Sunday, June 9, 2013

Gear Talk - Three Categories

I was on a plane going to Puerto Rico reading Backpacker magazine and it got me thinking about gear again. They are a mag to promote and sell gear, some of their reviews are succinct and ring true, while others are very obviously paid promo bordering on propaganda!
The following concerns my experience, my own personal rules and what works best for me. Of course I've said things before and changed drastically once I find something better or more suitable, so this is an ever evolving line of reasoning, but at this point it is fairly well refined due to experience and variety.

Less is more. The less I have the better the trip. I can honestly say I've never thought to myself, “I should've brought that piece of gear”; this, of course, excludes gear I've forgotten to bring (not having an eating utensil  or TP is a drag)! And many times that I go backpacking I think, “I haven't used this, why am I carrying it”. There are three categories of gear. The Sleep System includes tarp, hammock, pad, and sleeping blanket. The Kitchen includes stove, cooking system, water bottles, and food. Lastly, the Weather Protection includes clothing and rain gear. I don’t include the pack as it is just a pack.

All of the above gear with five days of food fit into the Osprey Talon 44L pack. That is considered just above a day pack size. I have found it to be more than adequate even for winter gear. I would like to eventually try out one of the UL frameless packs with integrated padding/ground pad, just seems like a marvelous option and perfect for the hammock as an insulation barrier not as padding (since padding isn’t needed in the hammock). Why 75+L packs exist, I can only fathom. There are such a small case of use scenarios and so many more weekend backpackers there should be way more options for Lite, UL, and SUL than there are in stores (REI, I’m looking at you).

As I’ve said probably way too much before, hammocks are the way to go when solo. I can understand a tent when: on the west coast, when hiking as a couple and you want some privacy, and (as is the case for me next week) hiking in the White Mountains. And those aren’t really good reasons, all the draw-backs of tents are still experienced, just un-avoidable. Sleeping on the ground sucks. Puddles form, roots and rocks emerge, hills and flats both have disadvantages. To all those still crawling on the ground, go get a Byers Hammock with mosquito net a lite weight tarp and spend a few nights in a hammock. If you don’t like it return it. But there’s a good chance you’ll be returning the tent or the bivy instead. My hammock weighs less than a pound, my tarp weighs less than a pound and I’m way more comfortable and actually DRY when it pours for 12 hours. I just can’t advocate enough for this.

I always thought going cold was crazy, but I’m leaning more and more that way. I’ll need to go out a few more times and try it out. Though not like last time where I went with others that DID have stoves. That’s just called mooching… which is a really great way to go UL, but not satisfying at all. Currently, and throughout my AT thru I carried an MSR PocketRocket, 8oz of fuel, and an 20oz capacity aluminum cup for boiling water. That amount of fuel would last me 2 weeks minimum with hot meals every night and coffee every morning. I saw many other hikers that used Heet and alcohol stoves - they supposedly save a few ounces but the fuel is no more easily found and bought than the Iso-pro canisters used for the Pocket Rocket. The few ounces saved is lost however in that a heat shield is absolutely necessary, you must be very exacting on how much fuel you're going to use to cook with - you must let it burn out on its own so you can't pour the unused fuel back and you might not get a boil with what you've got and need to start over. Also they tend to explode. A lot. There is no flame regulation, it is all on or all off, simmering is impossible.And the last drawback, as if the exploding and loss of eyebrows weren't enough, they tend to blacken your pot, so it either needs to be cleaned thoroughly, put in a bag, or it gets carbon all over. The idea of turning a soda can into a stove is neat, but in reality I would advise against it!

Concerning camp cooking, dirty dishes are extremely over rated! If at all possible dirty dishes should never exist, and if they happen to, swishing water and drinking the food remnants should be the absolute extent of it. Most of my dinners on the trail were in boil bags and eaten directly from them. Coffee in the morning is really the reason I’ve not gone completely cold and ditched the stove, I enjoy warm morning coffee more than a hot dinner! I found the best things to “cook” were pre-cooked rices, couscous, mashed potatoes, ramen noodles and Backpacker Pantry meals (an expensive luxury). All these meals needed only heated water. I would add a protein, beef jerky, salami, tuna and maybe a bouillon cube for flavor and salt. A raw onion is worth carrying I found to add variety to dinner and lunch. To go cold I would just double what was for lunch and be done with it. Lunch consisted of bagels, wraps, and flat bread stuffed with peanut butter, tuna, onion, crasins, fruit snacks, cheese, beef jerky, pepperoni, and whatever else was in my pack! Lunch was by far my favorite meal of the day – easy cheesy. Oh and a bag of salty snack, like Cheezit, was perfect to munch on throughout the day. Breakfast was bagels cream cheese (easily lasted 4 or 5 days even in July) and then cereal bars, protein bars, and a protein shake. I should add, on a thru hike you aren’t eating enough calories. You can’t. I had to supplement with powdered shakes: carnation Instant Breakfast, Slimfast, AND GNC weight-gain 9000. Having one with every meal was what it took for me to break even and stop losing weight. Obviously on weekend or even week-long trips this is totally unneeded. Referencing back to BackPacker Magazine, they have cuisine options, normally consisting of doing stuff at home and bringing it along. It fills pages, and I guess some people might go down that path. The rest of us (especially thru-hikers) need to walk into a grocery store or even a gas station and be able to get enough food to hike for 5 days. It’s easy once you pick your way carefully through the really really empty calorie junk food and find some gems.

Weather Protection
Protecting yourself from the elements includes clothing and poncho. One must carefully consider the worst case scenario and pack for that. While hiking the AT I was able to get away with the clothes I had on, a base-layer long sleeve shirt, an extra pair of socks, and rain gear (JUST the Packa, rain pants are beyond useless). This was only in the summer, at the bookends of the trip I had a down vest to wear in camp, a fuzzy hat, and a wind-breaker. I never felt in need of more, I was never hypothermic or even close. The Packa is the best rain gear on the market and, like hammocking, I won’t shut up about! The Packa covers both pack and body, like a large poncho except it has pit-zips, a zipper down the front, a flap on the back to sit on, a pocket, and a brim on the hood. The really expensive rain gear on the market is all but useless. If a summer shower threatens you must drop your backpack, pull out your rain jacket, pull out your rain pants, struggle into them as the rain looms and the thunder rumbles, lastly you put on the pack cover and re-don the pack. You begin hiking again and immediately start sweating profusely. Turns out the storm passes and doesn’t drop a drip. You stop to take off the rain jacket and rain pants because you are dying of heat exhaustion, you sweated enough that had it rained and you had put no rain protection on you may have been drier! After putting the rain jacket and pants away the sky unexpected opens up anyway. Cheers to misery! Hope you like it.

With the Packa you put it on as a pack cover in the morning (in the summer with afternoon storms, it’s just a given). As you hike thunder rumbles and it looks like rain. Without breaking stride you pull the sleeves and hood out but don’t put them on yet. They hang like a cape around you making you feel totally bad-ass, like Strider (before you came to know him as Aragorn) from Fellowship of the Ring. Oh, the storm passed without shedding a tear? I’m still comfy and still hiking along. What’s that, it decided to rain anyway? The hood and sleeves are on and zipped in seconds, again without breaking stride. There’s no reason that this isn’t the de facto standard except people just don’t know about it!
Wearing the Packa in theHighlands

I’ve nothing to say about boots except for, “Find what fits you best”. If you’re getting blisters, change them out. If you’re getting shin splints or planar faceitous try high support inserts. I know people that hiked thousands of miles in Dollar Store sneakers, and I was quite comfortable in BackPacker Mag Editors Choice Salewa boots too – it’s all about preference. (as a side note, my Salewas lasted from Springer to Delaware Water Gap and I miss them).

I have also wasted money on pointless items that seemed like good ideas. REI is full of that stuff. Some of the things that stand out that are crap for Long Distance Hiking include: collapsible buckets, water filtration pumps, UV light Steripen, Crocs, Platypus water bladders, contact lens, solar chargers, TENTS, binoculars, Nalgen bottles, toilette trowels, extendable hot dog forks, a change of clothes “town clothing”, and a full length sleeping pad. There are stories, experiences, and reasoning behind each of those.