Evolution of My Gear – Aiming for Ultralight

In my last post, I talked about my plan to go with the flow on the trail and provided some background on my professional life prior to hitting the trail.  Check it out!

… Just want to get this out of the way up front.  Every piece of gear I mention in this post, I purchased.  No freebies.  Why would anyone give me free stuff, anyways?

My journey towards ultralight backpacking

Around 20 years ago, my first hiking backpack was somewhere in the 65L-85L range.  If I remember correctly it was a blue and grey Kelty with yellow accents.  It barely fit all my gear at the time.  In fact, I had more than a pair of camp shoes dangling off the back of my pack.  I was 19 then, and in really great shape, having played a lot of different sports throughout my childhood and high school. I don’t remember the weight being a huge issue, but of course my shoulders and hips were sore after a weekend on the trail. Having a base weight of 35+ pounds wasn’t as big of a deal when I was 19 years old.

What about hammocks?

My next pack, which is probably 10 years old is a REI Ridgeline 65L.  If it is any lighter than my previous pack, it isn’t by much.  But my gear did get a little lighter.  I was hammock camping at this time, which was a pretty newish thing as far as I remember.  The cottage industry that provides underquilts was nascent and unknown by me.  So I suffered for a couple years and tried to find the right combo of hammock, tarp (I made one of silnylon that worked great), and sleeping pad.  Nothing really worked out in the woods under 50 degrees at night, which is pretty often on ridgelines.  I’m probably hovering around 30 pounds base weight at this point.

Maybe an ultralight single-wall tent without a bug net?

Enjoying the reduced weight of a hammock system, albeit flawed, I wanted to go lighter than my REI Half Dome. This tent was the same tent I bought back when I purchased my first pack, and it is still alive today. It served me incredibly well.  I believe that model weighed 5.5 pounds when I bought it. It looks like it has lightened up just a smidgen over the years.

In any case, it was too heavy to put back in my pack after using a hammock, so it was time for an upgrade. The details on what other options were available to me at the time are fuzzy.  As is the exact timeframe; I’m guessing 7 years ago? I still didn’t know about the cottage industry. REI was my jam.  So in search of a lighter tent,  I ended up getting an Mountain Hardware Hoopla 4 along with the optional floor.  No bug net. I upgraded from a 2 person tent to a 4 person tent, but lost a bug net.  3 pounds lighter though.  I loved the idea of using a trekking pole or hanging the tent from a branch above.  This is when I caught the ultralight bug, even though I was no where close to being in that category.

The tent worked out great for 2 people in areas with no bugs.  I am still keen on the design and would take it along if I was going with a group. Some people even put wood burning stoves inside of them with chimneys coming out the top or sides.  During this time, I am carrying around 25 pounds base weight.

A collection of bags

A selection of the bags I have amassed through the years. Not all for hiking, but you will recognize a few.

I’ve seen the (ultra)light! Time to lighten the load

About 4 years ago, I realized I needed to start lightening the other heavier things I was carrying, not just the tent.  I picked up an Osprey Talon 33, and a REI Halo 40 degree sleeping bag (I don’t recall what heavier sleeping bag I had prior to this one).  The pack was considerably lighter than my previous REI pack, but only carried 1/2 as much.  I again, found myself wearing things on the outside of my pack to make it work.  I also carried a 3L bladder on the inside of the pack, filled to the brim whenever a watering hole hit.

Water and Food

Speaking of water, up to this time I had been using a pump-filtration system, which comes with a series of long tubing and adaptors.  Not light.  The Sawyer Squeeze provided a welcome evolution in water filtration and I added it to my kit along with the new pack and sleeping bag.

It was also at this time that I went from a multi-pot cook system with a large fuel canister on a smallish-stove (stoves have never been too big as a standalone unit), to a single 700ml Snow Peak Titanium cup for all my cooking and eating needs in camp. I also started using a smaller fuel canister and a very breakable Light My Fire Spork.

Less weight, better comfort.

So I am carrying less, it seems, but my pack is busting at the seams.  33L isn’t cutting it for the gear, food, & water combined.  However, I can say, I am starting to notice a difference.  When my water is nearly empty, my pack almost feels … light.  The hills are easier to climb.  I don’t need as many breaks.  My hips are not nearly as sore. At the same time, I can feel the weight of my camp shoes swinging on the back of my pack, and the balance of my pack isn’t quite right yet.  I am probably around 20lbs base weight at this time.

In this period, I’m just starting to see some conversations about the cottage industry for hiking and camping.  It gets me thinking about going even lighter and smaller.

The final step of my current journey – into the depths of ultralight backpacking

Believe it or not, this brings us to the present.  My Appalachian Trail thru hike starts in 8 days.  As I have touched on in previous posts, I have been selecting and purchasing my gear for this long walk.  I finally have it all together, and the preliminary results are in!  The question is, will I reach the coveted <10lbs base weight all gear heads and ultra-lighters first strive for, or will my fears and comforts turn against me on the scales?

Well folks, I hate to do this, but you will just have to tune in next time to find out.  I spent today filming and uploading my gear videos to YouTube.  I will work on editing and making them public in concert with my next update.  Plan on tomorrow.  In the meantime, here is a look at my thru hike gear buffet.

Here is a preview of what is going in my pack – Will it be less than 10 pounds?

Jim McNelis Thru Hike Gear

My Appalachian Trail thru-hike gear buffet.

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Comments 4

  • Tabasco : Feb 26th

    Best wishes on your hike! I look forward to following you to Katahdin. Barring some freak injury, I can already tell you’ll make it! I hiked the AT in 2015 and I made many of the same equipment decisions you did.

    However, a trail friend introduced me to Luekotape. I started out with Moleskin, but my feet were constantly wet. Almost daily the Moleskin just ended up in a ball somewhere in my shoe.

    At some point your feet will become a big callus from front to back, but until then use Luekotape. Your feet will thank you! Just don’t leave it on too many days. Good luck to ya!

    • Jim McNelis : Feb 26th

      hey thanks for the encouragement tabasco! i have luekotape and can trade out the moleskin for it. so basically, you’re saying it can serve the same purpose (blister barrier) but even better, plus i can use the tape if my knees or other joints get sore, right?

  • ~KC : Feb 28th

    It might be my (work) computer, but none of your hyperlinks work 🙁

    because I’m going to check out your equipment and possibly ‘upgrade’ before I go.


    • Jim McNelis : Feb 28th

      hey kc, i have a feeling it is your work computer. here is a link to all the gear i am taking. it is current – https://lighterpack.com/r/7inyld – happy to answer any questions!


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