Out West 2015

Adventure Begins

Day 00 - Toledo to Chicago

After months of planning, a late night of packing and a day spent working from home, Bri and I were finally off for two weeks of Western Adventure! Over the next 2+ weeks we would be driving cross-country on an adventure, culminating in the Gallatin Mountains of Northwestern Yellowstone National Park for a four day backcountry backpacking adventure with just me, Bri and our guide Kirsa. This was going to be our first time backpacking and camping in the backcountry, and we had to do a lot of preparation and planning in advance of our trip. Normally on trips out west we don't book accomodations in advance because our itinerary is pretty loose. Traveling to Yellowstone and through the Black Hills, on a week that we quickly realized overlapped the yearly Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, required more pre-bookings than usual. Searching a couple months in advance, the hotels, lodges and campgrounds in Yellowstone were booked solid, with the exception of a few rooms for $300+/night in the Lake Hotel.

Our journey to Yellowstone (Map)
Our journey to Yellowstone (Map)

Since we left after work on Thursday, it was the perfect chance for us to stay with Bri's parents at their apartment near Western Springs, a suburb of Chicago, IL. This would be our second stop after dropping Eastwood off at my parents, who would be watching him while we were away. We had the Jeep bursting at the seems with backpacking, hiking, off-roading and survival gear. The weekend before, my Dad and I even removed the back seat from the Jeep to make more room for the trip. All that was left was to squeeze the two of us in the front, along with Eastwood riding happily on Bri's lap (no room in the back), for the short journey to my parents house, who would be puppy/house-sitting while we were gone. After dropping off Eastwood, along with the contact information for our backpacking guide's company (Yellowstone Guidelines), we were headed to Chicago.

In the months leading up to our departure, we had a lot to organize and prepare for. Since we would be backpacking at an altitude of 6,700 - 9,700 feet above sea level (Toledo, OH is just above 600 feet) and would be carrying 40 - 50 pounds on our backs with a lot of new gear, I thought it was extra important for us to train and break in our gear before our trip. First (and most difficult) order of business was to get some quality and comfortable hiking boots. Our next priority, was getting a backpack for Bri and some practice hikes. The other important task, I wanted to check off ASAP was getting proper rain gear for Bri and an opportunity to test it. The weather in the park is unpredictable, even though it was August, it could be 20 degrees and snowing at night, cold and raining anytime, or hot and sunny during the day, so, I wanted to ensure that Bri would stay warm and dry if it was cold and wet. Luckily, we had just the weather to test Bri's rain gear!

June 27th, 2015. While trying to convince Bri of the importance of a proper rain parka and that, "yes, people do actually wear those silly rain pants," we got the opportunity to test them with some very un-Ohio-like weather. On Saturday, a unheard-of summer Nor'easter which was essentially a midwestern tropical storm, was forcast to drop heavy rain and wind on the region. This storm formed like a winter storm and would have been even more epic if it had formed in the winter, considering it dropped six inches of rain and had gail force winds. There were eight foot waves recorded on the lake, which are pretty significant, but not nearly record breaking (not sure on the record but it's somewhere in the 14-23 foot range). The meteorologists had forcast this weather several days ahead of time which gave us a chance to pick up some cheap Frogg Toggs (rain pants) at our local Bass Pro Shops on Friday night in preparation. Late Saturday morning, we headed to our nearby park, Wildwood, with full gear and a sense of adventure. It's only a few minutes away from our house, but we were surpised by all the downed trees and flooding on the way there. When we arrived, there were only two people at the park, a wedding photographer hiding beneath a canopy and awaiting the wedding party to arrive, and the park ranger, who jokingly inquired whether we were looking for the Appalachian Trail. What we found when we got on the park was the most enjoyable hike we had ever taken. The trails were completely covered in water and downed trees, but we had the park to ourselves, other than the occassional tree crashing down. What we learned when we were finished was that, I stayed completely dry, as did my bag, but Bri's "water resistant" jacket was completely useless in a heavy rain. Had we been two days away from the road and it were 40 degrees out, she would have been hypothermic. Mission accomplished, next time we visited REI, we got Bri a real rain jacket.

June 27 Lake Erie Nor'easter (Credit: avalonbeachstud)

A nice Lake Erie car wash in late June! I haven't seen conditions like this since the 80s, and never in the summer

Posted by Marty Crowe Folger on Saturday, June 27, 2015
June 27 Lake Erie waves crashing over road (Credit: Marty Crowe Folger)
Bri and I loading the Jeep for Yellowstone (8/6/2015)

To help acclimate our bodies to the heavy weight of our packs, I purchased an extra bag of Eastwood's dog food and filled zip lock bags. I then added this to our bags to simulate extra weight we would be carrying (mainly food). I quickly found that the dog food permeated into our backpacks, even when double bagged in freezer bags and then placed in construction garbage bags. Since we would be hiking in dense grizzly bear habitat, I decided to ditch the dog food, let the bags air out. Instead of using dog food, we purchased two 25lb bags of rice from Costco and repeated. This seemed to work much better than the dog food as it was easier to pack and didn't have an odor. We progressively added more and more weight to our packs until my gear topped out close to sixty pounds and Bri's bag was forty. These were uncomfortably heavy, but we wanted to train with the extra weight since the terrain and elevation was so much easier in Northwest Ohio.

Weekly hikes generally consisted of a combination of walks and trips to Wildwood and Oak Openings, usually hiking around 3 miles or shorter. As we got about a month away from leaving we decided to take a trip up to my favorite park to mountain bike, Pinckney State Recreation Area, on July 4th to benchmark ourselves. Pinckney is located on the edge of the Irish Hills of Southern Michigan and is very rugged and hilly. This hike, in full gear, ended up being the perfect test for us as it was very challenging, a bit longer than our other hikes and we learned a few things.

One important thing we learned was that Bri's new Asolo boots were not fitting her properly. She mentioned that her foot was bothering her during the hike, but didn't indicate just how badly it was hurting her. When we got back to the Jeep and she took her boot off her foot was so tender that she was crying and thought that her foot was broken. Luckily she started to feel better after her foot had some time out of the boot. Also lucky, we bought these at REI and they have an amazing no hassel return policy and we were returned them about a week later. When we got home we quickly found a pair of Salomon boots on Amazon Prime that REI didn't have in stock in Bri's size. These were the female version of my boots that I was quickly falling in love with. Bri also did some research and found some foot pads that would hopefully help with what seemed to be nerve pain in the ball of her foot. The new shoes and occassional use of the foot pad ended up doing the trick.

The other important thing we learned was that Pinckney's Crooked Lake trail was very rugged and difficult, but we were able to complete it with a reasonably hard effort. We still had some training to complete, but we were feeling pretty confident that if we got Bri a better fitting pair of boots that we would be ready for Yellowstone. Also, we had a great day and a lot of fun hiking. I would say overall that the Gallatin Mountains at Yellowstone (with the exception of Electric Pass) weren't any more difficult than Pinckney, and that it was a great place to train and test ourselves.

Bri looking at Pickerel Lake (7/4/2015) - Pinckney State Recreation Area
Bri hiking the Crooked Lake Trail (7/4/2015) - Pinckney State Recreation Area

After dropping off Eastwood and grabbing some dinner with my parents, we made the relatively short four hour drive to Bri's parents apartment in Hillside, IL. We went to bed with a long 12 hour drive to Mitchell, SD awaiting us and the excitment of what the next two weeks would bring. Our adventure had officially begun!

The Gear

Oh the gear, so much gear, new and old. As Bri can attest, before making a purchase, I tend to be very slow and deliberate when researching a product before purchasing. I've compiled a list of gear that we took backpacking along with information on why I chose said product and links to where you can find additional information.

  1. Power
  2. Camp Place Setting
  3. Road Trip
Power

Since we were going to be backpacking for 4 days, I wanted to be able to charge my GoPro and Garmin watch, if necessary. Additionally, I wanted to be able to charge multiple things, but also keep things as light as possible. I started by researching the amount of electric charge, in milliamp hours (mAh) that my devices would require for a full charge under optimal conditions. From there, I started searching for external batteries with high ratings that would make sense for me. I then recorded the weights and energies of each of the devices I was considering and used that as a guide to pick out The Ultimate Backpacking Battery.

Power Usage
Product Battery Capacity (mAh) mAh Image
GoPro HERO4 BLACK
Too low to display
1160 6960
Garmin Forerunner 920XT Black/Blue Watch with HRM-Run
$379.99
300* 300
Total 7260 mAh
* this is the best estimate I could find online, official information was unavailable.

After considering the amount of power I needed, I determined I wanted something with at least 7,500 mAh. That narrowed my list down to the AmazonBasics Portable, the Anker Astro E4 and the Anker Astro E3 chargers. After comparing price, features and weight, I decided that the AmazonBasics Portable was the best option for me. It had ample power for my needs, a power meter and was the lightest of the three batteries I was interested in, along with the best power to weight ratio of all the batteries I was initially considering. The Anker Astro E4 was a close second choice as it had more power, a better warranty and was about the same price.

Portable Battery Comparison
Product Capacity (mAh) Weight (oz) mAh per oz Image
AmazonBasics Portable Power Bank - 10,000 mA
-
10,000 7.58 1319
Anker Astro E4 13000mAh 3A High Capacity
-
13,000 10.4 1250
Anker Astro E1 5200mAh Ultra Compact
$15.99
5,200 4.2 1238
Anker Astro E3 Ultra Compact 10000mAh
-
10,000 8.2 1220
Anker Astro Mini 3200mAh Portable Charger
$22.99
3,200 3 1067
Camp Tableware

We had most of our camping gear already, but one thing we needed were place settings for our time in the wilderness. I initially wanted everything to be titanium, because it's super-light, but I really wanted it mostly because I think it looks cool. After some further research I found that, like anything else, it has some advantages and disadvantages. Advantages to titanium are that you can heat it, it's light (not always the lightest though), it's durable and it can be used in a direct flame to heat things. Disadvantages though are that it's expensive, offers no insulation/protection from burns and is rigid. Ultimately, after spending hours upon hours staring at plates, bowls, forks, sporks and other items, I made some decisions and decided to go easy on the titanium.

Camp Mugs

Bri and I each got a lightweight and plastic GSI Outdoors 77233 Green Cascadian Mug. At 71 grams, it's lighter than the comparable and sweet looking, TOAKS Titanium 450ml Cup. Our hot chocolate, coffee and tea didn't burn our hands and stayed warm in these mugs. They also fit perfectly in the side pocket of my backpack and offered protection for my headlamp and cutlery, resting safely inside.

Cutlery

For our cutlery, I went with titanium for its strength and durability. It could come in handy as a tool and wasn't likely to be catastrophic if it were to bend (versus a plastic spork which would just break). For my utensil, I ended up choosing the Light My Fire Titanium Spork because of it's simple/clever design. I was a little concerned over cutting my mouth with the integrated knife feature, but it was never an issue. Bri, on the other hand had a concern over "eating poop" due to the fact that you hold either the end of the fork or spoon in your hand which you presumably used to... nevermind. That was never an issue however! So, Bri went with the TOAKS Titanium 3-Piece Cutlery Set instead, a more traditional cutlery set, which is nicer to use than the Light My Fire Titanium Spork, but over twice as heavy.

Camp Dishes

Camp dishes ended up being a relatively easy choice, we each got one Sea to Summit X-Bowl and one Sea to Summit X Bowl XL. Bri and I both loved the design, they're collapsable and work as both a plate and a bowl. They als have a sturdy base that doubles as a cutting board. But, I think watching the documentary, Mile... Mile and a Half, is what finally sold us completely on these. The backpackers in the documentary seemed to use these or a very similar product while hiking the John Muir Trail.

Product Material Weight (oz) Image
GSI Outdoors 77233 Green Cascadian Mug
$2.38
Polypropylene 2.5
TOAKS Titanium 450ml Cup
$19.95
Titanium 2.7
Light my Fire Titanium Spork
$12.99
Titanium 0.7
TOAKS Titanium 3-Piece Cutlery Set
$19.95
Titanium 1.7
Sea to Summit X-Bowl
-
Silicone & Nylon 2.8
Sea to Summit X Bowl XL
-
Silicone & Nylon 3.9
Jeep Mods

In preparation of our drive (4,1350 miles total), I replaced the stock dashboard in our '08 Jeep Wrangler JK with a Rugged Ridge Dash Multi-Mount Phone Kit. It was super simple to install, took about 10 minutes, and I instantly wished I knew about this years ago! This allowed me to easily and securely mount my iPhone 6 to the dashboard for navigation, instead of paying hundreds of dollars to update the maps on the aging OEM MyGig Navigation system. It mounts it up high which is great since you don't have to look down to see the map and upcoming turns. An added bonus was that I could use it to mount my GoPro using the built in tripod mount screw. It also has a recessed tray where you can place small items without fear of them flying off the dash when making a turn; although, I would clear the items out of here before taking your Jeep off road.

The other modification I made to the Jeep before leaving was removing the back seat. Unlike older Jeeps and the 2-door Jeep Wranger JK, the Wrangler Unlimited rear seat requires tools for removal. To do this you will nee a large breaker bar, a set of hardened 1/2" metric sockets and preferably a pneumatic impact wrench. If you search the web you'll find numerous articles about how notoriously difficult the bolts are to remove. I can confirm that this is the case. If I hadn't had my Dad's impact wrench, we would still be painfully turing these bolts 1/8 of a turn at a time. After getting the seats out of the Jeep there was a lot more room for gear, supplies and baggage. Now that it's out, I might try to put the smaller side of the split bench back in the Jeep or explore installing or building something similar to the Kilby JK Rear Floor Kit.

Product Description Image
Rugged Ridge 13551.17 Dash Multi-Mount Phone Kit for 2007-2010 Jeep Wrangler JK
$29.99
Dashboard Phone Mount