Best in Slot: Gear Changes for 2017

Is there an elusive list of best-in-slot backpacking gear?

I’m going give you a glimpse into the full extent of my nerdity.  I realize those of you who read the post where I shared a story of at least two people catching me pinching a loaf in the backwoods of Tennessee probably feel that they are already fully aware of how big a nerd I am. I’m afraid you’ve only just scratched the surface. You see back in 2008, I decided to investigate why one of my eighth graders seemed to have trouble doing his homework. From talking to him I suspected that World of Warcraft, a game this particular student played enthusiastically, may have been a the heart of his difficulty. I found that the game was like smoking crack and have been playing ever since. It is incredibly easy to sit down to play a few minutes on Sunday afternoon only to look and find it’s Tuesday. This student is now a grad student in Chemistry at UPenn and I’m a level 110 holy paladin. I’ve flirted with asking him to be my sponsor a couple of times, I’m addicted to this game, but haven’t hit rock bottom yet.  (Thanks, Russell!)

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One the ways the World of Warcraft is addictive that backpacking nerds can relate to is the never ending quest for perfect gear.  In the game you spend hours trying to acquire the best piece of gear in each available slot. Players feel like they are progressing in the game as they acquire more of these best-in-slot pieces, but in the game best-in-slot is always a moving target. There are always new raids and dungeons with better pieces to replace those that were formerly the best available.  I think all backpackers can relate to this aspect of the game.  We are, after all, always looking for our own best-in-slot pieces too.

While an injury kept me from completing my thru hike last year, I did manage to complete the southern half in two long-assed section hikes (LASH).  I’m starting at Harpers Ferry in April heading north to Katahdin.  I had plenty of time to reflect about my gear and made some changes for this year.    Here are the highlights…

What’s New in 2017

Jetboil Flash:  Last year I started my thru hike with a Brasslite alcohol stove. I love this stove. It weighs nothing. I usually boils my two cups of water using a tad over an ounce alcohol. There were a couple of times, however when my cook pot turned over. There were also occasions where the water fell short of boiling and my meal may not of been as tasty as it might have been. Someone pointed out in the fall that I could simple have added more fuel after the stove had burned out. It’s brass.  It radiates heat so well it’s cold to the touch almost immediately, but I feel like I’m on a strict one ounce a day ration. In the fall, after recovering from my shoulder surgery, I used my MSR Whisperlite. I’ve used white gas stoves for 40 years. I may actually have my old Svea stove stashed somewhere. I caught at least SOBO staring at my Whisperlite in Georgia. He’d never seen one before. What would he have done if I had bought the Svea!  I talked to him about his canister stove. I’ve never used one and had all sorts of questions. How do you know when you almost out of fuel?  He told me you can tell by the weight and how it floats in water. This made me confident I could figure something out. This year I’m using my first canister stove, a Jetboil Flash. This stove is a light-weight, compact unit seemingly impossible to turn over.

ZPacks Altaplex

The Altaplex in the front yard... I pitched it every day for a week until I felt I could set it up in dark and or in the rain

The Altaplex in the front yard… I set it up every day for a week until I felt confident I could set it up on a dark, rainy night

Originally I slept in a Hennessy Hammock.  I had always relied on my air mattress to provide the insulation needed on the bottom of the hammock. I had had to replace the mattress that had kept me warm and toasty in my hammock for years and while the new air mattress was lighter, it didn’t keep me warm in the hammock.  I ended up sending the hammock in my second town stop and just used the hammocks rain fly a shot an emergency shelter  I relied on shelters most nights.  My son had planned to join me for the Hundred Mile Wilderness.  With this in mind, before my shoulder injury put an end to that plan, I purchased a Big Agnes Fly Creek.  I used this tent on my second LASH. in the fall. I liked it a lot and toward the end of that trip, I slept in it every night.  Although, I doubt that my son and I could have comfortably fit in this tent.  I liked this tent a lot, so why change it?  The Altaplex by ZPacks only weighs 17 ounces and I am an ounce shaving lunatic!  The one thing I worried about with the fly Creek was setting it up in the rain.  I had a few ideas which I tried under dry conditions, but I found them all awkward.  While the tent dried quickly, it definitely had to stop raining before that could happen.  The Altaplex is made of Cuben fiber.  This material has an outstanding strength to weight ratio and sheds water so well to dry it all you have to do is give it a shake.

NeoAir Xlite air mattress

Toward the end of my fall LASH, my air mattress sprung a slow leak which I wasn’t able to find even while holding the inflated air mattress under water in the tub of my motel room in Erwin. I was able to find a replacement but it wasn’t really what I would have bought if all choices were available to me.  This is the second time this has happened to me on long section hikes.  It is no fun waking up at 2:00am to re-inflate your slowly leaking air mattress.   I did a lot of research looking into why air mattresses fail.  Let’s face it… there are all sorts of pointy objects on the ground likely to puncture an air mattress and and air mattresses have gotten lighter, it seems such punctures are even more likely.  So what can you do to protect your air mattress?  I’ll be the first to admit that my current answer is likely to fall short of the elusive best-in-slot.  I’m going with a NeoAir Xlite short air mattress over a 72 inch closed foam pad.  I think I can go with the short version of the NeoAir, because I really only need the extra padding from the hips up.  The theory is that the foam pad will protect the air mattress from all the sharp objects on the ground.  The combined weight of the two pads is one pound six ounces.  Why not just go with the closed foam pad?  Well, 1) I’m a geezer who likes his comfort 2) As a side sleeper, I don’t think the foam pad alone would provide enough padding.  Although I am nominating the NeoAir as the most likely piece of gear I’m sending home.

ULA Rain Kilt

Rain gear is a puzzle to me.  When it’s warm, I prefer a poncho.  When it’s colder, I go with a rain jacket and rain pants.  With a poncho, you are going to get a little wet, but the ventilation is great and I usually don’t get overheated.  The rain jacket and pants do an excellent job of keeping off the rain, but I sweat so much when wearing both, I may as well just walk around with no rain gear at all.  This year, I’m going with a ULA rain kilt.  I’m betting the kilt will keep my shorts dry while providing excellent ventilation.

I’m growing to accept that best-in-slot is just as elusive a state in the real world as it is in Azeroth.  Let’s face it… a lot of us take this hobby seriously.  The longer we’re out, the more we think about our gear and more motivated we are to investigate alternatives.  The best gear is actually designed by hikers just like us and I for one and happy there are plenty of ounce shaving lunatics out there handy enough to come up with better gear all the time.  Our gear is highly situational.  Gear perfect for one hike may be woefully inadequate on another.

I would recommend that those of you shopping for gear for your next adventure, do your homework and even when you think you’ve found your choice, fully consider the options.  Think outside the box.  Investigate small boutique manufacturers.

 

 

 

 

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