Gear Talk, Part One

At last, what you've all been waiting for.

Welcome again to Today on Trail. I’m planning to try to post on Sundays and Wednesdays at a minimum. This Sunday’s post was a little late for reasons explained therein,1 and that’s also fine. Writing and editing posts on the trail is going to be a challenge sometimes, and none of us should be surprised if the schedule varies a bit.

While I’m talking newsletter logistics, I also wanted to let you know that once we start the hike, most of the posts will for paid subscribers. There isn’t a pay option available yet because I want it to just be a one-time payment for the whole run of the newsletter, not a renewing subscription that we all have to figure out how to cancel when it’s done. Beehiiv tells me the feature that will let me do that is launching this week, so I will let you know when the cash register is open, and I hope you’ll subscribe. I also have some extremely adorable Tater ToT stickers that will be available for a modest extra charge.

Ok that’s enough boring logistics, let’s talk about gear! Which is not boring at all.

“You pack your fears,” backpackers say, meaning that if you examine your gear you’ll find that the extra stuff you carry shows what you’re afraid of. If you’re afraid of being cold, you’ll have too much clothing and your sleeping bag will be too heavy. If you’re afraid of being hungry you’ll have too much food, and so on.

But a lot of fears are perfectly justified. If you had no fears at all, you wouldn’t carry anything, and you’d probably die. Personally, I’m afraid of dehydration and giardia, so I carry a water filter. I would argue that this is very reasonable. I’m afraid of hypothermia, so I carry a sensible set of clothing that will help me stay comfortable in temperatures from the 100s to the 20s Fahrenheit. These are the temperatures I can expect to encounter on the trail in the summer, and both extremes are potentially hazardous. I carry a sleep system that will keep me safe and comfortable in a similar range of overnight temps.

“You pack your fears” is a good principle to keep in mind both reactively, in getting rid of what you don’t need to carry, and proactively, in determining what you do. Because when you get down to it, backpacking gear is all meant to allow you to travel long distances by foot while minimizing a short list of risks: exposure, thirst, hunger, excessive discomfort, and boredom.2  

With those organizing principles in mind, here’s my current LighterPack for the quantitative sickos. This is a live list and I update it whenever I swap things out so it will probably change a bit between now and when we actually depart. But it’s pretty close.

The Pack

You can’t carry anything without a bag to put it in, so my pack is my trusty 2016 Hyperlite Mountain Gear Porter 3400 (these days they call it the Porter 55) that I have tweaked and modified all to hell. It has two Zimmerbuilt water bottle pockets on the sides and the HMG Porter stuff pocket on the back. I also added two strap pockets in the front, and some miscellaneous shock cord rigging for carrying trekking poles and a Gossamer Gear thinlite foam pad.

This pack is stepping in to pinch hit for a Gossamer Gear Kumo 36 that I really like but found too uncomfortable at my twenty five pound high-end weight. For shorter trips where I can cut my base weight down closer to ten pounds, it’ll be a great pack, but not for this one. I’ve carried the Hyperlite for many long days over a bunch of years now and it has never been uncomfortable, so I’ll stick with what I know works. If that one wears out I’ll most likely replace it with a Junction 40, which is the most similar current production HMG model to the pocket setup I have now. The only difference between the Hyperlite 55 liter and 40 liter models is the 55 liters are taller if you unroll the top all the way. For a through hike I don’t need the extra volume, I’m essentially already using my 55 liter pack as a 40 liter by rolling it all the way down.

Exposure

Along with the pack, the other two “big three” backpacking items are your sleep system and your shelter. In my fears-oriented taxonomy both of those fall under the general heading of “preventing exposure.”

Shelter

My tent is a Gossamer Gear The One, which is a silnylon one-person trekking pole tent that weighs about 19 ounces. For a one-person model it’s a bit unusual in using two trekking poles to set up, but I find that this gives it a really comfortable geometry, because instead of rising to a point the way single-pole tents do, it’s widest at the center of the top. Here’s my tent, on the left, next to Mica’s which is a one-pole Six Moon Designs Lunar Solo, right:

I’m six feet tall and fairly broad-shouldered, and I can comfortably sit up and change clothes inside this tent. That said, Mica likes his Lunar Solo perfectly well so far, and I’ve used other one-person tents that are much less roomy with no real trouble. Most of the campsites on the A.T. have lean-tos, so we will usually have a sheltered place to eat, change clothes, sort gear or whatever. A tent is mostly just a little privacy pod for sleeping in.

Both of these tents use trekking poles as the structural supports, which cuts down on shelter weight and allows the trekking pole to serve multiple functions, which is a hallmark of efficient backpacking. It does mean they’re not freestanding—they require stakes and tensioned guylines to stand up—so if we ever get stuck camping on rocks or a wooden tent platform, we’ll have to be creative with the tie-outs.

I haven’t decided to splurge on a Dyneema tent yet, despite having had a Dyneema pack for years and various Dyneema stuff sacks and whatnot. The main reason is cost, honestly. When you compare them ounce for ounce, silnylon weighs only a tiny bit more, packs down smaller, and costs less than half what a comparable Dyneema tent would. Dyneema tents are more waterproof, and measurably lighter, so maybe I’ll get one someday.

Sleep System

The hottest sleep system trend in ultralight backpacking is using a quilt instead of a sleeping bag. Quilts save weight by not having a full zipper, and not wrapping underneath you since you have an insulated foam pad or air mattress under you anyway, and down insulation squashed flat by your body doesn’t really do anything to keep you warm. Most of them have a footbox that you can cinch closed, or open all the way up to just be a flat blanket like you’d use on your bed at home.

I genuinely tried to be a quilt girlie a few years ago, but I am not cut out for it. I’m a restless side-sleeper who sleeps cold, and after every toss and turn I had to carefully re-tuck the quilt around me to stop drafts from creeping in. I found the various attachment systems to clip the quilt onto my inflatable pad fussy and annoying to use, and not that effective. So I gave up on that and got a 20 degree Enlightened Equipment Convert instead, which I think is a best-of-both-worlds compromise between a quilt and a sleeping bag. Both ends cinch closed, and it has a full length zipper, like a sleeping bag. But you can also fully unzip it and open up the ends to make it a flat blanket. It’s a little heavier than a pure quilt, but for me the extra weight is worth the much better sleep.

My other sleeping bag option is a Sea to Summit Spark, which is about twenty degrees less warm but half a pound lighter, and compresses down incredibly small. It’s a little cramped and I find I get tired of sleeping in it after about a week and start dreaming of my big cozy quilt, so I’ll probably just accept the weight penalty and take the quilt. For shorter summer trips, the Spark is my go-to.

Mica sleeps scrunched up like a bug, and uses this Pine Down quilt that I got him from drop.com a few years ago. It’s a pretty basic quilt, I’d estimate it’s equivalent to about a 40 degree rating. He says he’s never been cold using it. He also has a twenty degree Hammock Gear quilt that he can swap in if it gets colder.

Underneath me I use a Thermarest Uberlite inflatable pad. I swore by my Thermarest XTherm year round for years (again: I sleep cold) but for summer backpacking, I like that I can use a larger Uberlite and still save a few ounces of weight, and I haven’t found it too chilly. I did just order one with the new winglock valve, because it is so much better than the old valve. Blowing up my sleeping pad is my most hated camp chore, and the winglock valve includes an inflation sack that actually works, finally. If I’m going to have to inflate and deflate this thing every day, the new valve is a must-have.

Weirdly it looks like Thermarest discontinued the Uberlite, as of this year. A lot of stores still have them in stock but I guess if you’re thinking about getting one, don’t wait? Like Andrew Skurka, I’ve found it comfortable and durable enough, with relatively gentle use. The Thermarest XLite and Xtherm are also good pads, and the new ones are much quieter to sleep on than they used to be. Mica has a Nemo inflatable pad, and he’ll have to report on how it works for him when we’ve been out for a bit. Nemo pads have a pretty good reputation but I’ve never owned one.

I should have expected that this would go on way too long, so for now let’s stop at the big three and call this Part One.

Seriously, the stickers are ridiculously cute.

Next Time:

We’ll talk about cooking, clothing, raingear, and my trinketssss. The comments are open and literally no question is either too basic or too deep in the weeds for me, an absolutely hopeless stage five gear freak, so have at it.

1  Update on that: I am feeling better, and thank you all for your good wishes.

2  Those last two are where people get themselves in trouble, but we’ll get to that in a future post.

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