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Fire and Ultralight, a US Forest Service Recon

Ultralight Backpackers Scouting Post-Disaster Trail Conditions for the US Forest Service.

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by Jhaura Wachsman, Photos: Paul Cronshaw | 2008-04-23 01:00:00-06

Fire and Ultralight, a US Forest Service Recon - 1
2007 Zaca Fire Burn Zone, from Santa Cruz Ridge Jeep Trail.


The US Forest Service (USFS) has seen the light when it comes to backcountry trail reconnaissance - the 'ultra' light, that is. USFS managers in the Los Padres National Forest have chosen a group of veteran ultralight hikers and trail builders, the Litehikers, to complete difficult post-disaster backcountry wilderness patrols or recons.

Ultralight backpackers can move faster, covering more ground in a shorter time than traditional backcountry rangers on horses or those with heavy packs and boots. In dangerous post-disaster conditions, ultralighters can negotiate washed out or snag-ridden trails more safely because of their lower center of gravity and lower profiles. The information gathered by the ultralight crew enables the officials to quickly determine which trails to open, close, or repair. For the public, this speeds the possibility of trail access, rather than typical district-wide closures following a disaster such as a fire or flood.

In the past, this task would have been assigned to paid backcountry rangers who lived in stations throughout the forest, but due to funding issues, the Los Padres Forest Service has partnered with volunteers known as Volunteer Wilderness Rangers (VWRs). VWRs are trained by the Forest Service and operate as non-paid employees. Not all VWRs in this area practice ultralight backpacking, though many are converting after seeing the distances covered by the ultralight crew.

Disaster Strikes

In July of 2007, a wildfire began near Zaca Lake, California and raged for four months, burning over 240,000 acres of forest and declared wilderness areas. Many of the acres burned included the major trail systems of the San Rafael Wilderness, a heavily used backcountry recreation area. Strike one for the trails. The local USFS needed information on the state of these closed trail systems and ordered a recon.

In February of 2008, I was privileged to participate in this wilderness patrol with the elite VWRs who call themselves the Litehikers. Our task was to scout some of the major trail systems (all closed to the public) running through the San Rafael Wilderness and report our findings to the local district office. It was going to be tough - reports from fire crews and fly-overs indicated massive damage in erosion, slides, and tree-falls.

To back up a bit, in the two months leading up to our trip, the area to be scouted had received record rainfall totaling over nineteen inches. The barren hills, literally shaved smooth from the fire, lacked any erosion control such as chaparral or trees. Strike two for the trails. The final blow would come in the form of hurricane force winds following the torrential rains. To be sure, we did not know what to expect, but we had an ominous feeling that there would be serious damage.

The Litehiker Recon Team

Our itinerary was to cover a segment of high use trails in the damaged areas, and we would be out for two nights and three days in good weather. The Litehiker crew consisted of VWR Paul Cronshaw, honorary VWR Rik Christensen, and me, the comparative rookie with twenty years of backpacking experience. The other two gentlemen are veterans of the ultralight scene and Santa Barbara backcountry experts.

Fire and Ultralight, a US Forest Service Recon - 2
The Litehikers, left to right, Jeff Cygan (hiking friend), Paul Cronshaw, Rik Christensen, and Jhaura Wachsman (author).

Both Paul and Rik are friends with Glen Van Peski (founder of Gossamer Gear, who bowed out of this trip due to illness) and have been his customers since the early days of GVP Gear. Paul has been scouting and hiking the Santa Barbara backcountry for years and has helped build many of my favorite trails with Rik and Ray Ford (the great trail building politician and author of many local hiking books). Rik has just about every GVP and GG pack ever made, including an original silnylon G5 with over 5,000 miles on it! He is also one of the co- creators of GG's The One tent, with another creation, a ten ounce floorless tent, in the works.

Just the Beginning

As we headed up the Upper Oso trailhead on the first day, one would never know what lurks behind the frontcountry ranges. The fire crews made it a first priority to protect structures, so there were three solid fire breaks between us and the burn zone. At that point, the ticks were the only source of trouble, as they had migrated in droves to the frontcountry in search of food, and we were handy. Every bush I brushed against left my trailside arm and lower leg with three or four ticks scrambling for a hiding place under my clothing (curiously, on our way back after three days in the woods, not one tick made the leap onto my body...we must have lost our city funk).

It was fire road, then singletrack up to Alexander Saddle, where we left the frontcountry. Cresting over the saddle one could see for the first time the magnitude of the damage. I was stunned and speechless, not depressed or upset, but fully awestruck by the power and force of nature. Heading down to Little Pine Springs from the saddle we encountered our first taste of what the future would hold: washed out tread on steep side walls with loose gravel and very little purchase, with plenty of snags. It was clearly not going to be a high mileage day.

I was running point, with Rik behind me, then Paul, who was in charge of documentation. He was snapping pictures and taking notes on the damage for his report. I soon realized why they put me up front. As I climbed over an oak snag and tried to place my foot in the v-bottom of a gully, I heard a rumble. "Rock!" I yelled and dove back over the snag towards Rik, who had huddled up under an overhang right quick. Seconds later we watched as the bowling alley I had just been in was swept clean by a very large hospital ball (as they call it in soccer). I would have caught it right in the gut and been a newspaper headline. It was close, and we agreed we were all thankful that I wore earplugs to all those punk rock concerts as a youngster. The lack of trees and chaparral increase the danger of falling rocks, another reason these trails are closed. I was still alive, which I considered good start.

Fire and Ultralight, a US Forest Service Recon - 3
The author among the Live Oak skeletons, near Happy Hollow.


Our first night was spent at Little Pine Springs camp, and cutting edge gear was flying out of spinnaker packs faster than I could keep up. Rik was setting up his new ten ounce tent (based on The One design). He had swapped out the bug netting and floor and replaced them with a GG Polycro groundsheet to lower the weight. He also used silnylon instead of spinnaker, which is heavier but more economical for the do-it-yourself person.

Rik's design was impressive for its roominess and refinement. With two apex poles, the interior head room is impressive in comparison to single pole shelters. Rik tied his groundsheet to the four corner tie-outs of his tent, negating the need for rocks on the corners of the fragile Polycro film, keeping the tent/groundcloth unit together and providing a gauge for staking the four corners of the tent. He set up his homemade pack at the foot and his wine bladder blowup pillow in a Cuben Fiber stuff sack at his head. I kidded Rick about drinking the wine before leaving the trailhead so as not to throw off his thirteen pound trailhead weigh-in, in true ultralight fashion. Paul decided to cowboy camp near Rik, and I searched for a tree hang for my Gatewood Cape.

We finished our duties that evening with a quick recon up to Happy Hollow just before dark. It is hard to convey the dramatic change the land underwent between pre- and post-disaster. Due to a Forest Service no-burn policy, the Zaca Fire had an unusual amount of fuel and therefore burned especially hot. Because of this, many of the root bulbs and shoots that might otherwise have survived were roasted instead. The result was that, months after the fire, there were few signs of life. Of particular note was the feeling of walking in a lava field, the ground covered in two inches of black ash and thousands of sandstone shards that had exploded into gravel from the heat. The coastal live oak bark looked like shiny black ceramic glaze, and manzanita bush skeletons were staring at us from all directions.

One boon for me was the absolute lack of poison oak. As someone who is very susceptible to it, I was glad it was gone! Rik and Paul did not care too much, as they have developed their own method for dealing with the menace. Once a week during peak season (about six months of the year), they eat one small budding leaf. Rik chews his up, while Paul places it in the back of his throat and rinses it down with water. To this day neither of them manifests an allergic reaction after contact with poison oak, but I will stick with steering clear of it.


On the second day, we headed out to recon an area of the Santa Cruz Trail known as the Fortymile Wall (not really that long), with the goal of reaching Santa Cruz Station by the end of the day. The Wall had some bad spots before the fire, and we knew they had likely become worse. As we headed down into the drainage and up onto the Wall, it was not long before we knew trouble was ahead. We encountered everything we had seen before: snags, washes, gullies, rock slides - only much worse. We went as far as we could until Rik and Paul decided that, at the rate we were moving, we would not make it to Santa Cruz Station by nightfall, and picking our way along this particular trail with a headlamp would end in a helicopter ride out...if we were lucky. We decided to double back and try the Jeep road down into the station. Our tortuously negotiated backtrack made it clear to me that ultralight is the way to go when it comes to agility.

Fire and Ultralight, a US Forest Service Recon - 4
Rik Christensen and Jhaura Wachsman negotiate a washout at the Fortymile Wall.

Campfire Stories

By evening we had made it to Santa Cruz Station, a beautiful and historically significant cabin built in the 1930s and home to the backcountry rangers of old. As we walked into the oak flats where the cabin is located, Paul and Rik were on the verge of weeping. Two and three hundred year old oak trees had been ripped apart by the hurricane force winds (some say it was snow weight). It looked as though a bomb had gone off. Luckily, the cabin, stables, and outhouse were spared, though only within inches. The picnic tables were not so lucky.

That night Paul hiked up a ridge to check out with the Forest Service via satellite phone, while Rik and I tended to the cabin, fixing a broken rear window and sweeping up the thick coating of ash that had built up inside. Rik and a friend's score sheet from a card game was still laying on the table from the last time he had been here. He spends over one hundred days a year backpacking and counts this cabin as one of his favorite spots.

Rik and Paul are literally full of historical and anecdotal wisdom regarding the Santa Barbara backcountry, and my evening was spent sitting around the pot- bellied stove listening to amazing and entertaining stories flow from these two hiking buddies (they met after hiking past each other one day and recognizing the trademark blue Gossamer Gear packs each was wearing). Rik showed me the register from the cabin and pointed out an entry that sent chills up my spine. To this day, I recall it with a shiver. It read:

Thank God for this place. It saved my life!  I was stranded here Oct 4 - Oct 7 [year omitted]. I got lost on my mountain bike and ended up here. Extremely dehydrated, vomiting, shaking violently. Boiled water from the creek, tried to eat.  Tried to get out on Oct 5, couldn't make it. I came back here. I'm trying again to go up trail on Sunday morning Oct 7.  If nobody sees me, please tell my wife [contact details omitted]. Tell her there is a note for her in my backpack if they find me!

I don't know if he ever made it out.

Fire and Ultralight, a US Forest Service Recon - 5
Santa Cruz Station, built in the 1930s, miraculously spared!

The Troops Return

Fire and Ultralight, a US Forest Service Recon - 6
VWR Paul Cronshaw checking in with dispatch.

Early morning on the last day, and we had forge a snowmelt stream. We decided to take off our shoes in order to have dry socks for the long hike out. My feet were already numb; I jumped in with cringes and curses. On the other side, we dried off with our handkerchiefs and taped blisters and hotspots from the previous days' hiking. My hands were so numb I could barely rip my duct tape into strips, and my feet felt like stumps for the next hour as we hiked out of the valley towards the sun. A bird's eye view of that climb would have shown me running like a wild beast in a frenzy for that sun!

Once out of the valley and onto the ridge, the worst was behind us, and the hike out was mellow. As we dropped back into the frontcountry, the sounds from the campgrounds quickly yanked us back into reality. In a moment of reflection, all three of us paused and contemplated turning around and running right back to that quiet cabin in the woods. Empty trails and quiet meadows were a real treat, and I thank the USFS, Paul, and Rik for a wonderful experience.

Recon Results

In the week following our trip, Paul, with Rik and I as assistants, presented his report at the annual VWR training day event. As a result of our trip, two work parties were organized by the VWR managing ranger, which resulted in the reopening of two major wilderness trail segments, with more areas scheduled to be repaired as funds become available.

VWR Programs

The VWR program is an official Forest Service entity, with varying degrees of implementation depending on the region. If you are interested in becoming a VWR or volunteering with your local Forest Service, contact the ranger in charge of Recreation, Wilderness, and Trails in your forest or visit the USFS website , navigate to your forest and click on the Volunteering link.

View all the photos from this trip online.

Author's Bio

Jhaura Wachsman, a native of southern California, has been hiking and backpacking in the Los Padres National Forest since childhood. As a sub-5 pound base weight enthusiast, he enjoys inspiring others to lighten their packs through workshops and outings.


"Fire and Ultralight, a US Forest Service Recon," by Jhaura Wachsman, Photos: Paul Cronshaw. (ISSN 1537-0364)., 2008-04-23 01:00:00-06.


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Fire and Ultralight, a US Forest Service Recon
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Ryan Jordan
(ryan) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Greater Yellowstone
Fire and Ultralight, a US Forest Service Recon on 04/22/2008 20:52:35 MDT Print View

Companion forum thread to:

Fire and Ultralight, a US Forest Service Recon

Jason Luttmer
(crimsonshadow7) - F

Locale: North East
Wow on 04/23/2008 04:39:59 MDT Print View

I have seen the result of a forest fire, at Philmont Scout Ranch, NM. When m crew got there in '06, it ad started to grow in, but it touched me in a way that few things do.

Jonathan Ryan
(Jkrew81) - F - M

Locale: White Mtns
Great Article on 04/23/2008 06:05:35 MDT Print View

Another great article guys...

Ken Helwig
(kennyhel77) - MLife

Locale: Scotts Valley CA via San Jose, CA
Recon on 04/23/2008 17:35:42 MDT Print View

Jhaura, I thought I was the only Lightweight punk rock listening person on this site! Cool and hey great story too.

Now where is my TSOL record???

Sam Haraldson
(sharalds) - MLife

Locale: Gallatin Range
Fire and Ultralight, a US Forest Service Recon on 04/23/2008 20:21:17 MDT Print View

Thank you for a quality trip report and awareness article, Jhaura. I'm glad to see the Gatewood Tarp came along with you. I was a bit suprised to see you all using such fragile gear in such rugged circumstances. Were there any failures?

(jhaura) - F

Locale: Trail
Re: Fire and Ultralight, a US Forest Service Recon on 04/23/2008 20:38:05 MDT Print View

Thanks for the comments guys!

Ken: Yeah! TSOL, Minor Threat and that Australian band with a female singer I can't remember...

Sam: Thanks again for the Gatewood, I've put it to good use! As you know silnylon is bomber against abrasion and punctures (relative to other ul fabrics I guess :)) so the packs and shelters handled in top form, except mine. My pack was spinnaker and took a couple flesh wounds. I wish I had worn pants, because my legs were tattered from the brush, but I can't stand hiking in pants. Rik makes all his own gear, so he does not care if it gets beat, he has lots of time and materials to produce on demand for himself. Having a lightweight load was extremely beneficial for the agility and balance we gained, and I wouldn't have given that up for stronger gear unless it was on a regular basis that I went bushwacking.

Edited by jhaura on 04/23/2008 20:39:10 MDT.

Will Rietveld
(WilliWabbit) - MLife

Locale: Southwest Colorado
Great read! on 04/24/2008 08:37:46 MDT Print View

Jhaura and companions - great read and a very worthy mission. I wanted to amplify the benefits of backpacking as a Forest Service Volunteer Wilderness Ranger. Its a great combination - it combines interacting with other hikers, testing your gear, and enjoying the wilderness at the same time - more of a sense of purpose for being there.

I have been a FS volunteer for 10 years now. Our program is coordinated by a non-profit that works cooperative with the FS and BLM in southern Colorado. Our job is not to find violators and issue citations, but to inform, educate, and assist hikers on the trails to help them avoid citations and lessen their impacts. My wife and I love doing this together; it slows me down and gives us more of an opportunity to meet and talk with other hikers. Our packs are sometimes heavier on the trip out, with trash we have picked up. We can tell some amazing stories of people's adventures and misadventures in the wilderness!


Andrew Richardson
(arichardson6) - F

Locale: North East
Re: Fire and Ultralight, a US Forest Service Recon on 04/24/2008 09:15:42 MDT Print View

This was a pretty awesome read. One thing that really peaked my interest was the paid backcountry ranger position. I remember happening upon this at the end of 'On The Road.' Though I don't know if he was paid for it...

How does one go about getting one of these positions? Any special degree needed? Is it at the top of the ladder or the bottom? Anyone know where can I learn more about this?

Margaret Snyder
(jetcash) - F

Locale: Southern Arizona
backcountry ranger on 04/24/2008 10:00:38 MDT Print View

Andrew: Go to and search for backcountry ranger or any other keywords that would fit what you're interested in. Each job has its own qualifications and salary. It's a pretty good database.

Edited by jetcash on 04/24/2008 10:01:14 MDT.

George Matthews
(gmatthews) - MLife
Re: Fire and Ultralight, a US Forest Service Recon on 04/24/2008 10:06:30 MDT Print View

Very interesting application of light backpacking.

You and your team are brave souls.

Thanks for your valuable, unselfish service to the USFS.

Nathan Auck
(auckjam) - MLife

Locale: Wasatch
I love it! on 04/25/2008 23:11:59 MDT Print View

I really appreciate the breadth of knowledge that backpacking light provides. I am pleasantly surprised every time I log on and see another interesting application, viewpoint or mindset involving going light. Thanks for another job well done and keep up the great work!

Gustav Bostrom
(gusbo) - MLife

Locale: Scandinavia
Re: Re: Fire and Ultralight, a US Forest Service Recon on 04/27/2008 16:06:34 MDT Print View

I'm also interested in the durability of the Whisper pack (I'm thinking of buying one.). Where you able to repair the pack yourself? Does duct-tape work or sewing involved?Sending the pack to Gossamer Gear for repair is not really an option for me as the international shipping would cost almost as much as a new pack.

Jim Colten
(jcolten) - M

Locale: MN
Re: Fire and Ultralight, a US Forest Service Recon on 04/27/2008 16:54:03 MDT Print View


Duct tape does not adhere to silicon impregnated fabric like silnylon and spinnaker.

BPL sells McNett
SilFix Fabric Repair Kit
... I have not used it but IME McNett products seem to be good.

Or you could pack a few silnylon scraps and some Silicone glue repackaged in one of BPL's small rigid containers (or other containers) ... I think you might need to clean out that container after each trip and repack it before the next.

I hesitate to speak about the durability of the Whisper or other very light packs because it varies so much with the user. But if you decide to not risk it, there are similar sized packs made with tougher material that are not so heavy (ULA Relay is one)

Scott Bentz
(scottbentz) - MLife

Locale: Southern California
Packing out trash on 04/29/2008 17:47:05 MDT Print View

Will wrote: "Our packs are sometimes heavier on the trip out, with trash we have picked up. We can tell some amazing stories of people's adventures and misadventures in the wilderness!"

I pack a lot with our scout troop. One of the leaders started the habit of carrying a trash bag to pack out trash. The scouts take turns carrying the trash bag each day. It's amazing what people leave behind. Hopefully, it will rub off on the kids when they later go out on their own.


(jhaura) - F

Locale: Trail
Re: Fire and Ultralight, a US Forest Service Recon on 05/03/2008 09:26:04 MDT Print View

In case you missed it, there is also a nice album of photos from this trip (with pictures of the floorless One Tent!):