Sunday, August 21, 2011

MYOG: Three season synthetic quilt (& the lightweight philosophy)

There is something about making your own gear that can really hook you in.   There's the satisfaction that comes from using stuff that you've made with your own hands, of course.  There's also the desire to save a few dollars on the cost of store-bought alternatives  - although this is not always the case, particularly if you make too many mistakes, requiring additional materials.  For me, I really enjoy the process involved - researching the designs and sourcing the materials, then the preparation phase - layout, markup and cutting - followed by the pinning and sewing and finishing.  It is a manual activity, tends to be time-consuming, and is totally engrossing!  Some time ago gear-making paragon, Roger Caffin, on seeing one of my rough earlier efforts, made some gently constructive suggestions, then made the remark: "He's lost - got the MYOG bug already!"  He was right, of course.

EDIT 20/1/13: After using this MYOG quilt through 2 winters I can report that it is good to around 3-4C (32-39F), when wearing base thermals, socks and a fleece top. In colder conditions and/or on snow I have had trouble staying warm.

This project, a synthetic quilt for cool-weather use, is my third major project.  (The most recent prior project was a MYOG Pyramid Tent.)  Up to now I have been using a standard synthetic sleeping bag I bought a few years ago for car-based family camping trips.  It has served me well as I have gotten back into hiking over the past year, but it has a few drawbacks - namely, it's big, heavy (2.2kg) and not particularly warm.

Getting the 'big-3' lighter

The weight and volume of gear has become increasingly important to me as I have embraced the lightweight backpacking philosophy and I have gradually transitioned my gear list to reflect a minimalist and multi-use approach.  (I will blog on that topic in a later post.)  For me, as it is for most 'lightweighters', the key challenges are the big three - shelter, backpack and sleeping system - as they are the heaviest items of gear - and generally the most expensive.  I have addressed the shelter issue with the MYOG Pyramid tent, dropping the shelter weight from around 3.5kg to 830gms.  The pack I use, a Osprey Aether 55lt, I only bought a year ago and I am loathe to replace it so soon, particularly as, at around 2kg,  it is not super heavy.

Bag vs Quilt

So that brings me back to the sleeping system.  The first major decision I had to make was whether to make a bag or a quilt.  I had done quite a bit of reading on the topic and there seemed to be a strong case for quilts as the best choice where flexibility and a lighter weight are the key drivers.  However, there seems to be a caveat wherein the quilt is primarily for 3 season use.   On this last point, I feel that this is probably more applicable to the northern hemisphere, where the hiking can be in areas well below freezing (ie. below -10 degrees C).  Here in Australia our conditions are less extreme, tending to be around freezing at the coldest, with single digit variations.   So I went with a quilt design with the intention of using my quilt all year round.

Down vs Synthetic

The next big decision was whether to use a synthetic fill or down.  This was an easier choice - synthetic is cheaper to buy and easier to work with!  The latest synthetic fills are equal to down for insulating capability and perform better than down when damp. On the negative side, synthetic fill does tend to pack larger than down.   After weighing the pros and cons, I went with synthetic insulation.


I ended up buying all the materials from Thru-hiker in the US.
  • For insulation  - 5oz Climashield Apex
  • For the quilt outer  - Momentum 90-MR ('mini-ripstop')
  • For the inner liner  - Momentum 90-T ('taffeta')
  • For edging -  1" grosgrain
[Update: Aussies can also get their materials locally from Simon at]

My original plan was to have black for the liner and a nice, royal blue-coloured shell.  However, Thru-hiker were apparently out of the blue and instead put black MR into the order.   I was ambivalent - blue would have been nice and was my preferred colour, but, at least, with all black, the choice of thread was going to be easy and black is about the only polyester thread colour I can actually source locally (in Melbourne).

So anyway, I place the order.  Several days later, the box arrived!

The Thru-hiker order arrives

The Climashield burst out of the box

Ready to go

I had given a bit of thought to the dimensions to be used, referring to designs from, Backwoods Daydreamer and MLD.  My initial dimensions were as follows: 
  • Neck 46"
  • Shoulder 54"
  • Hips 46"
  • Foot Width 40"
  • Length 72'
 I later added another 3" to the length, as I found 72" wasn't quite long enough for me (I am 5'11").  I did this by adding a collar to the top of the quilt. 
Cutting the Momentum was straightforward. 
I used a white sewing pencil to mark up the pattern.

The pinned up quilt and footbox.  I used a flat-sided oval shape for the footbox. 
I used a dinner plate to get the curve right at each end.

Ready to sew!  I followed the Backwoods Daydreamer design for the most part. However, one difference was that I did not cut the insulation to the edge of the liners; instead I made a no-insulation strip around the perimeter.  This made the sewing much easier, but meant the insulation moved around a lot.  I ended up later on having to sew 3-4" strips around the quilt to hold the insulation in place.

Sewing didn't take too long - a couple of evenings for the bulk of it, then another night to make some changes.

 The finished quilt

The length is just right for me, with head sticking out (plus beanie for the cold weather!)

My daughter Zoe demostrates the neck clip and toggle system.

Close up of the clip and toggle system for the neck.

I use a couple of some sewn in cord loops with a Velcro (hook & loop) strap to hold the quilt in around my middle.

The grosgrain ribbon provides strenghthening to the edges.

An example of the extra stitching needed to hold the insulation in place.

Close up of the footbox.

In the field
I used the quilt in the field for the first time last weekend, when I went snow shoeing to Craig's Hut, near Mt Stirling (see story here).  It wasn't a super cold night - it only got down to 0-1 degree C.  I found that I was quite toasty in the quilt, despite wearing less clothes than on a chillier night I spent recently in my older bag.  I should point out here that this quilt is meant to be part of a sleeping system, which in colder conditions should include additional clothing, as required.  For the night at Craig's Hut I wore thermal underwear, a fleece top, wool socks and a beanie. For temperatures below say, minus 5, I would expect to also have to wear a down vest and some gloves.

Field testing

Close up of the neck clips

The centre tie strap

The numbers that count.

When squeezed into a stuff bag the quilt can be comfortably gotten down to around 40cm long and 58cm circumference.

The quilt and stuff bag weigh a total of 630gms (22 oz) - that's a huge drop from the 2.2kg I'm used to lugging around!

In terms of cost the original Thru-hiker order cost $125, including $45 delivery to Australia (ouch). By the time I added in thread, a snap connector kit, shock cord, toggle and a bodkin (to thread the neck cord) the total was closer to $140.
And a final word..
I think I am going to really enjoy this quilt - I know Fergie approves - while my hands are tucked away inside, my face is defenceless.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Trip report: Snow-shoeing from Mt Stirling to Craig's Hut - Winter 2011 (Victoria, Australia)

Following on from a snow-shoeing trip to Mt St Gwinear a few weeks back, I was keen to get in one last overnighter in the snow to test my gear and fitness ahead of a planned trip to Mt Bogong in a couple of weeks time.  My destination this time was Mt Stirling, a popular Winter location for outdoor adventure activities, and a trip to the legendary mountain home of "The Man from Snowy River".

It's a pleasant country drive of around 2 1/2 hours from Melbourne to Mt Stirling.  I highly recommend that you stop on the way at Mansfield, the last major town before you get to the mountains and a top spot for a coffee.

On arriving at the base of the mountain I was a bit taken aback at the stiff overnight parking fee $52.  And as if that wasn't enough, I was told that I needed chains to stay overnight, even with mild conditions and driving a 4WD.  Anyway, there's a hire place positioned conveniently nearby  and before you can say 'in cahoots' I had hired a set of chains for $20 and was on my way for the short drive up to Telephone Box Junction.

Telephone Box Junction, Mt Stirling

For most of the year you are able to drive further in to the alpine country from here.  In the Winter however the road is closed beyond 'TBJ' and the area beyond belongs to the skiiers, snow-shoers and tobogganers.  So I parked the Patrol in the TBJ carpark, donned the pack and the warmer clothes, before wandering over to the ranger's hut to complete an intentions form.

The basic plan was to walk up to Mt Stirling via Bluff Spur Trail, out to Craig's Hut for the night, then back to TBJ via the Stirling Trail.  You can find a Mt Stirling trail guide here.

The trip out to Craig's Hut
I turned on Motion-X tracking app on my iPhone and headed off up the track.

 Signs near TBJ had indicated that the first usable snow was a few kilometres up the trail and they weren't kidding - it was around 3 1/2 kms before I saw anything resembling snow.  I was just the teeniest bit worried that I might be in for a snow-free night. 

Storm damage on Mt Stirling, Victoria
However, the snow cover gradually increased as I walked further up the mountain.

By the time I approached the Bluff Spur Hut I found there was great snow cover.  I also found a large group of XC skiiers.  They looked and sounded like a school group.  I moved on without further ado.   

I popped on the Yowies, then paddled up to the summit.  There were a number of groups stopped there to admire the view.   Now I am all for sharing the environment, etc, but I like my own company mostly, particularly when on a hike; so I took a quick snap with the Sony Cybershot (borrowed from daughter - my camera got drowned on an earlier trip to Mt Clear), then quickly headed off down the other side of the mountain, in the direction of Craig's Hut.

Mt Stirling

Camp site on Mt Stirling

To get to Craig's Hut from Mt Stirling you walk along a trail that takes you via the Clear Hills.  It's a great walk, with (not surprisingly, given the name of the area) plenty of ups and downs along the way to keep you warm.  Snow-wise, there was decent cover for about two thirds of the trail in this section and I found myself having to take off then put back on the snow shoes a few times.

The weather was pretty mild.  The temperature was around 7-8 degrees C when I left TBJ at 1pm, although it starting dropping later in the afternoon, getting down to about 2 degrees C in the early evening.

My you-beaut altimeter/barometer/thermometer/clock/compass that I picked up for $30 online.  I lost it  - then had it returned by a samaritan - on my last trip, so for this hike I created a snap on clip using a converted lanyard from work and put an eyelet in my sternum strap.  It didn't fall off this time, but it tended to bounce around like buggery. I ended up tucking it under a loop on a shoulder strap.

I had been walking a total of 4 hours when I finally arrived at Craig's Hut.

Craig's Hut is more famously known as the house used in the classic Australian movie, "The Man from Snowy River". Fame aside, this is a great little hut and so positioned that there are 270 degree views around the surrounding mountains. It is stunning!

Earlier in the day I had been considering walking back to the snow so I could snow camp.  However, this spot was just too good to leave, particularly so when I got to have it to myself.  So I pitched the tent and got settled in.

Not stealth camping - the new blaze orange pyramid  at Craig's Hut

It was an interesting evening.  Enjoyed a dinner of kransky sausages and a cup of tea.  Then, with time to kill I decided to make a fire in one of the available fire pits.  

And then the fun began.

Man (0) - Wild (1)

 I gathered up some bark from the ground, as well as some kindling and a few logs from the Hut.  Being committed to the whole back-woods ethos I went to start the fire with a flint and some wood shavings I had cut out with my knife.  That exercise generated a lot of sparks, but no flame.  After a while of this I decided that ethos was one thing, but pragmatism is an equally good thing, so I fetched my Bic lighter.  This yielded only slightly better results than the flint.  I was now getting a bit jack of this, so, being both pragmatic and a little reckless I fetched my gas stove, lit it (using my flint of course - remember the ethos) and proceeded to use it to 'make that sh*t burn!'  'Cop that, Nature!' I shouted as the bark burst into a roaring flame that licked eagerly around the waiting logs that would provide me with a cosy evening.  Nature, of course, is not so easily foiled and I watched in increasing levels of dismay as the roaring flame gradually burned out,  leaving the logs blackened, but stubbornly not alight. Beaten, I went to bed, muttering something about fires being for wimps anyway.
The fire that would not burn
The new quilt

It got down to about 1 degree C overnight.  I was hoping for something a little cooler to give my new MYOG synthetic quilt a proper workout; Nevertheless I found that, at that temperature and wearing thermals, a fleece top, socks and a fleece beanie, I was quite toasty for the night.  I suspect that with the addition of another layer, like a puffy vest. it will be sufficient down to minus 5  (See this post about the making of the quilt.)

The great thing about mornings is that you get to start off fresh and the next morning for me was no different. With the fire episode far behind me I got up an enjoyed the early morning views from Craig's Hut

Powdered eggs - an acquired taste

I love a hot breakfast so I made my usual bacon and eggs.  To save weight I had decided to try powdered eggs for this trip rather that bring whole eggs.  I have to say that the egg-like experience of powdered eggs was an ordinary experience.  To be fair I only added hot water to the powder.  They might have been passable if I has also fried the powder/water mix.  I brewed up some coffee to wash it down.

Return trip

Breakfast done, I quickly packed then headed back down the trail to Mt Stirling.

Had the summit to myself.  Stopped to enjoy the view and take a view more pics.

I headed back via the Stirling Trail.

I was feeling pretty good and did the walk out about 30minutes faster than the previous day, even with a longer route.  It was very mild, with temps rising to around 9 degrees C.  I stopped for a chat with the rangers at TBJ, then headed home.  Enjoyable couple of days.   Will definitely get back there another time.