Equipment
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There was not a lot of thought waisted on assembling the right kit when doing my first vol bivouacs, since these trips mostly turned out to be failed cross-country flights. Failed in the sense of not making it back in time, not failing in delight. Stuck on a mountain with my standard gear, my standard gear became my bivouac gear overnight. Because I liked being stuck on a mountain and not making it back on the same day, I started doing planned vol bivouacs. But even at this stage I was still using ordinary equipment such as a standard intermediate wing, a solid but voluminous harness, a warm but heavy sweater, an ordinary raincoat, et cetera.

Over the years, I added all kinds of handy items to the standard equipment I was using, until it had become the Almost Perfect Vol Bivouac Kit. The by now impressive weight, slowly collected over the years, kept it from being perfect. I was hauling about 30 kg around at that time. Not that I had much problems with it, since I was younger then (and more foolish as well). However, as the years progressed, it slowly dawned on me that the fun was not as great as when I was stuck on a mountain for the first time with hardly anything else than a wing and a sweater. The first time I was sleeping in my paraglider, while admiring the amazing amount of stars over my head. These first bivouacs had been more uncomfortable at the time, but more fun as well.

As a consequence, I switched to lighter gear. This kind of gear is usually more expensive, even if it costs the same. Lightweight gear also has the tendency to wear out sooner under heavy use, compared to the more solid standard gear. After all, the weight saved has to be found somewhere. That being said, good lightweight gear is worth its price. After buying good gear, I will forget its price soon after leaving the shop. It is often pointless to try remembering the price of an expensive item that has proven its quality over the years, since it has proven itself cheap in the long run. It is far more useful to remember lousy (cheaper) equipment that lasted only a few weeks, in order to not make the same mistake when hesitating between good and really good stuff on your next purchase. In the lighten up process, I also threw some items out that were not really needed (anymore) such as my vario, a rope for climbing out of trees, and my radio.

The current items that I take along on a vol bivouac, including their weight, are listed below. It is followed by a list of items that I do not take along and the reasons why. The kit is not perfect yet, and probably will never be, but it is much better than it was ten years ago. The kit is definitely not perfect for other pilots, since we all have different priorities. Fellow hikers and pilots have tried to convince me that items such as a sleeping bag, a flashlight, and a GPS are indispensable. I am probably doing something wrong here, since I can do without those for the moment. Your wishes and requirements are likely to differ from mine, so do not take this list as the definitive word on vol bivouac gear. The list merely shows you that even if you pack as few items as possible, this soon ads up to an impressive weight. And this weight is without counting the clothing and food you will need to carry. Remember this when there is something missing in my full kit that you consider indispensable.

The full kit

Assembling your kit is all about compromises. Try and make the right ones and do not compromise too much on your comfort and safety. Compromises in this area have a tendency to bite back. Mostly at inconvenient times and locations. Remember that safety is in your mind, rather than in the equipment you bring along. Having a risk-aware mind is far more likely to keep you healthy than any safety equipment possibly could.

Some items have additional and often overlooked functions, besides the intended ones. By making the right compromises, you can save weight. For example, my wing doubles as sleeping bag and the mattress also serves as cushion and mini-mousse.

Wing - 5345

My current wing is a Gradient Aspen 2, a standard DHV2 wing. I have chosen it for its light and responsive handling, good feedback, precise steering (especially near its stall point), predictive behaviour under 'strange' conditions, and also because it was one of the lightest standard wings available at the time. It replaced my Ozone Vulcan, which I liked for the same reasons, except that it was heavier. The Vulcan felt structurally more rigid than the Aspen 2, but apparently at the cost of more weight. After two seasons on the Aspen 2, I no longer miss this characteristic. Since my wings on average last two and a half seasons, I have started looking for a replacement this year (2009).

The most important requirement for my new wing is that I should feel comfortable with it in all conditions, especially when these become difficult or dangerous. Contrary to what some pilots might tell you, this has little to do with a wing's classification, and all the more with self knowledge and piloting capabilities. Have a good and honest look at your skills and attitude, before deciding which kind of wing you need. Choosing a wing based on skills that you should or would like to have, rather the objective and realistic comments made by people who know your actual skills, such as your instructors, could end up in flying an uncomfortably performing wing.

The opposite could happen as well, but is less likely to get you into trouble. I have always refused to fly hot wings. Hot in respect to my skills. I never considered semi-competition wings (i.e. the DHV2-3 class), because I found the increased performance not worth the increased risk. However, after having tried the Avax XC2 for a few flights (thanks for lending me your wing Fabien), I realised that I felt more comfortable under this wing than my Aspen 2 or the Aspen 3 (2009). It felt more solid in rough air and had a better penetration. It was bouncing around less and was a pleasant surprise on glide. In all, I felt more like a pilot in control, than being a leaf in the wind. Do not get me wrong here, both Aspens are excellent wings. That is why I bought one in the first place. It is me that is wrong. Apparently I had made some progress in my flying skills, even though I missed most of the season three years ago. However, the progress had been noted by others (thanks for the little push Philippe).

Flying a Gin Boomerang 6 around the same time was also a delight (thanks Eric for the wing and (again!) Philippe for the little push I needed), especially on glide. I had the feeling of flying a sailplane, rather than a paraglider. Although a dream to fly, except for the brakes being a bit on the heavy side, it is not on the short list of wings that I consider as a replacement for my current one. These kind of wings have great performance, but are very close to the limits of what is possible in paragliding. There will not be much trouble most of the time, but I risk going over the limits too easily on those rare occasions when I do want that to happen. Considering my current capabilities and especially considering the kind of flights I like to be doing, I find the error margin too small. For example, top landing with big ears (and speed bar!) is a common manoeuvre during my vol bivouac and ordinary cross-country flights. Big ear landings are already a bit more tricky with the Avax XC2 (because it gives less feedback near stall point than my current wing), but I had no problems with it. With the Boom 6, or any other competition wing for that matter, such a manoeuvre is likely to be a lot more tricky than I am used to. Competition wings are optimised for flying fast en efficient, not so much for landing or launching (even thought the kite walking test was less of a drama than expected when I tried it out of plain curiosity). Searching at a safe altitude for the limits with big ears on the Boom 6 for the first time, finally yielded some interesting results that were only resolved about a hundred metres lower or so. A nice reminder to always have adequate margin when playing difficult or dangerous games. Especially with flying a new wing. Even more so when they are hot. Another worry is the weight of the Boom 6. More than seven kilogram is far too heavy for comfortable hiking.

On the other side of the spectrum, the Ozone Swift would be an excellent candidate for hiking. With only 3,8 kg it is a delight to hike. And a surprising delight to fly as well. It is the most turn-friendly wing I have ever flown. You only seem to have to look in the direction you want to go, in order to get there. Shifting your body suffices for a quick, sharp turn. Adding a bit of brake makes it lightning fast and dynamic. Wing-overs without using the brakes are a delight. When using weight shifting only, most wings require three to four swings before the wing-overs set in. Doing the same (exaggerated) weight steering with the Swift, started a wing over on the first swing and a roll on the second. The wing follows a turn much better than your average wing, making collapse free wing-overs almost as easy as flying straight (which is not as easy as it sounds, because the wing invites you to throw it around). I have never flow acro wings, but my guess is that the Swift could be an excellent one. My other guess is that it would not last long though, considering the minimalistic approach that keeps the wing's weight so comfortably low.

Unfortunately, I found the Swift a bit unpredictable in turbulent conditions now and then. I do not know if this is caused by the Swift being so light (i.e. less inertia), but occasionally it would react a lot more lively than I would expect from a EN-B certified wing. I am used to having my wing at uncomfortable angles now and then. A few times a year, no more. When the going gets really rough and nature takes the piloting out of my hands for just a moment. To find out the natural behaviour of a wing (in comparison to the certified behaviour), I test a wing in nasty conditions before deciding to buy it. If I do not like its behaviour in this ultimate test, then it is off the list. I have been mistaken for a test pilot a few years ago, while trying the Vulcan in rough conditions (thanks for trusting me with your wing Jerôme). The outcome of this test resulted in me buying the wing. During my first flight with the Aspen 2, I tested it in a nasty lee side. On purpose that is, and with adequate margin of course. Again, this final test resulted in the wing's purchase.

I would not dare to do the same with the Swift. It has really surprised me occasionally (but unpleasantly nonetheless), by not telling me that it was about to collapse and dive below the horizon. Three times in a row. This was during the first test flight, in regular conditions. It could have been due to the fact that I was low and scanning the ground below me in search of a missing pilot, thus not paying enough attention to the conditions and the wing. However, I have flown other wings this way and never had a problem with it. No matter the conditions. And even concentrating on the wing and my piloting after the first incident, did not prevent the other two from happening. The incidents are probably due to me not being able to understand the wing correctly. I have only had three flights with it (about ten hours in all), and it usually takes me more than 100 hours to understand a new wing to such a degree that I can fly in blindfolded and up to the limits of what it can take. However, this rather lively and out of the blue behaviour of the Swift, makes me hesitant to put in on the short list. First impressions count, since they might tell me that the wing and I are incompatible. Of course, I will be trying my best to adapt to the wing in order to understand it, but this seldom turns into really liking it. And even though it is probably me that is to blame on this first date, there still is a small chance that the wing might be the problem. By relying on first impressions, I have managed to stay away from some wings that turned out to be not so good after a while (based on what pilots who flew a lot on them had to say, not on my first impressions). That being said, I do not think that a lot of other wings would have gotten me out of les Eaux Chaudes in order to make it back to St. André, after my search effort had become a bit too fanatical and finding myself in the lee of Tromas, 50 m above the lake, at seven o'clock in the evening. The end of the Bléone valley, although being beautiful, is not the most optimal place for getting back after bombing out. Certainly not at the end of the day. The Swift seemed well aware of that.

I am still hesitant about those ultra-light wings that would only add two to three kilogram to my kit. These wings are meant for a different game than the one I am currently playing. As far as I am aware, ultra-light wings have about 20% lower top speed than my current wing, which already has proven itself a bit slow under certain conditions. I love the idea of an ultra-light wing reducing my kit with a few kilogram, but at the moment this would also considerably reduce my window of flight opportunities. Maybe this will change, considering the progress in the speedfly department. I certainly will keep an eye out for any wing that decreases the load, without decreasing my window too much.

Another worry is their durability in hostile environments, such as the rocky launches here in the southern French Alps. I am currently waiting for the results of the endurance field tests that are being run by all those first buyers. I am specifically interested in an experiment set up in 2009 by local pilot Ed Bull, who had a standard EN-D wing customised with light fabric. Unfortunately, he is not flying a lot with it.

A new wing should first and foremost handle nicely. When flying a wing for the first time, I test it for nice behaviour such a being light on the brakes, quick turning, and little pitching behaviour. I want a wing to cut through the air, rather than being bounced around by it. Performing wing-overs without using the brakes, gives excellent feedback on the wing's agility. Easily getting in and out of spiral dives as well. If I feel comfortable with a wing after these initial tests, I might take it on a cross-country flight to get a real feeling for it. There is no turbulence like real turbulence. Nothing beats a cross-country flight when it comes to testing real incident behaviour, in addition to the certified behaviour. Even though the latter is important, never forget that the certification is based on modelling and reproducible results. The certification testing can not exactly reproduce the conditions you will be flying in, and due to the chosen approach never will.

The cross-country test flight is the stage where things tend to get a bit more interesting. Characteristics that I would like to find out concern how solid a wing behaves in turbulence, how consistent it handles different kind of collapses, how much it is thrown about by the air, how manageable it flies near stall point, but most of all whether it is thermalling all right. All these characteristics have not been EN-tested/certified. The certification requires reproducible results, hence the same aerological conditions. Finding a consistent turbulence or thermal is difficult. Perhaps this is possible in theory, but it would make testing (and thus wings) outrageously expensive in practice. For the moment, this means the certification testing is done in calm air, which does not correspond to the situations cross-country pilots are facing in real flight. In addition, testing consists of inducing self controlled incidents such pulling the A-riser in order to collapse the wing. Since the pilot creates his/her own incident, it is no longer an incident. Incidents happen unexpectedly, uncontrolled by the victim. If you see an incident coming, you will try to avoid it. The certification testing tells you something about what happens after a collapse. Not how likely a wing is to collapse. This means even a EN-A certified wing could wreak havoc when in the wrong conditions or in the wrong hands, as I have shown with the Swift. A wing's classification is important, but always perform a real test in order to find out the differences between theoretical safety and the one you encounter in practice.

Top landings are an essential part of vol bivouac, so they get tested as well. But only when I have enough confidence in the wing. After this, I might try to obtain an impression of the wing's glide and speed (if I have not found it out already by now). If I really like the wing, i.e. when I would like to put in on the short list, it is subjected to the kite walking test. I will often be landing and taking off in difficult locations during my trips, therefore I demand excellent ground handling from my wings, as well as myself. By excellent I mean that I want to be in control under all flyable conditions, as well as the not flyable conditions that seemed flyable before realising they were not. One of the more important tests thus consists of landing on a mountain slope and kiting my way up to a take-off. By keeping the trailing edge of the wing about 50 cm to four metres above the ground, the wing pulls me up the slope. Believe it or not, but I find this less cumbersome than walking with a field pack and certainly a lot quicker than packing and unpacking my wing. The most important advantage is that it gives me lots of information about the wing's take-off behaviour that I would not have found that easily during ground handling the wing on a regular take-off (which I already did). An altitude difference of 100 to 200 m usually gives an adequate impression of the wing's behaviour. The precise altitude depends on how much fun I am having, as well as the ambient temperature. I remember battling my way out of an inversion once by kiting 300 metres up along ridge. Which was challenging and interesting, rather than fun. The plateau and slope (for landing and kiting, respectively) beneath Petit Cordeil are excellent for this purpose. As are a lot of slopes along la Blanche. Mind the sheep though! Especially the ones that say Woof! instead of Beehhh!

Of course, there are more test than the ones given here, but you get the picture of what is happening during my first flight with a new wing. To cut a long story short, my usual approach for determining my next wing proceeds as follows:

  1. Look around which wings seem to fly neat and nicely. These make it to the long list.
  2. Kite these or similar wings that have my interest, as well as wings that do not, since I might be mistaken about them. People that are better at judging my skills and wings, are a valuable source of information for this.
  3. Wings that kite like a camion or cucumber, are off the list. The others get connected to my harness for some ground handling.
  4. Wings that ground handle awfully, are off the list. The others are taken along for a test flight.
  5. Wings that do not behave nicely in the air, get a little rest. And me as well. After some thinking and searching for my errors, they get a retry.
  6. Wings that still not behave nicely after the intermission, are off the list. All the others make it to the short list.
  7. I will talk with other pilots about the behaviour of all wings. Mostly in order to determine whether I have made a mistake somewhere and whether I should retry one of the not so nice wing in order to get used to them. This usually does not result in any list changes.
  8. At this point, I will thoroughly analyse the paper performance of a wing. The wing that has a slightly lesser weight, a slightly better performance, nicer colours (just kidding!), or any combination thereof, gets elected as new wing.

What it is all about, is choosing a wing that fits you. Not about choosing the wing that I am fond of. Choose a wing that handles nicely and you are comfortable with. For example, heavy brakes will be tiresome after a while. Noisy, flapping big ears might become such a nuisance that you lose the habit of using them, even when you should. Having a high maximum speed is nice, but might get uncomfortable if it increases the risk of nasty collapses more than you prefer. The (paper) performance of a wing might attract you to choose a wing just above your capabilities, since you feel at ease with it and are able to handle it 99% of the time. But you will definitely be wishing you had not bought it, when one of the remaining 1% incidents finds you. Be honest with yourself and choose a wing which you can handle 100% of the time. Performance is no substitute for intelligence.

Harness, stirrup, carabiners, speed bar - 4100

Your harness should be safe and comfortable while flying and hiking. It is the latter requirement which eliminates most harnesses available on the market today (2009). Most standard harnesses weigh at least four kilogram and need a rucksack to be carried. A comfortable rucksack (those you get with your wing are mostly not up to the job), usually weighs two kilogram or more. That adds an uncomfortable weight to the full kit.

By using a reversible harnesses, you get rid of about a kilogram or two (i.e. the rucksack), while still being able to fly a normal harness instead one of those stringy ones. Reversible harnesses have already been on the market for a number of years, but only recently have I seen harnesses that are reasonably up to the job of long vol bivouac trips with the full kit. The Sup'air Altirando XP is a derivative of the regular Altirando, and has (finally!) enough volume to store the full kit. Unfortunately, my first Altirando XP lasted only one season. It was unable to withstand heavy use. The stitching gave out on quite a number of places, even after professional repair (thanks for the repair Pierre!), and the fabric of the back compartment slowly started to disintegrate, finally giving out during a rough landing after 600 hours of use (flying and hiking). The airbag however, being made out of more solid fabric, had no scratch whatsoever! Apparently, the (thin) fabric was unable to handle a lot of UV exposure. When using a regular harness and backpack, the harness is shielded from the UV rays when hiking. Not so when using a reversible harness. The fabric is always exposed to the sun, as soon as you start using the rucksack/harness. The light fabric of the Altirando XP has less resistance to physical wear and tear than an ordinary harness, and the UV exposure considerably accelerates this process. In all, your reversible harness is unlikely to last as long as an ordinary harness, even if you treat it with all the care in the world. The new version (2009) seems more solid, but still has a lot of opportunities for improvement. I have made about twenty improvements or so to my harness, some of which are slowly surfacing on the newer models as well.

My previous Sup'air harness lasted ten years, including very abusive soaring at the coastal dunes. It is still used for soaring. If any of you designers is reading this, could you please make a reversible harness that is as durable as an ordinary harness? Do not go for the lightest in the market, but go for the most robust in its class instead. Many pilots, including me, are prepared to walk with a reversible harness that is only half a kilogram heavier, but a lot more solid than the current ones. You will gain a lot of content customers this way, and get rid of the complaining ones at the same time.

Swing has sorted a reversible harness recently (2009), that I would like to try. The Swing Connect Reverse has about the same weight (4 kg) as my Altirando XP, but seems to be more solid and to offer a better carrying comfort. For those interested in an even lighter reversible harness, I suggest to to have a look at the Gin Switch. It has no seat board, but do not let that scare you away. I found it a lot of fun to fly and the set-up is very responsive. I did not have the opportunity to fly it with the Swift, or hiking with it for that matter, but I would not be surprised if Switch and Swift would make an excellent combination in the air as well as on the ground. Even though the Switch gave me loads of fun, it is not on the list. The absence of the seat board becomes uncomfortable after a few hours, which makes it less suitable for the longer flights I tend to make. In addition to that, the Switch pushes my legs to the outside. This exposes my most vulnerable equipment to a constant stream of cold air for hours on end, which is likely to affect its functioning now or in the near future. I would not mind using the Switch for a hike and fly though.

The foot stirrup is from Sup'air. I have always flown without one, wondering why people that were going lightweight added an unnecessary accessory. Being aware that judging without trying is a synonym for prejudice most of the time, I gave the stirrup a try when I started flying with the Altirando XP. Within seconds I became a convert, spreading the gospel to anyone wanting to know more about it soon after. The stirrup makes it much easier to turn the wing. It allows me to comfortably glue myself to the harness, having a much better contact with it, and thus my wing. I have now changed my wondering thoughts to the question why so many pilots are flying without one.

Somehow speed bars have not progressed as rapidly as wings and harnesses over the years. They are basically the same clumsy thing they were twenty years ago. They seem more like a design fault than a logical part of our paragliding set-up. Their use often remains a source of frustration. All kinds of contraptions have been invented to easily step on the bar to accelerate. However, none have solved the fundamental problem that speed bars are hanging below your harness, and thus are pushed backwards by the wind. My feet won't always find the speed bar fast and flawlessly. Frequently, I find myself fiddling and looking down to see whether I am not about to 'accelerate' the air bag entry, instead of the wing.

My current speed bar is an Apco Wonderbar, which works excellent when taking of, but has the problems mentioned above, just like all other speed bars I have seen. Especially when they are lightweight and get pushed backwards even more easily. A cocoon is probably the best solution here, since it takes away the cause of the problem (i.e. wind). Having short legs helps as well, since the speed bar will be higher up and pushed against the upper front of the harness, rather than under it.

Reserve parachute, container, bridle, carabiners - 1445

You probably will not need your reserve parachute often, maybe never. So, you could leave a considerable weight at home when going light. I have met pilots that have flown without one and lived to tell the tale. One of them confessed me once that he had switched from a competition wing to a DHV2-3 wing recently, since piloting the competition wing had become a bit too demanding for him after twenty years of paragliding. As I was sweating and struggling my way down with 25 kg on my back, he lead the way with a small rucksack that weighed a fraction of mine, making we wonder if I was doing something wrong.

I have said it before, and this will probably not be the last time, but safety resides largely in your head. Not in your equipment. Avoiding the circumstances where you might need a reserve parachute, is a much better rescue system than a reserve parachute. Now matter how good or expensive the parachute. That being said, I would hate to fly without one. Simply because there is chance that something unexpected might happen, like a wing (or anything else) falling out of the sky and hitting me on the way down. Plummeting or otherwise uncontrolled wings have tried to down me occasionally, without success so far. However, I am not going to wait for a successful attempt without having a reserve parachute on board.

Fortunately, there has been considerable progress here. My current reserve parachute is a Sup'air Xtralite that weighs about 1,2 kg, a bit more including the bridle and carabiners. Carrying slightly less then 1,5 kg is a small price to pay for a possible life-safer. Do not economise on this issue.

Watch/altimeter - 70

I have stopped listening to my vario a long time ago. I continued using it as an altimeter for several years, because I was unable to find the altimeter that fulfilled my wishes. I wanted a simple, lightweight, readable at a glance altimeter. A small one, with a long battery life, without gimmicks and bloatware. One that only showed the variables that interest me during flight, i.e. altitude, time, and temperature. The Suunto Core finally offered me what I was looking for. Even better, it did not offer a lot more than that. The presence of a sunrise/sunset feature was not on the requirements list, but an appreciated extra nonetheless. The possibility of logging up to ten flights is even more appreciated. This allows me to log the wing's flight hours without having to write down or memorise take-off and landing times. Even the alarm clock has shown its value, by waking me for trains that leave before the sun rises. Last but not least, the battery lasts a whole season, even though the watch is always on. I have not seen a vario so far that is able to do this, let alone a GPS.

The built-in electronic compass has proven itself useful at night, when the face is set to illuminate. I do not care for the compass during the day, since there are faster and easier methods for determining my bearing when there is daylight. In flight, the electronic compass is not used at all. In case of emergency, it could serve as a backup for the ordinary flight compass, which is permanently strapped to my harness. The ordinary compass works better than the electronic one, does not require a battery, and I do not have to fiddle with a tiny button to switch it from altitude mode to compass mode. In compass mode, the watch drains the battery a lot faster than usual. That is why I have the mode button locked during flight. However, locking requires you to press the light button, which consumes about eight seconds of light. Not a disastrous amount of energy, but waisted energy nonetheless. Frequent locking/unlocking drains the battery more than needed. There are four other buttons on the watch. It should not have been too complicated to find a different button among these that consumed less to no energy, shouldn't it Suunto?

Another disadvantage, or rather bug, is that the altimeter gets stuck for a while if you ascend or descend too rapidly. In general, the watch gives an altitude update every second or so. However, when finding a strong thermal, the altimeter is likely to stop thinking for (half?) a minute or so, before resuming its function by suddenly jumping to the correct altitude. It could take the watch longer to resume if you keep on experiencing rapid rises/descends, for example when having difficulty centring a strong thermal. This is irritating, rather than frustrating, since I am not using it as a vario. However, it is not something I expect from equipment this expensive.

The greatest advantage of having an altimeter watch, is having the altitude with me all the time. It greatly enhances my feeling for altitude and weather. When walking for example, I am often able to note the altitude at which I cross the inversion. Seeing the altitude rise overnight, and having seen the clouds change in the distance during the day, could make me decide to start searching for transport back to base, instead of sitting out three days of rain. Waking up with a much lower altitude on my watch (without having moved) and a sunny sky, has me looking forward to a good flying day. All this without needing to consult the professional weather bulletin hanging on the notice board at the local paragliding school way down in the valley, or needing to call (expensive) weather hotlines.

Sleeping mattress 3/4 - 145

This is the elemental thing I got wrong during my first vol bivouac. My body has insufficient mass to heat up the earth adequately. Consequently, it loses a lot of warmth when I try it anyway. Having a mattress (or anything similar such as hay), insulating your body from the earth, greatly improves your comfort. It might improve your comfort even more if it is a thick mattress, but these are quite bulky to carry around. Self-inflatable mattresses are probably the most comfortable ones for sleeping. However, they are also the most heavy and vulnerable ones. It is amazing how sharp a pine tree needle can be, or even straw or grass for that matter. Opening my eyes once after a good night's sleep, I saw a deadly dangerous straw that had pierced my foam mattress just a few centimetres in front of my eyes. Self-inflatable mattresses are less easily pierced, but they lose all their comfort when this happens. Small things such as a single pine needle, have managed to deflate my inflatable mattress. Needles(s) to say this is not a comfortable start of your long trip when happening on the first night. Of course, I could take a repair set along or an underlayment as protection. But this adds weight, and the repair requires heating (which I do not have). Considering this vulnerability, as well as the weight of self-inflatables, I prefer to bring the foam mattress. Foam mattresses offer the best insulation in comparison with their weight. At least, that is what I have been told in the shop, and I have not encountered any reasons yet that proved them wrong.

Considering all of the above, I use a thin (4 mm) foam mattress that I have cut to three quarts of my body's length. Cutting off a quart seems silly, but it means the difference between struggling with the mattress in order to get it in the back of my harness, or neatly sliding it in. In the harness, the folded mattress serves as a mini-mousse for my back when flying. When strapped to the back of my backpack, it protects the pack against branches, trees, rocks, difficult to spot rods and pins that are sticking out of the ground, barbed wire, rusty nails, and a lot of other nasty items I am likely to encounter. I can take the mattress off quickly, in order to use it as a cushion to sit on. It beats taking along the comfy chair every time. After all, vol bivouac is a sort of unexpected Spanish Inquisition sometimes.

Spare lines, pulley, tape, toothbrush, simple first aid, et cetera - 200

Despite being careful, things might break down. Your equipment gets heavily used (and sometimes even abused) more intense than during regular flights. The wear and tear will be more pronounced due to the nearly constant hiking and flying. You kit seldom gets a rest, even when sleeping. It will often rest on a rough or dirty surface, with insects and moisture creeping into it. Its constant exposure to the weather makes the trip just as hard for your equipments, as it is for you. Be prepared for a breakdown. Take along a light collection of items that allow you to make small repairs on your wing, harness, backpack, clothing, or any other important gear that could grind your trip to a halt. Being able to repair a broken line or fix a small tear in your wing, could save the day or even your trip.

I have two spare brake lines with me, that will also also do fine as temporary replacement for the other lines. For the thinner lines in the upper gallery, I have about 20 m of ordinary fishing line. It probably is not in accordance with any EN, DHV, LTF or any other testing norm for that matter, but it does the job and weighs next to nothing. I replaced a broken A-line in the upper gallery of my previous wing once, and it allowed me to continue the trip without a hassle. It is still holding out well after an additional 100 hours of soaring along the coastal dunes, a very unfriendly location for a paraglider (salt, sand). It has not stretched and I can not break it with my bare hands, as I have done with other lines that had reached a respectable age. Of course, this is just an experiment in a low risk environment. If I had continued to use this wing in the mountains, I would have replaced the line with a new one after the trip.

I have cut my toothbrush in half. This saves a ridiculously small amount of weight, but also eliminates the presence of a long piece of hard plastic that could perforate my body or anything else important during a rough landing or an accident.

I can handle small accidents such as a cut, a bruise, a broken toe or finger, a little fever, a cold, a sprained ankle, or a knee that suddenly gives out. Accidents that get bigger than this, such as a broken leg, require professional help from nurses, doctors, ambulances, and rescue helicopters. I have seen hikers carrying first aid kits that were prepared to deal with big accidents. These kits are voluminous and weighty, and won't solve your problem on the spot. Even though some people are under the false impression these will. First aid is meant to stabilise you, in order to get you professional assistance as quickly as possible. Unless you brought a doctor along, you have to go see one.

I have and still am travelling, hiking, biking, and flying alone frequently. Not because I hate the company of others or have suicidal tendencies, but because the experience is usually more intense, more pure than with a group, and because it is easier to get in contact with other people. An all-embracing first aid kit is not likely to mitigate an accident in my case, since there will be no one to help me with it. Being mentally and physically prepared does. As a consequence, I will carry items such as a few small adhesive bandages, safety pins, special tweezers to get rid of ticks, a large bandage, a sharp knife, and strong thread, in order to lessen the problems of minor accidents. I am not carrying first aid items such as pain killers, bandages, Imodium, gloves. scissors, cold packs, thermometer, CPR mouthpiece, alcohol wipes, et cetera. An accidents requiring these items, will result in the decision to abort the vol bivouac (or any flight or hike for that matter), and search (professional) treatment at base or in the nearest village, or result in a meeting with the creator who started all this. I usually try to skip boring meetings.

I am fully aware that the mountains are a risky area. I have adapted my whole life and behaviour to face this fact for over thirty years. I just wonder now and then why people reproach me for being careless by hiking alone in the mountains (without asking me how I am prepared to deal with an emergency), while nobody ever reproached me for handling a five horsepower circular handsaw doing some handiwork at home alone. I you are one of those that insist on continuing your trip with a sprained ankle (possibly after taking some comforting pain killers), instead of giving it that much needed rest (and thus aborting your trip), than take a good look at yourself in the mirror, rather than reproaching me for my lack of understanding risk.

Maps France (three) - 240

I will usually take the 1:100.000 scale maps of IGN with me on a flight. The scale is perfect for flying and the maps have contour lines with 40 m spacing. These are a bit coarse for hiking, but far superior to the mountain shadows on ordinary road maps that I have seen used by other pilots. With only three and a half maps, you have the French Alps covered from Léman to the Méditerranée.

When going for flights in unfamiliar terrain, I could take the IGN 1:25.000 scale maps instead. These maps are perfect for hiking (your way out of an aerological problem), but you will require quite a few maps when going for larger trips. Count on four to six when flying local cross-country flights, and about 60 (a rough estimate) when doing a tour of the French Alps. In the latter case, you probably will not take that much maps along, unless you can sell them at an exorbitant price to desperately lost hikers along the way. However, be prepared that you might become one of these, wishing you had brought the right map along, after losing or not finding the right way. Of course, this dilemma does not surprise you anymore, since by now you have come to understand that vol bivouac consists of compromises on various terrains.

IGN is currently in the process of updating the 1:100.000 scale maps (2009). The new maps have a green cover instead of blue. They used to be green when I started flying, so nothing important seems to have happened over the last ten years. Unfortunately, IGN have chosen a different manner of mapping the Alps to paper, as well as placed rather large advertisement on some of the maps rather than geographical information. This means you probably need to take along one or two maps more than in the good old times, depending on your flight plan.

Maps Switzerland, flight info - 185

There are 1:100.000 scale maps as well for the Swiss Alps. The numbers 101, 105, 107, 109 and 110 from the Bundesamt für Landestopographie cover the Alpine area. Since I have been hiking, (motor)biking, and snowboarding almost everywhere in the Swiss Alps, I am adequately familiar with the terrain. Which explains the motivational absence of taking that extra weight along. Instead I take an ordinary roadmap (1:300.000 scale), added with a few printouts of the airspace restrictions.

Mobile phone - 105

This item could be your possible life safer. Your only link with the civilised world and its rescue teams in case of an emergency. Always take it along and make sure it is charged before you wander off. Stowing it in the back of your harness along with other items, as I have seen other pilots do, seems a bad idea. Store it in a place where you can easily reach it, since seconds count in case of an emergency and your physical capabilities might be limited because of the accident. Mine is in a side pocket of the harness, within reach of both my hands. Having it in your flight suit might even be a better idea, but in case of an emergency it might be more difficult to (quickly) retrieve the phone when harness straps and clothing obstruct its access. The side pocket has a zipper that opens faster and easier than the ones in my flight suit, making it the preferred location. The phone is connected to the harness with a cord, in order not to lose it when it falls out of my hands or out of the side pocket. In case the harness lays on the wrong (i.e. pocket) side during an accident, I will still be able to pull this cord in order to get the phone out of the pocket.

My mobile phone is turned off during flight and usually during hiking as well, since I like to focus my attention on these activities rather than having telephone conversations that can be held at a more suitable time. Leaving it on all the time will drain your battery, especially since you will often have lousy to no network coverage, which increases your phone's energy consumption. However, leaving it on enhances the chances of being found in case of an accident. Even when you are not able to operate your phone to call for help. I prefer to preserve my phone's battery, so that it has a lot of power left should I need it. Leaving it on all the time, while there is generally no GSM coverage, seems wasting energy you could desperately need later on. Counting on your mobile phone to save you, is a gamble that depends on GSM coverage and the location of your accident. Counting on your mobile phone to save you when you are no longer able to operate it or even switch it one, resembles Russian roulette. If you are unable to operate or even switch on your telephone, you are probably dead. Which means rescue comes too late. Or not dead yet, but paralysed to such a degree that you could start wondering if you really want to be saved. People have descended mountains with broken legs, without assistance. Operating your mobile phone with broken fingers, wrist, or arm will not be easy, but you will manage when the need arises. Relying on an emergency beacon is probably a better idea here.

Pocket knife - 50

My pocket knife is the simplest Swiss Army knife I could find. It still has that corkscrew that I can do without, but the knife's blade, awl, can opener, and screw driver all have proven their usefulness by now. I am still wondering why there is a second blade on it as well. I have never found any use for it that could not be dealt with by the regular blade. Of course, the knife is a meagre substitute for the proper tools you would like to have with you when you need them. But, it always beats not having those tools with you. The knife comes in handy for peeling and cutting vegetables and fruits, for cutting tape or a line in order to repair your wing, harness, or clothing, for cutting wood to little pieces in order to start a fire, for unscrewing equipment when replacing a battery, et cetera. A Leatherman would even be more useful, but is a lot heavier. I prefer my little pocket knife, which has always performed excellent so far when needed.

Bag - 155

When going for longer trips, storing the provisions inside my backpack becomes a problem. The provisions find a place in an extra bag that gets strapped on top of my backpack. It is a flexible solution that allows me to carry extra load now and then, without the need for a much larger (cumbersome) backpack. Bigger backpacks are currently not available anyway (I am using the largest size already), so this is probably the best option. The bag is a homebrew. One of those improvement to the harness that Sup'air should have made from the beginning, rather than letting customers do the development for them.

Another important reason for storing the food in a separate bag, is to keep food scavengers from attacking my backpack and its contents, such as the wing. I hold nothing against Swiss cheese, but I would hate to wake up and find my backpack resembling one. This is no joke, I have seen this happen with other wings and bags.

Hydration pack - 170

Drinking adequate amounts of water is vitally important during your vol bivouac, especially during hiking. Frequently drinking little amounts of water, helps your body in optimising its use. If you start drinking when you are getting thirsty, you are too late. By having a hydration pack, I can easily drink whenever and wherever I want to. My hydration pack is a very solid one made by MSR. It has withstood abuse such as falling on sharp rocks, being sat on without exploding like a water bomb, and being completely frozen. The bag is heavier than the all plastic ones, but water being precious, I like to store it in a solid bag. The only problem I have with it, is that the cap is less solid than the bag. The bag has served me well for the last eight years or so, but I am already on my third cap (2009).

Water bag - 50

When needed, take along more water in an ordinary water bag. This is likely to happen during visits to drier areas or during the drier times of the season. The water bag does not need to be as solid as your hydration pack, since it will be handled less. Not having the hose and bite valve, an ordinary water bag saves weight in comparison with having a second hydration pack.

Passport, license, pen, et cetera - 130

Contrary to what it may look like, mountains are not always desolated and deserted places, devoid of civilisation. You might even run into civil servants interested in seeing your passport when you have raised their interest. Using any transport other than your feet and wing, disqualifies your vol bivouac. An obligatory invitation for a ride in a police car, no matter how uncomfortable, is not in the spirit of vol bivouac and should be avoid. Take along your passport in order to produce it when these people ask for it. Not having it with you could, for example, also prevent you from staying in specific hotels. Taking it with you might also prevent your passport from being taken by someone paying a visit to your car in your absence.

A pen and piece of paper are not indispensable, but very handy for writing down the names and addresses of the interesting people you meet, for making little notes about your experiences, or for writing down information you might need later on in your trip.

Spork - 10

A spork is not an extraterrestrial from another dimension, but a spoon with a fork on the other end. In addition, the fork end has a sort of saw-like knife on one side. This means you have a complete cutlery, weighing only 10 g. Cutlery seems exuberant luxury, since you could (and mostly will) eat with your bare hands. However, there are a few occasion where it might come in very handy, even though there are alternatives to be found on the spot. Mixing your freeze-dried survival food with your bare hands for example, does not work that well and turns your hands into those of a car mechanic for several days. Of course you can make your own cutlery from wood, stones, leaves, and such, but 10 g is not really a weighty issue to get excited about, isn't it?

Wallet - 30

Trust me, but you need this one. Even if you do not intend to spend any money. It is great for storing all those little things you need in civilised life, but have no need for during your vol bivouac, such as money and your car key. As soon as you return in a civilized environment (for example when visiting a refuge or a bakery), you have everything you need at hand in no time.

Wallet contents - 30

Coins have a disproportionate weight in comparison with paper. So, take along paper money, especially small denominations that allow you to settle small trades, without waiting for the change arriving from the valley below or the valley on the other side of the mountain range.

Car key - 30

This item only counts for pilots who have their own means of transport. You won't need your car key during your vol bivouac, so you can safely store it in (the same place) as your wallet. Put your car key in a place such as that small inner pocket of your flight suit, close the pocket and only re-open it after arriving near your car after you trip. In this way your are least likely to lose it.

Things that I do not have (yet)

Assembling your kit is all about compromises. Some of the items not (yet) in my full kit, could be included in the (near) future if I change my mind or if the items themselves change. The latter mostly concerns a more acceptable performance/weigh ratio. Have a look below, if an item you are interested in has not been addressed above.

Sleeping bag

It gets cold in the mountains at night, often very cold. Especially at altitude, and then especially during spring and autumn (and of course winter, but that is not my favourite time of year for vol bivouac). But even summer could make you freeze if you are not prepared for it. I have slept outside in (near) freezing conditions, while flying in comfortable warm weather during the day. A good sleeping bag would be a welcome extension to the full kit. However, a sleeping bag that keeps me warm down to freezing temperatures, takes up a lot of volume. A warm sleeping bag needs plenty of down in order to hold plenty of air. It is the air that insulates, not the down. However, the down needs to be in good shape, in order to hold the air. Compressing a warm sleeping bag to a handy volume that fits in my backpack, will damage the down and turn it into a sleeping bag that is not so warm anymore. Even if its weight would be bearable, keeping a warm sleeping bag in good health would take up about the same volume as my wing. That is way too much.

I have been using my wing as a blanket ever since my first vol bivouac and never really regretted it. A real sleeping bag is probably better and less clumsy, but using the wing instead is a handy compromise that saves a lot of weight and volume. By carefully draping layers of fabric, I can adapt to a wide range of temperatures, down to freezing. I have not seen a sleeping bag yet, that has this thermostat feature. There might be people telling you that paraglider fabric does not breath and that sleeping under it will get you wet from the inside. I am not sure why they say this, except that it could be prejudice that originates from never having tried it. I have never had any problems with it.

The real problem of using your wing as a blanket (or as a tent for that matter), is that your wing gets wet by the dew that settles on it as the air cools during the night. Hiking with a wet (thus heavier) wing adds weight that I can do without. The wing dries within minutes when kiting it prior to taking off. But when waking up early in the cool, humid, and breezeless morning air, the only way of drying my wing is by exposing it to the sun for an hour or so (depending on humidity that night). The packing and unpacking is likely to cause some more wear and tear as well.

It is these problems that degrade my wing more than sleeping in it. Overall, this does not seem to have a significant impact on the wing's lifetime expectancy in comparison with other pilots' wings. Still, it could entice me to take along a real sleeping bag if they get the weight and volume down to an acceptable level.

Walking sticks

I have not tried walking sticks yet, but some hikers have told me these are indispensable attributes. What bothers me, is that I would be taking along yet more weight in order to achieve something that my body is more than capable of on its own. What bothers me even more, is having two large pieces of metal hanging from the side of my harness in case of a big collapse (catching lines), a rough landing, or similar incident. However, I am aware that this might be some form of prejudice, so I will give them a try when the occasion arrives. For the moment, I plan on waiting until I have reached the generally accepted age for using walking sticks.

Stove

A stove is a luxury that I can do without. It would be pleasant to have hot instead of cold meals during my trips, but I am not prepared to add nearly a kilogram to my kit for that. Yes, I know a stove weighs only 300 to 400 g or so, but fuel has a weight as well. Or do you count on finding a petrol station somewhere on a summit? Most cabanes and unguarded refuges have a fireplace to do a little cooking. Some even have a rudimentary assortment of kitchen utensils. I prefer gathering a bit of wood and lighting a fire, rather than just firing up a stove. It is a bit more work and a bit dirtier, but we are on an adventure, not on a luxury cruise. And it is more fun as well, especially when you are with a group of people. People like to gather around a fire and chat the time away, more than they like gathering around a noisy outdoor stove.

Flashlight

People in the civilised world are often running out of sync with the natural rhythm imposed by the sun, and even preserve this habit when going into the wild. During a vol bivouac, I wake up and go to bed at the same times as the birds (except for the owl). I will occasionally be hiking when the sun has set, in case there is a more comfortable spot ahead to spend the night. But in general, my activities stop when the day is ending (or sooner) and start when the sun wakes up. This rhythm of living in and with nature, is one of those things that makes vol bivouac so great.

Because of this, I have never had an urgent need for a flashlight, other than in tunnels such as encountered on the sentier Martel and the channel path in the Gorges du Loup (and I have managed these without one). It is unlikely that I will be visiting these on a vol bivouac. However, a flashlight could be handy when you are forced to walk in the dark. You could find yourself looking for shelter during the night for example, after having been surprised by rainfall during your bivouac. A flashlight could also be handy for entering a cave or shelter where light is failing. For these occasions, my lighter comes in handy. It weighs a fraction in comparison with a flashlight (since it has no battery), while still giving a fair amount of light. Another compromise that works well and saves weight. Just be careful not to set anything on fire accidentally.

Tent

See the tent section for the details on understanding why this is not (yet) part of the full kit.

Rope

During my first years of paragliding, I witnessed quite a few tree landings. Most of these landings were by beginning pilots. Sometimes even managing as much as four tree landings in two consecutive days, without any help from a malicious mentor. Estimating that I was likely to have one as well during my initial stages, I started taking along a rope to either tie me to the tree (waiting for rescue) or to get me out of it. The latter is a bit tricky. Trees in the Alps tend to be tall. Fifty to sixty metre tall pine trees are the rule, rather then the exception in the north. Trees in the south tend to be a bit smaller due to the drier climate, but do not count on that when flying over them. Though the upper branches are often solid enough to land and stand on, the branches lower down are usually dead or absent. More pilots have gotten hurt by trying to climb out of a tree, than by flying into it. If you still want to give it a try after reading this, then leaving your harness on might be a good idea in order to limit the impact when your descend has become far more rapidly than expected. Keeping a respectable distance from trees is a far better solution than carrying rope. In case you do end up in a tree, then you are better off by alerting people to rescue you. While waiting for them, secure yourself to the tree using your reserve parachute or its bridle.

Radio

Over the years, my radio has suffered a similar fate as the rope above. In the beginning it was handy for listening to the balises, the wind/weather stations transmitting at 143,9875 MHz. I have mostly stopped listening by now, because these generally provide non-information if you are a bit current with the weather and the flying conditions. And you definitely will be, being outdoors all the time. If this is not the case, then reconsider going on vol bivouac (or even cross-country), until you are familiar with the weather without having a forecast at your disposal.

In addition to this, quite a number of balises have (had?) a special character that you need (needed?) to know in order to deduce the right information. Maybe this has changed by now, but I remember Salève indicating too high (in order to keep beginners away), Bleine being next to a building (leading to interesting results with certain wind directions), Pertuiset being stuck, et cetera. Having developed an adequate sense of flying weather over the years, I gradually stopped listening.

I still have my radio though, in case it comes in handy. When flying with a group, a radio facilitates communication. But, often there is no need to talk. The route and turn points are clear, as well as the alternatives. If they are not, then a little break (top landing) will work wonders. When flying with a group, I have the tendency to switch off my radio, because of the needless chattering that distracts from the actual flying.

A radio might come in very useful when in distress. However, you need someone listening at the other end. This is unlikely to be the case in remote places. Those places where you really need to contact your rescuers directly, since the likelihood of someone finding you, or having seen your crash, or seeing you hanging from a tree, are small. Just as with the mobile phone, do not count on it to save you. An emergency beacon seems a better alternative here if you are in serious trouble.

Emergency beacon

An emergency beacon is the most likely equipment to save you in desolated places, especially when it has GPS on board. Search for PLB (Personal Locator Beacon) or EPIRB (Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacon), if you want to know more about it than I am telling you here. When activated, it starts sending an emergency signal. This signal will be picked up by a satellite and your rescuers will be notified automatically. In comparison with a GSM or radio, you have a far better chance that your distress will be noted this way.

The rescue satellite roughly locates your position, put the passage of a second satellite is needed to narrow the search effort and make it more effective. Waiting for the second satellite can take up to several hours. Having a beacon with GPS on board, could considerably speed up the rescue effort. Your precise location is immediately known when having GPS (barring exceptions, line of sight to GPS satellites, et cetera), and the rescue can start as soon as the distress call is received. Economising on GPS seems a bad idea here.

An emergency beacon is on my list of things to add to the full kit. I would certainly have gotten one when flying in the Himalayas, Andes, or the Australian outback, but it seemed exaggerated for the Alps. Seemed. The number of people disappearing in the Alps without leaving a trace (including a top pilot), is larger than I expected and has become a major trigger by now. Also, prices, volume, and weight have dropped in recent years, having reached acceptable levels for purchasing one.

GPS

See the GPS section for the details on understanding why this item is not (yet) part of the full kit.

<<< Added on 2011-05-31 >>>

There have been a few changes to the kit lately, so time for an update. The major change concerns a new wing, while the weight gained with this exchange has been spent on a sleeping bag. In addition to that, I am also experimenting with a lightweight tent this season.

After three seasons of delightful and reliable flying, my Aspen2 was nearing the end of its lifetime. Pilots ignorant of my flying habits often estimated the wing's age at around 300 flying hours, instead of the more than 600 it has. I have been pleasantly surprised by the quality of the fabric, which is still in good shape at this stage. There are no stress lines near the leading edge and I can't tear it yet. Its porosity is more than acceptable and my guess is that it would probably fly well for a few hundred hours more or so. This is considerably longer than my previous wing (an Ozone Vulcan), that started to fall apart after 500 hours in the mountains, despite having a much heavier tissue. The Aspen2 is not dead yet, but I was beginning to notice a degradation on glide in comparison with similar wings. Maybe this could have been repaired with a new set of lines, but it was time for a change too.

I spent dozens of hours testing various new gliders the last two years and this spring ended up buying an Avax XC3, also made by Gradient. I like their design philosophy, which can be resumed as solid minimalism. Despite a weight of only five kilogram, it is a solid machine that is a pleasure to fly. Weight is a important criteria for me, which eliminates heavier alternatives that have a similar or even better handling and performance. For what I am doing, the XC3 is currently the best mix of performance, handling, safety, and weight.

It is an EN-D class wing and a step up from the generally considered safer EN-C class that I have flown so far. The strange thing however, is that I feel safer with the XC3. It gives me more control in difficult situations compared to the Aspen2, or the Aspen3 that I tried as well. The wing has a far smoother behaviour when making turns, especially tight ones. For example, when clinging to minimalistic thermal activity as a last chance before landing out. When exiting a tight turn, the speed surplus is transformed into altitude rather than pitching. It penetrates better, resulting in far more margin in strong head wind. It performs better on glide, especially accelerated glide. Flights that require hard work on the Aspen2, involving long transitions or strong head wind for example, are more relaxed with the XC3. This means I am less likely to end up in delicate spots such as a lee side, fighting to complete a (failed) transition. It feels more solid in turbulent air. The wing cuts through it, rather than being blown around like a leaf in the wind. It seems to bite into turbulent air, rather than being bounced by it. The XC3 gives me more information about what is going on in the air than the Aspen2. This allows me to better identify the arrival of collapses and thus prevent them. When a collapse does happen however, the wing tends to react a (lot) more lively in comparison with the wings I have owned so far. The collapses and front stalls that I provoked during test-flights were manageable and did not eliminate the wing from the short list, but it is something I should work on in order to get it perfect. I am more than aware that it is a step up. But that is what learning, what life is all about.

The main drawbacks of the XC3 are its delicate handling at slow speeds and flapping big ears. It took me a few hours of exercise to get used to the former, but I am still coping with the latter. The solution that seems to work best with me for the moment, is to release the lines after pulling (big) ears. This seems to give the ears the freedom to be blown against the lines behind them, instead of flapping in the open space in front and constantly on the edge of being re-inflated again. Despite the released lines, the ears stay in as long as I don't bank the wing too steeply. I know that flying a wing that has flapping ears contradicts what I have said at the beginning, but the advantages of the XC3 outweigh its big ears difficulties by a large margin. The perfect woman does not exists, neither does the perfect wing. The XC3 comes pretty close though.

As a bonus, the new wing weighs half a kilogram less than my Aspen2, which persuaded me to (finally) add a sleeping bag to the kit. I have always used my wing as a blanket so far when needed, but humidity began to bother me. I don't mind carrying a wet glider uphill that much, despite the extra weight caused by carrying dew. But I began to dislike waiting for my glider to thaw in the morning. This happened more and more frequently in recent years, due to the increased number of (early) spring and (late) autumn trips. Especially autumn air can be very humid, while temperatures are around or well below freezing level. The saturated air makes the wing very wet when sleeping in non-freezing temperatures, while covering it with a layer of frost in subzero temperatures. It may take up to several hours for this frost to melt in the morning, before I can pack my wing. The sun is slow to get above the mountain tops in autumn. You risk not seeing at all when waking up in a narrow valley.

The full kitThe problem with sleeping bags is that most are bulky and weighty. The light and not so bulky ones do not insulate that well. This winter however, I found a reasonable warm sleeping bag that weighs less than 700 gram and is easily compressed to a small volume. It fits into the tiny space that remains after packing all my other stuff in the backpack. It always looks as if it won't fit, but to my amazement it always does. In fact, all the stuff in the image here, fits into the backpack. It takes a bit of time and organising though, so I am not (un)packing as fast as my flying friends. But my flying friends won't have a pleasant time when doing an unexpected vol bivouac. If you do not believe the full kit fits into the backpack, than simply click on the image in order to pack it yourself.

Together, the XC3 and sleeping bag have added about 200 gram to the full kit in comparison with the previous situation. But they have added a lot of comfort as well. To extent my comfort zone (I am probably getting weak, possibly old, or just afraid of getting old), I have made a lightweight tent. This is an experiment that needs to prove itself in practice. I like tinkering with technology. There is always room for improvements, no matter what solution you have. A tent also lessens the constant lookout for, some might even say preoccupation with, shelter when I see rain arriving. I might be lighter off without a tent, but a wet tent weighs less than a wet glider and certainly a lot less than a drenched full kit.

I have also added a slightly thicker sleeping mattress for a little more comfort, but specifically for stabilising the tent. I haven't cut the lower part this time. I was getting tired of pulling the thistles, thorns, hay, dirt, ants, beetles, slugs, caterpillars, and other items from my socks upon waking up. Cleaning my equipment from natural debris may be a really useful pastime while waiting for the conditions to improve. Less so when waking up and quickly wanting to walk in order to get warm again. I wanted to avoid this cleaning exercise in the future, as well as avoid holes in my brand new expensive lightweight sleeping bag. The down inside has the capacity of escaping through amazingly small holes (the size of a needle puncture), when compressing the sleeping bag. Frequently sleeping on sharp and spiky stuff such as pine needles and thistles, would certainly affect the insulation quality of my sleeping bag over time.

In addition to this, I bought a hat that has a larger brim in order to have my neck and nose more effectively shielded from the sun. The increased size means it is slightly heavier than the previous one. I also replaced my cell phone, even though it was still doing fine after six years of adequate service. While hiking uphill one day last season, a friend asked me why I still used an antique phone and showed me her state-of-the-art pride. It was a sleek and impressively handy phone indeed, for which she paid an correspondingly impressive monthly fee. I responded by throwing my phone ten metres uphill, seeing it land on a big stone in the process. A few steps later, I picked up my still working phone. It hadn't even switched off. There was a new scratch, of course. As we continued our hike, I suggested that we could repeat the experiment with her phone. She quickly buried it in her pocket and never mentioned the issue again.

I like functional stuff, not gadgets. My phone was still functional, but unfortunately the battery was showing its age. Replacing it would be a disproportionate investment compared to buying a new phone. We are living in an age where repairing or even maintenance doesn't seem to pay anymore. Either because technology is progressing very rapidly and thus cheap, or because people just don't seem to care. It often makes me wonder what they will do with me when I will be old (fashioned) or broken. So, I bought a robust new cell phone, meant for construction workers and the like. This means I can drop it on the ground or in a poodle, or use it in the rain without worrying too much. The battery lasts a few weeks if I don't use the phone a lot. Needless to say that this comes in very handy when spending a substantial time away from wall sockets. In addition to that, it has a flashlight, FM radio, and a media player. There is more of course, feature bloat is everywhere nowadays, but the amount is below my irritation threshold. I am not a minimalist out of religious conviction, but the less there is, the less there can go wrong. The flashlight is more handy and safer than the lighter I used so far. The radio could be used to listen to a weather bulletin if I don't trust my own observations. I have loaded some audio books for those times when I am fed up with collecting food, watching the clouds, admiring nature, bending over my maps, thinking, dreaming, or any other activity that keeps me busy while I am not flying or hiking. This has not happened so far, despite sometimes spending days waiting for the rain to stop. But it will be a nice experiment. Perhaps one day I will be coming back from a two week vol bivouac trip, speaking Mandarin fluently after having worked my way through the corresponding language course on my phone. Other vol bivouac pilots might prefer spending rainy days by playing various harmonicas, but I would really feel uncomfortable inflicting such torture on the friendly animals that often surround me.

Unless the scales in the Digne train station are wrong, the full kit for a long trip now weighs about 18 kilogram (without food and water). That is about a kilogram more than before and roughly the result from adding the sleeping bag and tent. A bit more than expected, but not that bad considering the amount of comfort I gained with it. Especially the sleeping back has proven its usefulness.

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2011-05-31