Friday, December 25, 2009

Second Night in the Bivy

The little camp in the Adirondacks has been one of the greatest blessings of my life but also a curse: there's always the camp to come back to at night, so I never advanced beyond day-hiking. Sure, I can start a fire with the best of them, and split wood, and go on very strenuous day hikes. It's great exercise and it helps me to be robust. But I've never just gone into the woods for a night or for multiple nights with everything I need on my back.

So, in order to develop my body and my skills toward camping proficiency, I recently bought an Outdoor Research Advanced Bivy. It's not the easiest thing to set up, but it's very compact and probably is less of a pain to set up than a tent. So, provisionally, I think I like it.

Two weeks ago I spent my first night in the bivy. It was a cold night, and I was colder than I expected to be. My back didn't feel cold: I have a Therma-Rest inflatable foam pad, and it insulates me quite nicely. So clearly the sleeping bag I got from Freecycle was not quite up to snuff. Also, I wasn't breathing so well that night and the next day, which I think was an allergic reaction to the down fill. So the other day I ordered a Mountain Hardwear Lamina -30° bag. It arrived yesterday, just in time for me to camp out in the back yard in Oneida.

My plan is to ramp up to camping out on an Adirondack high peak in January. I need to do this in a controlled way because I have no interest in dying any time soon. So, for the second stage on the ramp, I chose to only go as far as the back yard.

I would have liked to hike out into the woods so that I'd introduce an incentive not to wimp out while retaining the option of walking home. But it was 2:00 AM, I'd been driving for six hours, and I had to get up in the morning to join my neice and nephew by the Christmas tree. Also, the walking part is not essential to the experiment because it's not an unknown. I know that I can climb a mountain all day and all night under almost any conditions, and that as long as I keep moving I'll generate more than enough heat to stay alive. So I consider the removal of the hiking part to be trivial.

The unknowns, however, are not trivial. If I reach a mountain top and it's thirty below and the wind is howling, will I be able to deploy the bivy, pad and bag before my hands freeze? If it's 32° and pouring rain will I be able to keep everything dry during the assembly? I need to answer these questions before I hit the high peaks.

As soon as I started unpacking I noticed a problem. I'd packed the sleeping bag on top of the frame pack, securing it with the main drawdowns. But I hadn't wrapped the sleeping bag in a contractor bag. So I had to put the sleeping bag on the ground while I unpacked the rest. This would have been a problem if it had been a wet night. So I need to get some contractor bags before I head out on any serious overnights.

I unpacked and deployed the bivy, making sure to point my feet into the wind. I'd learned this lesson from my first overnight, when I could hear and feel the wind prying at the zippered opening at the head.

I did not set any speed records in getting the poles and snaps assembled. I haven't used the bivy enough to trust the material too far, so I'm very careful about sliding the poles through their little tunnels. I'm a bit worried that, at my current speed, I'll get chillblains - if not frostbite - if I try this on a high peak. I need to get faster; I'm sure that will come with practice. I also need to find the maximum finger insulation that will leave me enough manual dexterity to do the job. I think that I could fit a pair of thin rubberized work gloves beneath my warm but fingerless mitten-gloves. This combination might be ideal. I'll give it a try soon.

I unrolled and blew up the sleeping pad, strapped it down in the bivy, dumped the spare flashlights, extra clothes, bottle of water, etc. into the head of the bivy, and stuffed in the foot of the sleeping bag. Now here's another part I need to improve: getting myself into the sleeping bag while getting the sleeping bag into the bivy. Right now it involves stepping out of my boots and onto the bag, shimmying the bag partway up my body, then lying down gradually as I work my way down into the bivy. Again, I will get a lot faster at this. I'll have to.

If I had to make one complaint about the bivy, it would be the zipper and pole arrangement. The poles anchor right near the ends of the zipper so they get in the way of any attempt to get the zipper started. It's one of those things that make you swear that it had to have been designed by a sadist or an octopus. Or a sadistic octopus. But I am getting faster at it.

So I hauled the boots into the bivy and zipped it closed. And as soon as I got myself zipped into the sleeping bag I knew that I wouldn't have any problems with the cold. This is one warm bag. I didn't need any of the extra layers I'd brought, so I just used one of them as a pillow and put the other one aside. The only part of my body that was cold was the exposed part of my face centered on my nose. Next time I'm going to wear a face mask.

I reached into my pocket for the toothbrush and small tube of toothpaste that I'd brought. I was about to unscrew the cap and squeeze some onto the brush when I took a closer look at the tube. Look closely at the picture above and you'll see what I saw. I'm very glad I looked, but at the same time I regret cheating myself out of a sitcom-level farce.

One of the most important lesson I learned during my first night in the bivy is that getting up to pee is a serious pain in the ass. By the time I had unzipped the bivy, wormed my way out, dropped trou, and aimed away from the gear, I was already shivering. This will not be tenable on a high peak. So I brought a plastic pee bottle. It let me do the necessary without ever leaving the sleeping bag. Once I was done I just unzipped the bivy a few inches and dumped the contents. Not dinner conversation, but boy was it a good idea.

I slept quite soundly, waking only when light filtered through the hood of the bivy. I got a bit worried about the moisture forming on the top of the bag. As the reviews for this bivy mention, condensation can be a problem. However, when I finally got up and felt the bag, it became clear that the amount of moisture was negligible. It would only become an issue if I were camping out on multiple nights with no opportunity to dry the bag in between.

I slept soundly so I consider last night a successful test and a valuable learning experience. The overnight low was 18°, which is practically tropical compared to the conditions in which I intend to camp. So I look forward to more and colder controlled experiment nights prior to any major ascents. Speaking of which: the bivy in the back yard awaits.

1 comment:

Anna Kamrada said...

Thanks for the giggles. -G