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DIY PFD, Desalination Bottle, and Rain Skirt

Posted by on December 3, 2019

This week I worked on some DIY gear projects: an ultralight life jacket or PFD (personal flotation device), a desalinating water bottle to turn sea water into fresh water while I walk along some of the remote coastlines of the Baja Peninsula in Mexico, and an ultralight rain skirt that can also function as a small tarp. I’ve learned how to use a sewing machine, practiced using the desalination bottle with my backpacking stove, and eliminated a few ounces from my clothing setup by switching from rain pants to a rain skirt. Here’s my run-down of each project


The impetus for making my own life jacket comes from my experience as a packrafter. I own an Alpacka Scout that I got while travelling in New Zealand. It only weighs about 3 pounds, and rolls up small enough to fit into an 11 liter fanny pack I have, including the inflation bag, the inflatable seat, and a small repair kit. They can be expensive, but I got mine on a huge discount during their annual Christmas-time sale. Along with some DIY paddle blades I made that attach to the end of my trekking poles, my whole system weighs about 4 pounds. But a standard lifejacket like the one I use while working as a whitewater raft guide could weigh at least half that. In order to minimize that weight and have a system that is more modular, I made my own with lots of help from a self-described old boat hag/river yogi that lives in Moab.

My intended use for this lifejacket will be limited to flatwater, like the lagoons of the Baja peninsula, river and lake crossings, and other sections of flatwater rivers. The vest can also be worn as is for extra warmth, or perhaps even used as a way to carry small loads by itself, like when carrying water back to camp, or carrying food back from a grocery store while staying in town. The Platypus bottles can also be used as water bottles as they are intended, and the Packraft seat can be used as a seat or a pillow when not otherwise in use. When I am using the seat in my PFD, I will use my sleeping pad as an inflatable floor in the bottom of my packraft to serve as a seat and to provide some extra flotation for when I am paddling with a heavy load in my pack too.


Desalinating Bottle

The idea for a desalinating bottle to destill sea water came from reading Graham Mackintosh’s “Into a Desert Place”, his account of hiking 3,000 miles around the coastlines of the Baja Peninsula back in the mid 1980’s. He used an inflatable solar still to supplement what water he could carry, which at times was extremely necessary because the distances between fresh water sources can be extreme while travelling in arid coastal deserts of Baja California. His still was bulky, would certainly not qualify as “ultralight” by today’s standard, and took a long time to supply him with only small amounts of water. In researching modern, lighter, and more efficient alternatives, I came across a video from a Youtube page called NightHawkinLight that demo’d a steel desalination bottle that seemed to fulfill all of my demands. So I built one, also with lots of help from a coworker and fellow guide at the outfitter I work for in Moab.


There are places in Baja that are nearly impossible to cross by oneself on foot because of the immense distances between fresh water supplies, but by packing out 5-7 gallons of water (50+ pounds!!) and by supplementing that supply with an extra liter or two of water each night, I can reasonably consider walking across these long sections of coastal desert. Most importantly, it serves as an emergency backup water supply for me if need be. Worst case scenario, I’ll never be more than 30ish miles from the main highway, even though towns or villages might be much much farther away. So if I really do run out of water, I can use this still and the classic dig-a-hole-and-lay-a-clear-tarp-over-it solar still to get just enough water to get me to the road where I can then hitch into civilization and quench my thirst. Finding wood fuel to boil the sea water may at times be difficult, but many of the beaches in Baja are littered with driftwood and ocean trash that could be used. It will likely mean picking up every viable piece of fuel I see over the course of a day sometimes, so that I know I’ll have fuel to supplement my water supply that night. So far, the results of my backyard test are very slow with minimal returns, but I think with a hotter fire going under the bottle, I should be able to increase the efficiency of the system. Soon enough, I’ll get to practice with this thing every day! The best part of this design is that it can fixed with minimal tools or effort. If the thin steel lid bends or breaks, I have an extra one of these bottles that I can use as a replacement. That would mean finding someone with a drill and some tools, but that shouldn’t be too hard to find, and the brass fittings and copper coil can just be swapped from the broken bottle to the new one. If the copper gets pinched anywhere, the coil is long enough that I could remove the section that has been pinched, and refit the brass fitting on the shorter section of copper tubing, and be good to go.


Ultralight Rain Skirt

The last project I finished this week is an ultralight rain skirt made from a cheap pair of rain pants I found on sale at a gear consignment shop here in Moab. The old boat hag and I cut the legs out, sewed some of the leftover nylon from the DIY PFD into triangular patches where the crotch and butt parts of the pants would have been, and sewed some velcro onto the sides of the skirt so that it can be opened completely and be used as a small tarp. As a skirt, it is lighter, easier to move around in, and more breathable than rain pants, and as a tarp it can be used as a door for my tarp shelter, as a water catchment, folded up into a bag, or really used for anything that requires a rectangular piece of waterproof fabric.

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