What’s the best backpacking gear for you?

Whether you are just getting into backpacking, or looking to improve your experience, choosing from the ever increasing universe of gear options can be daunting.  It’s all compromises, as any experienced packer knows.  I was reminded recently of the well known thru-hiker wisdom – “Hike your own hike.”  The same applies to gear selection – “Pick your own stuff.”  In fact someone’s gear list is probably a good clue to their backpacking personality.  No gear will hit the sweet spot for all aspects, but some might come close. Continue reading

Gear Trials – A Comfort light trip in Mt. Rainier NP

Rain on the new tent

After a new ship is launched, it gets to meet the ocean for the first time with “sea trials”.  As our parks reopen and snow leaves the high country, it was time to get out for gear trials with recent projects.  I headed for a Park camp adjoining a couple of sub-alpine lakes at about 4700′.  The forecast was for a nice day, followed by a weak front overnight with a chance of rain in the morning.  As the first backpack of the season, I wanted to reality test my current set-up.  I had finished a new tent – the Hex-Lite.  My ultra-light bivy would serve as a quilt and air pad cover.  I was planning to Esbit cook with a single pot.  It was time to test a new Therm-a-Rest NeoAire Xlite air pad.  My Big Agnes pad no longer held air overnight and was 6 years old.  New gear keeps betting better. The Therm-a-Rest, with pump sack weighs only 15 oz., a 5 oz. improvement.

My claim for Comfort light backpacking is a 15 lb. base weight.  For this trip, my actual was 16 lbs. – close enough.  With overnight food and water, I left the car at 21 lbs.  (I don’t really count fuel separately anymore, since for this trip it was 3 Esbit tabs – 1.5 oz.)  Everything packed easily into my 2800 cu. in (46 L) RayWay pack, with the extension collar almost completely rolled down on top.  Now over 7 years old, it is still a very comfortable pack to carry. Continue reading

In the mountains with a Kovea Spider Stove, Flat Cat Gear and blueberries

In January I posted my first impressions and tests of the Kovea Spider stove.  I tested it in my backyard with my collection of pots and windscreens to bake bread and make reasonable pancakes.  This summer, the stove has accompanied me on a number of climbs and backpack trips and I have used it with some of Jon Fong’s Flat Cat Gear accessories.  It’s good stuff.

If you spend time in the field, you know that many things must come together for a good kitchen kit.  Weight, of course, is important.  Packing volume also counts.  And you must be able to do the cooking you want in real backcountry and mountain conditions.  My kitchen is built around three pots, the 1 L and .78 L Ti pots of a Snow Peak Multicompact set and a 0.6 L Snow Peak Ti mug.  I need windscreens to match the pots and the stoves I plan to use for any particular trip.  For solo and individual cooking on group trips, I usually stick with the .78 L Snow Peak pot.  For couples backpacking, the 1 L pot does most of the work, and I often take a second pot to have something clean for heating water after cooking.  So any new stove must be properly introduced to these pots and find a way to work and travel efficiently with them.

My first trials with the Kovea Spider were focused on baking and I used the big 1 L Snow Peak pot and its matching Trail Designs Caldera Cone Ti windscreen.  It worked well, but the windscreen doesn’t pack into a pot.  On some higher alpine climbs this summer, I took the Spider and my smaller .78 L pot, together with a split cone windscreen I had been using with an alcohol burner.  It worked, sort of.  Then I had a chance to try out some Flat Cat Gear windscreens designed just for the Kovea stove for a much better solution.

For larger pots, the Flat Cat Bobcat Kovea windscreen is a winner. Continue reading

Snow camping

While it may be spring in the lowlands, there is still 14 feet of snow on the ground at 5,000′ elevation in the Pacific Northwest.  A brief 2 day weather window provided a great opportunity to test a lot of snow camping gear and ideas.  How do lightweight backpacking solutions translate into this environment?  Are the solutions still lightweight?

As the Black Diamond Mega Light tent project progressed, I started a planning spreadsheet to see what the weight penalty would be adding a 4th season to comfort light backpacking.  The answer looked like it might be about 10 lbs.  But there were questions.  Would I be warm enough sleeping?  Could I use an alcohol stove to melt snow?

Snow cover transforms the wilderness experience.  Summer trails exist only in concept, sometimes continued between storms as well used trenches.  But otherwise you have freedom to go elsewhere.  Camp sites are no longer limited to established locations.  Adequate snow depth provides opportunities for creative site preparation.  And of course, in nice weather the scenery is stunning.  But the level of commitment is higher.  Weather windows and daylight hours are shorter.  Travel is slower and cold is the ever present concern.  None the less, my friend and I felt we had done our preparation well and were ready for some field time. Continue reading

A 2.8 oz. backpacking chair

Out in the wild I really miss a comfortable place to sit.  So here is my accessory that makes a Big Agnes or other air mattress into a chair.  Complete with a small storage pouch, it weighs 2.8 oz. Some sil-nylon fabric, 3/4″ webbing and two side release buckles, coupled with sewing machine time and presto. Slide the top and bottom sleeves over the ends of the partially inflated mattress.  Fasten the webbing straps together, adjust their length and the inflation level and you have wilderness comfort.

I have used commercial versions in the past that used stays to keep the back rigid.  They were a lot heavier and did not pack down well.  This approach solves the problem by Continue reading

Ultralight Backpacking Fuels, Alcohol and Esbit – Insights from the field

Alcohol stove fuel and Esbit tablets really can be the workhorses of ultralight cooking. The usual canister vs. alcohol vs. Esbit review doesn’t really capture practical or best practices approaches to these two fuels.  Here are my tips on how I make these fuels work well for me in my backcountry kitchen to boil water, to rehydrate a freeze dried meal or bake a chocolate cake. Even in the rain.

It’s not just the fuel, but really the whole system that counts.  That includes fuel, burner, pot support, windscreen, simmer control, stove lighting and extinguishing, burn time, outdoor temperature sensitivity, refueling ease, fuel storage and some factor for operating fussiness.  Add to this weight and cost considerations for both the basic system and for fuel and you will be well on your way to making choices.  Some popular stove products do a good job on addressing most issues, think Jet-Boil.  See how I do better. Continue reading

End of season review

New snow - RainierMt. Rainier is now wearing a new coat of snow and the high country is making the transition to winter.  Days are short, the rain is arriving and it is time to look ahead to ski season.  This is  a good time to reflect on this year’s outings.  What worked well?  What didn’t?

Comfort light delivered for me this season.  Good, light weight equipment continues to open opportunities.  My wife and I are backpacking again, without me as the mule.  I am able to do grab and go trips to support climbs requiring a base camp.  Bake a load of Logan bread.  Take a quick shopping trip and I am off.  With less gear, packing is quicker.  In the past even overnight trips seemed to have packing drama. Continue reading

Fast and light

P1070977Well, maybe not that fast. But once you have slashed the weight of your multi-day gear, you can carry less for day trips as well.  With both Washington’s Cascades and Olympics in day trip range, I have many wilderness outings available.  But it is wilderness and in a day you can get just as far away from trail head as you might on a short backpack.  The 10 Essentials still apply.

Last summer one of the authors of a new epub “Guide to 100 peaks at Mount Rainer National Park (not including the big one)” introduced me the wonderful world of all the other places in the park.  While some of these 100 peaks are well known favorites, many don’t get visited often.  The guide takes you to parts of the park that lie in between the popular entrances.  Some of the peaks are hikes.  A few are technical climbs, but most are what get called “alpine scrambles”, like Barrier Peak shown in the photo.  The route may be a boot track or simply cross country.  Early season, there may be snow, and sometimes rock scrambling happens.  A 3,000 ft. elevation gain is typical, so lightweight gear is good.  I have gotten seriously hooked on these peaks.  Barrier was number 41 for me.

Continue reading

The price of nothing

Price of nothing“You pay a lot for what you don’t get.” This has long been my advice to people confronting the higher cost of lighter weight sports equipment. At some point I wondered if there was a representative price for the privilege of shaving off pounds. I looked at a couple of cases comparing lower cost, heavier items with their high-tech cousins. $100 per pound saved looks typical. This order of magnitude number seemed to work whether the weight savings were a pound or a few ounces.

Of course it makes a difference whether you are choosing between two items to purchase, or buying something to be lighter than what you already own.

Replacing my pack

I owned a pretty good Gregory internal frame pack, weighing 3 lbs. 3 oz. I replaced it with a Ray-Way pack kit with a finished weight of 12 oz. The kit cost me about $80 with extra parts. That’s a savings of 2 lbs. 7 oz. If I don’t charge for my labor, that’s about $33 per pound saved. Looks like a good deal. If I couldn’t or didn’t want to make a kit, I would need to look elsewhere. Continue reading

Losing 10 lbs. in 3 seasons

IMGP0341I have been surprised at the difference between pack weights of 35 to 40 pounds and 25 pounds and under. It is a journey well worth taking. After my first long trip in decades, I felt the need to rework my gear to get to a much lighter base weight. I gathered a small library of books, notably Trail Life, Ray Jardine, 2009; Lighten Up!, Don Ladigin, 2005; and Ultralight Backpackin’ Tips, Mike Clelland, 2011. I continued to prowl the Internet for ultralight sites and forums. Gradually I added lighter versions of a lot of my equipment and found I could leave some items at home. Other posts cover the details of various systems, but this one summarizes the results.

My week-long trip in Hornstrandir, Iceland in 2010 was done with a base weight of about 26 lbs., plus some extra equipment to deal with the sub-arctic environment I was traveling in. Now my comparable base weight is about 16 lbs. I accomplished this as follows: Continue reading