Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Fatpacking

I have been working on choosing and packing gear for my seven-day stage race in Nepal next month. This trek will only be semi-supported. The Racing the Planet organization will provide tents, water, and hot water for cooking in camp, but everything else I want or need for seven days in a remote region of a foreign country I will have to carry, including seven days worth of food. The key issue in packing is the fact we will be covering a marathon-length distance or more each day, with a lot of climbing, so a typical large backpack with a frame isn't an appealing option. These Raidlight Runner R-Lite backpacks are popular with adventure racers because they're light — 7.1 ounces — but sufficiently strong. This pack holds 30 liters, which is about the size of a single large bicycle pannier.

How to live out of these packs for a whole week in a dynamic climate? It's been a fun puzzle to work on, and I'm not sure I've even come close to solving it. But today I gathered nearly all of the pieces of the solution I've come up with so far, shoved it in my pack (it's a fairly loose fit. Shouldn't be too complicated to repack when I'm shelled) and took it out for a run.

The crux of the problem has been food. Seven days requires a lot of food. Based of my memory of the first week of the Tour Divide, I'm fairly certain that my calorie intake will remain on the deficit side no matter what I bring, so I'm planning on about 2,500 calories a day. That number will put me in fat-burning mode, so I'd like a fair percentage to be carbs, which have half the calorie density of fat. I have extremely limited space for food, plus I have to make sure the food is something I will actually be able to force myself to consume. My solution is an assortment of dehydrated breakfasts and dinners, with bars for the daytime. The bars include Clif Builder Bars, Luna Bars, fruit bars, and granola bars. I'm supplementing the bag-food and bar diet with a plastic jar each of peanut butter and strawberry preserves. When I was riding the Tour Divide, one of my favorite foods was crunchy Nature Valley granola bars dipped in peanut butter. The strawberry preserves will serve the function of a sugar shot when I need it the most, in the most calorie-dense and portable form possible (like a big jar of energy gels, and so much cheaper.) Really, you can't get a more calorie-dense yet palatable package of carbs, fats, and proteins than good ol' PB&J.

As for the rest of the gear, I packed a 25-degree RAB down sleeping bag, Thermarest Ridge Rest, Patagonia micropuff, rain jacket and rain pants, mitten shells, gloves, hat, thin balaclava, buff, sleeves, base layer for running, base layer for camp, socks, underwear, flip-flops, headlamp, flashlight, space blanket, foot fix kit, med kit, multitool, compass, GPS, spare batteries, spork (the only utensil I'll need since I can eat out of the dehydrated food bags and make cups out of water bottles), coffee powder, toiletries, tablet towels, electrolyte tablets, vitamins, drugs, wet wipes, sunscreen and 100% DEET, camera, and probably a few other small items that I am forgetting. I also packed a thin Tyvek suit, pictured right, which was Beat's brilliant idea. These suits, which are designed for handling hazardous materials, basically serve as a full-body vapor barrier for warmth during down time in camp. They may also be useful for sleeping in the down bags if the weather is really cold or wet.

Add 18,000 calories and three liters of water, and the pack came in at 27.3 pounds. I took it out for a six-mile test run (more like a power-hike/jog) this evening. I spent the first five minutes making little adjustments. One thing I really like about the soft pack is the fact I can mold it into something somewhat comfortable by lining the back with my dehydrated food packets. The pack actually felt pretty good, at least for my 90-minute test run. I've never been an ultralight type of person so I'm somewhat used to carrying big loads — maybe not 30-pound loads, but regardless, the main issue I had with all the weight was increased fatigue on the climbs and knee strain on the descents. There are a lot of muscles around my knees that need strengthening, and my shoulders and back could probably use conditioning as well. It was a reminder that I will definitely need to continue training with weight until November, which seems decidedly unfun but necessary.

At least it will give me an excuse to run slowly for the next month. I do enjoy slow running.

21 comments:

  1. Anonymous10:37 PM

    Pack some protein bars... Don't want to get run down out there! Good luck - cant wait to hear about it and see pics! We'll be apreciative as always for the extra effort of dragging your camera along!

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  2. tyvek suits cool!!!

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  3. The jar of PB sounds like a lot of extra weight to me. Also, I doubt you will be doing much actual running... if you do your feet are going to pay the price. Just power hike... I'm jealous of your trip.

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  4. Cut the camp shoes, space blanket multitool (you're not biking!). I'm skeptical of the Tyvek suit, but a cool idea. Trim the ridgerest into a mummy shape and save some oz.

    Have fun! Should be awesome.

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  5. I paddled the inside passage this summer and during the day lived on Honey stinger waffles and zip fizz(a replacement drink) I also used CLiff crunchy granola bars which are essentially Nature Valley Granola bars. They come five in a box and taste a bit better than NVG's. Good luck!

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  6. Dave,

    tyvek suit wasn't my idea, I've seen it be used by many competitors who go for ultralight. It can really make camp easier, especially since you may spend 16 hours in a clammy area. The windproof/vb effect has got to be pretty good. Spending a lot of time in camp when it's clammy/cold/wet can be a real drag without good gear. Hardcore people might dry their running clothes on body, but that can make you extremely miserable (done that, it plain sucks, not sure if it makes you faster or slower).

    Camp shoes are well worth their weight. You need to understand the particular nature of these events, and not having camp shoes after running through mud and having blistered feet is really not worth the minimal weight savings (even the winners bring flip flips usually ...). In Vietnam (same format event) I used some paper-thin airplane slippers which I sorely regretted ... We're not gonna win this thing (though I did get top ten in vietnam ;) ).

    Space blanket and multitool (it's just a superlight one, not a bike multitool) are mandatory gear, so can't be omitted.

    Jar of PB is probably a good investment - very high energy density. Food alone weighs 7-9 lbs. Only issue is we'll really crave sweets ...

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  7. Jill,
    For dehydrated meals you can save a lot of weight by taking them out of their packaging and putting them in a zip lock or vacuum sealing them. Just keep one bag for heating and eating the meals.

    I don’t know what type of dehydrated meals you are getting but there is a brand of dehydrated food called Hawk Vittles that has a lot higher calorie content then mountain house for the same weight.
    Good Luck!!

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  8. Danni, Losing the jar of peanut butter would only save 16 ounces but I'd lose 300 calories a day and probably another extra pound of body fat by the end of the trek (not necessarily a bad thing, but dieting does make me cranky.) PB to me is the ideal backpacking/bikepacking food, with a tasty combo of fat, protein and carbs (if you get the cheap sugar-added kind) in a small calorie-dense package. I got sick of PB during the Tour Divide as well, but I remember the first week it was like heaven in a jar. I'm not harboring any delusions that there will be much if any running on this trek. But the distances are long and the time cut-offs are not endlessly generous, so I will have to keep up the pace.

    Dave: Yeah, some of this stuff is required gear mandated by the race organization. Backpacking as a stage race is different from your typical ultralight trip in that we'll actually have quite a bit of down time in camp, hot water is rationed, it won't always be our decision when to start and stop moving, and we'll be around a large group of people so we can't just go off and build our own fires. Finding a way to stay warm and dry while we're not moving is key. Our running gear is likely to be soaked for most of the week. Tyvek suits are only about 7 oz so to me they seem worth a try. The flip-flops are also almost free. Even I'd rather cut 3 oz from my precious food stash than leave those behind.

    I can't do the mummy ridgerest. I sleep on either my side or my stomach, but both positions don't adhere well to the mummy shape. And I'm such a fitful sleeper, especially after exercising all day, that I toss around and usually end up halfway on the cold ground at points anyway. Once I woke up in my bivy sack with the pad basically on top of me. Winter camping has convinced me that every square inch of the Ridgerest is worth its bulk in gold. This is also my personality when it comes to backpacking. Unlike ultralight enthusiasts, I fight to keep all the ounces I've become attached to.

    The dehydrated meals are either Mountain House or an international brand (forgetting it) offered by Racing the Planet. They all have about 800 calories and a good mix of protein, fat, carbs and sodium. The breakfasts Beat and I will split so 400 calories each. We're considering repacking them in Zippies but I'm mulling how much I want to deal with the ick factor of reusing a bag for cooking. We only get a rationed portion of water so anything we use for washing takes away from drinking (and of course we can treat local water, but in a foreign country with all its new-to-me pathogens, this is something I'd rather do as a last resort.)

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  9. "I'm fairly certain that my calorie intake will remain on the deficit side no matter what I bring, so I'm planning on about 2,500 calories a day."

    I don't get this. Are you saying that the increased calories burned by carrying more food is greater than the calories available to be consumed by bringing more food???

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  10. My brother and I love the Mt house dehydrated meals whenever we backpack...just add hot water and you have delicious hot food chock full of carbs n calories! Beef Stroganhoff, Lasagna and Spaghetti are prob our fav's...(we EACH eat the '2 person' meal for dinner). If they are providing the hot water that's cool...no camp stove req'd. But I'd sure leave them in their original foil ziplock bags...repacking them into anything else would be a bad idea for the rehydrating part. (note: just remember to take OUT the dessicant pack before adding boiling water!)...I never needed the 'fork' part of the 'spork'..just get the EXTRA LONG handle plastic spoon from REI (it's super light in weight tan/light brown in color)...and it's PERFECT for eating out of the large deep bags! It's the only eating utensil we carry on our trips. For breakfast you can't hardly beat instant oatmeal packs (I like the maple/brown sugar flav, but apple/cinnamon is good too). 2 or 3 packs each for breakfast...small and light, again just add hot water (if you can get that in the morning. Also Folgers makes coffee 'bags' for instant coffee...I HAVE to have coffee in the morning! (tho we are spoiled...using the Jetboil system we have French Press FRESH ground coffee rather than the instant or coffee-bags). Good luck figuring out your gear! Gonna be a GREAT trip!

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  11. DJC — what I am speculating, based on my own personal past experiences, is that the shock to my system caused by increased activity levels and camp living will reduce my appetite to the point where it will be difficult to force myself to take in, let alone process, an adequate number of calories to replace the ones I've burned. So carrying more food won't necessarily mean I'll eat it, and more likely than not I won't because it will give me stomach aches. So extra food will just become dead weight. Yes, I probably will lose body fat. But of course I have plenty to burn, and over a week the rate of loss shouldn't be significant enough to affect my health. There is a chance that my appetite levels will remain normal and I'll feel hungry and grumpy, but that's about the worst of it.

    My past experiences are mostly backpack trips where my calorie needs were lower than this particular effort, and endurance bicycle races where they were higher. During the 2008 Iditarod Trail Invitational my appetite was so jacked that I was only able to consume a fraction of what I needed. Some 24-hour periods I was eating as little as 1,000 calories when the combination of constant movement and staying warm in sub-zero temperatures probably required eight times that. I bonked hard a couple of times and lost 10 pounds over the course of six days. I certainly don't want to go back to that, but it also taught me that the body can do a lot with very little if it needs to. So I'm certain I can make do with 2,500.

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  12. Anonymous12:41 PM

    I've done long backpacking trips with Mountain House meals. We always pack each mountain house into its own quart ziplock (and remove the dessicant). Come dinner time you just add two cups hot water to your ziplock, eat and then dispose of the ziplock. Saves bulk as well as some weight and I've never had a problem with them absorbing water or going funky on me. Use the freezer ziplocks though as they are a bit tougher.
    Sarah

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  13. Anonymous12:42 PM

    Also if you are on the Anupurna trek route there are a bunch of villages where it is possible to buy snacks, soda, and even full meals.

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  14. The route is in the vicinity of the Annapurna Circuit, but I don't think it actually utilizes any part of that route. Racing the Planet designs race routes that are more remote, through areas that don't see much tourism. This "off-the-beaten-path" type of trek is one of the appeals of using this organization. Also, I think purchasing local food and drink is against the race rules, probably just in the interest of making sure racers are prepared and also to keep things fair.

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  15. Holy smokes, 27 pounds is so much weight! You have Beat for the good advice since he's done these self-sufficiency running races before. Let me know if you want me uber-ultralight Excel spreadsheets from Marathon des Sables, though, to pare down some more... SO FUN this adventure will be, sore knees and all! :)

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  16. Never could eat mntn house but reese's dipped in PB, never get sick of those. My main reason to do endurance events.

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  17. Meghan, I'd definitely be interested in seeing your spreadsheets. E-mail me at jillhomer@gmail.com.

    Keep in mind that the 27 pounds includes three liters of water. Without water it would be closer to 20 pounds, and without food likely less than 10 (I really should weigh it to see.) The food is already near my own acceptable minimum, so the only places I can see to cut are Dave's advice for mummy thermarest and gear. I'm not sure what the weather is like at MdS, but we have to expect anything between 30 degrees and 90 degrees with a high chance of rain, so I'm basically bringing a winter set of gear on top of summer running clothes. Also not going to give up the 25-degree bag. I already sleep poorly in these sorts of events; I wouldn't sleep at all if I had to sleep cold.

    That said, any advice is appreciated. Thanks!

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  18. Meghan,

    Yeah definitely some people can bring the weight down. Problem with going ultralight is
    - yuck food
    - travel light, freeze at night (I guess Jill and I could spoon hehe)
    - risky
    - uncomfortable (My inflatable pad broke in Namibia and I unintendedly went lighter that way - damn I didn't sleep well :)

    Nepal has the problem that it could rain and we go not terribly high up but high enough it could be pretty cold. In Vietnam I was extremely happy I brought a bit more clothing and I was still freezing a lot. But to us, it's really supposed to be a vacation and an adventure, we're not in it to compete, so a few comfort items are gonna make this a lot more fun and not that much slower. Other than that we do have a lot of good ultralight gear - 850 fill bag etc etc. The other issue is that this is a one-time event - for MDS it's a lot easier to figure out what you encounter I think. Point in case Vietnam again - who'd have thought we'd be freezing our asses off for 6 days in rain and fog so thick you could barely see 10 yards ...

    It's a balance. 27 lbs with 3l of water is not too bad, usually we carry at most 1.5l but they said in some stretches you need to be able to carry 2.5l.

    Thanks for all the tips, keep em coming!

    Cheers, Beat

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  19. I just got back from doing the Annapurna Circuit! You'll have a great time! We were moving fast--not racing like you guys--and I don't know what rules apply or where you're going exactly, but fwiw, I have a blog post up, which includes a partial list of stuff I took. Happy to provide more detailed input if I can. I did some things right, many things wrong. I can totally relate to the pre-packing experience. One thing to know--you can get most things in Nepal, at low cost, and make adjustments when you get there. I ditched a lot of my stuff on reconsideration, when I got to Kdu. Also, sun/humidity were challenging for me down low, and my trekking poles were probably my best investment. Good luck!

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  20. Hi Jill,

    i want a picture of you wearing the suit :)

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  21. Take more calories. If you are going to push the deficit envelope, at least try to do it as late in the event as possible. You won't be able to be calorie neutral but 2500 right off the bat is going to knock you down fast. Just my opinion of course.

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