sled to weigh 165lbs. So I’m going to say I’m in that range!

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Food is gear, too 🙂

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I got organized! Each separate colour of stuff sack is for four days of food. We still have to buy some in Greenland.

This list is my personal gear – Dan’s gear is pretty similar, although without things like the Freshette, Diva Cup, and sports bra, obviously

Gear Item Specific Weight (lb.) Have Packed!
Sled w/harness & poles Acalpulka Expedition Tour 135 ✔︎ ✔︎
Arctic Bedding Piteraq XL ✔︎ ✔︎
Sleeping Pad Closed-cell foam ✔︎ ✔︎
Sleeping Pad Therm-A-Rest X-Therm ✔︎
Sleeping Bag WM Puma 5’6” ✔︎ ✔︎
Ski Poles Asnes Fram 140 ✔︎ ✔︎
Skis w/bindings Asnes Ceclie 185 ✔︎ ✔︎
Skins x2 Asnes full length, nylon & mohair ✔︎
Kicker Skins x2 Asnes 45mm mohair ✔︎
Ski Boots Alfa Polar ✔︎
Warm Boots Steger Arctic Mukluks ✔︎
Shell Jacket Bergans Ceclie ✔︎
Shell Pants Arcteryx Alfa ✔︎
Softshell Jacket Arcteryx Gamma ✔︎
Light Pants Fjallraven Bergtagen ✔︎
Big Insulation RAB Positron ✔︎
Light Insulation Fjallraven Bergtagen ✔︎
Vest
Light Thermal Top Kari Traa Tikse ✔︎
Light Thermal Bottom Kari Traa Tikse ✔︎
Heavy Thermal Top Kari Traa Rose ✔︎
Heavy Thermal Bottom Kari Traa Rose ✔︎
Sleep Thermal Top Kari Traa Ulla ✔︎
Sleep Thermal Bottom Kari Traa Ulla ✔︎
Wool Tank Top Icebreaker 200 ✔︎
Underwear x2 Icebreaker Siren
Bra Kari Traa Ness ✔︎
Liner Socks Bridgedale Race ✔︎
VBL Socks Plastic bags
Thick Socks Darn Tough
Sleep Socks Darn Tough
Compression Socks Feetures
Mid Layer Top Melanzana Fleece ✔︎
Mid Layer Bottom Melanzana Fleece ✔︎
Light Gloves Hestra Touch Point Wool ✔︎
Light Mitts Hestra Winter Tour ✔︎
Warm Mitts BD Mercury ✔︎
Bomber Mitts Steger Arctic ✔︎
Windproof Cap EXA Lowe ✔︎
Ski Cap
Ball Cap
Headlamp Black Diamond Spot
Sunglasses Julbo MonteRosa ✔︎
Goggles Smith ✔︎
Facemask Cold Avengers ✔︎
Buff
Shovel Camp ✔︎ ✔︎
Hairties
Facewipes  Yes to primRose
Spoon Orange Plastic
Cup GSI plastic ✔︎
Bowl Nalgene Jar ✔︎
Knife Benchmade ✔︎
Thermos HydroFlask 32oz ✔︎
Large Thermos 45° Latitude 64oz ✔︎
Food Thermos HydroFlask 18oz ✔︎
Watch Suunto Ambit 3 ✔︎
Feminine Hygiene Diva Cup ✔︎
Urinary device Freshette ✔︎
Inhaler ✔︎
Toothbrush Oral B ✔︎
Lip Balm Ski Naked
Phone iphone SE w/Otterbox ✔︎
HandiSani
Cards ID/debt/insurance/passport/Global Rescue, etc.
External Battery Anker PowerCore 26800
Cords/Earbuds iphone charger, earbuds
Shoes La Sportiva Ultra Raptor GTX                      
Crevasse Rescue Kit Black Diamond Couloir, Black Diamond ATC Guide, Camp Corsa axe, 4 locking carabiners, 4 non-locking carabiners, Petzl Tibloc, varying prusiks axe
Funfun! Little Kitty toy
Total

0

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The “soft clothes” I’m bringing. The others are shells and puffies pretty much

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My big bag of shtuff! Note the kitty ❤ 

I think Bjorn approves of the kitty!

Now, here’s our group gear:

Gear Item Specific Weight (lb.) Have Packed!
Shelter Hilleberg Namatge3 ✔︎ ✔︎
Sled Bag Hilleberg ✔︎ ✔︎
Stove MSR XGK x2 ✔︎
Wind screen MSR ✔︎
Box for Cook kit w/lid for stove Plastic ✔︎
Cookware GSI 4L ✔︎
Trash Bags Lopsak Opsak, 12.25” x 20” x2 ✔︎
Fuel
Matches & Lighters
Candles
Food Sacks
Compass
Probe ✔︎ ✔︎
Snow Saw Black Diamond Snow Saw Pro ✔︎ ✔︎
1st Aid Kit

second skin, neosporin, band aids, liquid bandage, Advil, Tylenol, Advil PM, Benadryl, Peptobismol, needle, athletic tape, wound closure strips, safety pins, tweezers, nail clippers, arnica, athletic tape, Ace bandage, Dr. Braunners, Tenacious Tape

✔︎
Repair Kit

Leatherman Juice CS4, therm-a-rest repair kit, Tenacious Tape, spare pole basket, stove repair kit, bailing wire, zip ties, duct tape, tent zippers, spare pole section for tent, super glue, allen key for sleds, bungee for sleds

✔︎
Spare Binding

binding, screws, steel wool, binding buddy with drill bit

Bootfitting Supplies

Heel lifts, various wedges, bontex boards, foam, carpet tape

Spare Pole Set

BD Traverse

✔︎ ✔︎
Brush for Ice ✔︎
Container for scraping ice/condensation
Extra Batteries
Wax Kit

Polar, green, Blue extra, cork, glop stopper, kick scraper

✔︎
Camera Cannon a6000 ✔︎
Camera Battery
Drone DJI Mavic Pro, 3x batteries ✔︎
POV Camera GoPro Hero 5
Memory Cards
InReach Delorme Explorer ✔︎
GPS Garmin etrex 30x ✔︎
GPS Garmin 60CSx ✔︎
PLB McMurdo Fast Find 220 ✔︎
Marine Radio Cobra Marine ✔︎
Sat Phone iridium
Weather reader Kestrel 2500 ✔︎
Chargers ✔︎
Maps Garmin Greenland ✔︎
Food
Tea
Toothpaste Lush Toothy Tabs ✔︎
Floss Glide ✔︎
Solar Charger Suntactics S-14 ✔︎
Sunscreen Dermatone Z-cote ✔︎
Funfun Deck of cards (Harry Potter for more fun!) ✔︎
Group Crevasse Rescue Kit Black Diamond 7.0 dry, snow picket, ice screws x2 snow picket
Emergency Bivy Terra Nova Superlite Bothy 2
Total

0

 

 

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A bit of our repair kit

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Our sleds all packed up! No messing around with cardboard boxes this time

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Maps! Because who doesn’t love maps?

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Cards for those tent-bound days. Ima have to up my game – can’t tell the difference between black and red on this deck. But Harry Potter!

Mostly a pictures post, but time is of the essence. What would you pack?

Continental Divide Trail Gear List

by Elaine Vardamis

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The right gear makes map reading in mosquito-infested lands more enjoyable!

When preparing for such a long trip, a lot of thought goes into what you are willing to carry on your back. Gear choices are going to be a little different for everybody. That being said, here is the gear that, after much deliberating, I decided to go with.

A lot of our decisions that we made for this trip were strongly influenced by past trips. Two major ones, our most recent ones, had involved hiking through cold, almost hyperthermic conditions for most of the time, while also in pouring rain. We were also coming off a ski trip to Norway in which we encountered conditions with strong winds and -30 degree Celsius tempertures. So, our packs ended up being a bit heavier than they should have been. We most definitely could (and should) have done an overhaul of this list, taking into consideration the facts of where we were, and what time of year.

Items with an * next to them went through reiterations while we were out on the trail!

The Big Things:

  • Backpack: Hyperlite Mountain Gear Southwest 3400 (lined with trash compactor bag*1)
  • *Sleeping Bag: Western Mountaineering UltraLite 5’6” (also has a trash bag to line the stuff sack – don’t want it wet!!)
  • Sleeping Pad: Therm-a-Rest Neo Air XLite short

*1 The fabric is said to be waterproof, but after having significant leaking during a heavy downpour a few years ago, I always line my backpack.

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Full on sun protection

The Things on the Body:

  • Socks: Darn Tough Ultra Light No Show Tab
  • *Shoes: La Sportiva Ultra Raptor
  • Insoles: Custom from Bob Egeland with Boulder Orthotics
  • Gaiters: Dirty Girl Gaiters
  • Underwear: Icebreaker Siren
  • *Skort:  Lululemon Final Lap Skirt
  • Sports Bra: Ibex Balance Bralette
  • *Shirt: Arcteryx Fernie LS Shirt
  • *Sunglasses: Julbo Megeve
  • *Sunhat: Arcteryx
  • Sungloves: OR Chroma
  • *Trekking Poles: BD Distance Carbon
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While dealing with infections in both heels, I hiked in Chacos for a while.

The Other Clothing Things:

  • Warm Hat: Swix
  • Socks: Darn Tough Ultra Light No Show Tab
  • Underwear: Icebreaker Siren
  • Sleep Socks: Zpacks PossumDown
  • Compression Socks: 2XU
  • Long John Top: Icebreaker Oasis 200
  • Long John Bottom: Icebreaker Oasis 200
  • Warm Layer: Ibex Hooded Indie
  • Tights: Fjallraven Abisko Trekking Tights
  • Down Jacket: Western Mountaineering Flash
  • Rain Pants: Arcteryx Beta SL
  • Rain Jacket: Patagonia M10
  • *Mitts: Zpacks Rain Mitt & Zpacks Fleece Mitt
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When you have to wear all your layers!

The Things of a Personal Nature:

  • Food Consumption: Snowpeak Spork
  • Cup: GSI plastic cup
  • Feminine Products: Diva Cup
  • Hairties 
  • Toothbrush: Oral B Travel
  • Lip Balm: Ski Naked
  • *Water Bottles: 1 Poweraid bottle and 1 Smartwater bottle (can buy new ones when they become gunky!) and 2 Platypus soft bottles (1 liter)
  • Journal: Write in the Rain, Write in the Rain pen
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Hiking with umbrella from the Dollar Tree in Rollins, Wy. Hey, when it’s the only way you get shade!

The Things with the Batteries or in Need Of and of Course, Accessorizing! : 

  • Headlamp: Petzl Zipka
  • Watch: Suunto Ambit 3
  • Phone: iPhone SE w/Lifeproof case
  • Battery: Goal Zero Flip 20
  • Earbuds: Apple
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Hyperlite Mountain Gear Southwest and the Tenkara USA Rhodo – at home in the Wind River Range in Wyoming

The Things that We Shared (Because Sharing is Caring):

  • *Shelter: Hilleberg Anjan 2
  • Stove: MSR Pocket Rocket
  • Cookware: Snowpeak 9000
  • Coozy: Handmade
  • Lighter: Bic
  • Stuff Sacks: Assorted sizes from Sea to Summit
  • Water Treatment: Aquamira Drops and Tablets
  • 1st Aid/ Repair Kit: second skin, neosporin, band aids, liquid bandage, Advil, Tylenol, Advil PM, Benadryl, Peptobismol, needle, athletic tape, safety pins, Leatherman Squirt ps4, tweezers, nail clippers, arnica, Therm-A-Rest repair kit, Trail Toes, sunscreen, Dr. Braunners, Tenacious Tape
  • Extra Batteries: AAA x6
  • Sharpie
  • *Camera: Sony a6000
  • Camera Battery
  • Communication Devise: Garmin Explorer
  • Cords: Watch charger, phone charger
  • Maps: Ley Maps
  • Toothpaste: Lush Toothy Tabs
  • Floss
  • Hand Sanitizer
  • *Solar Charger: Suntactics
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She’s a real nowhere (wo)man, living in her nowhere land

 

The Things That Were Changed:

  • Sleeping Bag: Through New Mexico to our home in Colorado, we carried the Western Mountaineering Ultralite, where we switched to the Western Mountaineering Summerlite. We then carried the Summerlite through Montana until Augusta, MT, where we picked up the Ultralites again (it was snowing!)
  • Shoes: When I was buying my shoes (we bought all of our shoes before hand), La Sportiva did not have enough of my size shoe. So I decided to use the Altra Lone Peak 3 to start off with. That shoe did not work for me, but I know it works for a lot of hikers out there!
  • Skort: I used the Icebreak Comet through to our home, but was having terrible durability problems with it. It is not sewn along the sides (I can’t tell if they were glued or welded seams) and was constantly falling apart. At home, I picked up a Lululemon Final Lap Skirt. That thing was amazing!
  • Shirt: I wore the long sleeved shirt through Grants, New Mexico, but ended up switching out to an Icebreaker Cool-lite shirt. I had never hiked in a long sleeved shirt before, and it was worth a try. I did not like it, I definitely prefer to hike in a T shit.
  • Sunglasses: I wore the Julbo Megeve sunglasses from the start until Chama, New Mexico. There, because I knew I would be on a lot of snow, all day long (and I know my poor eyes are very sensitive), I switched to the Julbo Tensing sunglasses. They have a very dark lens that was very protective.
  • Sunhat: I wore a large, full brimmed sunhat from our start at the border of Mexico through the Great Divide basin. It was great for sun protection, but annoying, and I switched to a normal ballcap.
  • Trekking Poles: Dan and I skied the San Juans, and I used a pair of the Black Diamond Traverse poles while skiing. Extremely strong and also adjustable, they fit my needs better than the lightweight, fixed length pole I used on the rest of the trip.
  • Mitts: I hated the Zpacks mitts, both the rain mitts and the fleece mitts. In Grants, New Mexico, I switched both. I used the Hestra XC fleece mitt and the Outdoor Research Shuksan Rain Mitt for the rest of the trip. In retrospect, they were overkill for most of the rest of the trip, but this system was much more functional when I actually needed warm hands.
  • Water Bottles: When we started in New Mexico, we were carrying seven liters of water. (Also, I think too much, but there it is.) So I was carrying the Smartwater and the Poweraid bottles, one 2 liter Platypus bottle, and three 1 liter Platypus bottles.
  • Shelter: We started with the Hyperlite Mountain Gear DuoMid. We switched to the Hilleberg in Grants, New Mexico after sleeping on mud (and this was the mud of nightmares) during a snowstorm between Pie Town and Grants. Once again, in retrospect, I might have stuck with the Mid, as it is significantly lighter, but the Hilleberg did provide great protection, good warmth, and a mosquito free area!
  • Camera: We started with the Canon PowerShot G9X, which is a great little camera. We did switch to the Sony a6000. This was definitely a bigger camera, but we felt like the quality of picture produced was a great trade off for the weight.
  • Solar Charger: We started carrying the solar charger, but after it broke, we did not replace it. As on our previous, month long trips, we have never gone into town, the solar charger was valuable. But on this trip, we were in town often enough that the solar charger was unneeded.
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The standard procedure in every town: dump out the pack, reorganize, repack!

A note on socks: I started with too many socks, and somehow acquired even more as the hike went on. I love to wear compression socks at night, as I feel it helps me with feet swelling. But when I had massive infections in my heels in New Mexico, I stopped wearing them. I did, however, continue carrying them the whole way, which I was annoyed at myself for until Dan got tendinitis in Montana, and he had some relief from the pain when wearing them. 

The Things that Were Special:

For the San Juans, Dan and I decided to ski, so our snow gear list looked a bit different from others

  • Skis & Bindings: Ski Trab World Cup & La Sportiva RT bindings
  • Boots: Scarpa Alien
  • Skins: Pomoca Race Pro Climbing Skins
  • Ski Crampons: Dynafit
  • Traction: Kahtoola MICROspikes
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Because: skiing! I developed a whole new appreciation for this ski set up in the San Juan Mountains in Colorado

We will definitely do a write up on how the skiing portion went, that will also touch on gear. However, that will be a whole other blog post!

The Things for the Bugs:

  • Bug Repellant: 3M Ultrathon Insect Repellant
  • Headnet: Sea to Summit
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Head nets are sanity saviors!

The Randoms: 

  • Sandals: Chacos 
  • Umbrella: Picked up from Dollar Tree in Rollins, Wyoming
  • Fly Rod: Tenkara USA Rhodo
  • Kid’s skis: Lucky Bums*I used Chacos for a significant portion of the time while I was letting the infections in my heel heal. The umbrella was a $1 addition to our packs through the Great Divide basin. It was my first experience with hiking with an umbrella for shade, and if we do something in desert style environment again, I will definitely consider it more strongly! We took the fly rod through the Wind River Range in Wyoming and into Montana. As far as the Lucky Bums skis went, Dan and I had had a strong streak of skiing every month going before we started the hike. We wanted to keep that streak alive and well, even during a five month thru hike. By skiing the San Juans, and then shipping these little skis to ourselves along the way, we succeeded, and finished our hike with 84 months straight of skiing at least once a month!
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The Lucky Bums skis after their debut skiing Knapsack Col in the Wind River Range, Wyoming