The good, the bad, and the “meh”: post trail gear thoughts
Limbo and I have been off the trail for over a month, which is hard to believe. We’re slowly adjusting to “normal” life, although it hasn’t been very normal for us. After finishing the trail, we: road tripped to Boston, flew to Indiana, road tripped back to Oregon, and invaded my sister-in-law’s tiny studio apartment in Portland. We’ve eaten grocery store salad mixes out of the bag with plastic forks taken from fast food restaurants, gone days without showering, and maintained a lifestyle somewhere between a thru-hiker and a real person. Eventually we will transition back to a predictable schedule and financial stability, but I’ve enjoyed easing into it slowly.
One of the things we have started to do is go through our packs and assess, clean, and in some cases throw away our gear. I neglected to do a pre-trail gear post, but I wanted to make some observations about some of our gear after walking all 2,189 miles.
Top performers from original gear list
- Packs: ULA Circuit. Loved it! Held up great, and I was able to switch out the hip belt for a smaller size fairly easily in Damascus. I will say, making sure that the fit is correct when the pack is purchased is critical. I think my pack was a bit on the small size for my torso length. For a lot of the hike, I was having pretty intense chest pain unless I constantly messed with the straps. We self-diagnosed that the size might have been incorrect based on the angle of the load lifters to my shoulders.
- Side note: Limbo had the ULA Catalyst, which is slightly larger. He never needed the extra space. His pack looked laughably empty most of the time. It might be necessary for more luxurious trips or bulkier winter gear, but otherwise I think the Circuit would be just fine.
- Winter sleeping bags: Feathered Friends Nano UL 20 (Tripwire) and Katabatic Palisade 30 (Limbo). We both liked our winter bag choices. Mine was quite a bit heavier and didn’t compact down as small, but it was warmer and it came with a hood. I found this to be worth the extra weight. Even with the 20 degree bag, there were still a couple nights when I had EVERY layer of clothing I owned on. I think this was largely due to the bag being a little damp sometimes, and because there were just some really cold nights, even in late March and April.
- Trekking poles: Komperdell, unknown model. We bought our trekking poles in 2013 after moving to Utah and deciding we wanted to get into snowshoeing. As I recall, they were $39.99 for one set. So by the time we started the trail, these poles had already seen 3 years of light use. This boggles my mind…these poles lasted the. entire. trail. Do you know how many people get a broken trekking pole on the trail? A lot. The tips of my poles were basically worthless nubs by the end, but by God they made it. I was so impressed and pleased with our budget poles, as heavy and ugly as they were.
Replacements / problem gear
- Original sleeping pads: We had some Exped SynMats to start the trail. Before the trail, we had done enough overnight camping to realize that a foam pad just wasn’t going to work for either of us. To avoid painful hips in the morning, we really need inflatable sleeping pads. We really liked the valve to inflate/deflate on the Exped pads, they had a decent R value, weren’t obscenely heavy, and they were really comfortable. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be- on our first night out we blew up the pads only to discover that they had grown some pretty intense black mold on the inside since we last used them. There might be a way to mitigate this or reverse this, but on the trail it wasn’t feasible. So we coughed up a depressing amount of money to buy replacement sleeping pads at the NOC. I don’t know that our experience is a function of the pads themselves, it’s probably just poor maintenance on our part.
- Sawyer mini: The Sawyer Mini is an amazing invention. It basically weighs nothing and keeps you totally safe from yucky water germs. However, it is also one of the most annoying devices to attempt to use in the backcountry. Trying to filter more than 1 liter of water at a time with the Sawyer Mini is downright painful. The flow rate is so slow it will easily take you several minutes per liter of water. If the filter gets clogged at all (which you can fix by backflushing), forget about it. Also, we discovered that the Sawyer Mini isn’t exactly compatible with Platypus bottles. We chose to go with Platypus bottles because we heard the bags that come with the Sawyer tend to split. The Platypus bottles did great, but the threads just don’t mesh well with the Sawyer Mini. Which means that for every painful drop you filter, you are losing water through the threads. You can imagine how frustrating this can become when attempting to filter multiple liters, especially at a weak water source. We swapped to a full size Sawyer and were much, much happier.
- Tent: Tarptent Double Rainbow. I have mixed feelings about our tent. I will stand by my belief that it is the best value for the weight. I love that it has two doors and vestibules, and it was long enough for our pads and our trash compactor bags to fit. It is a pretty tight squeeze for two people, but Limbo and I like each other so that wasn’t a big issue for us. When we did have issues, Tarptent was very responsive and we were able to deal with all the issues we experienced without too much drama. I guess I just feel like we had a few more issues than I would have liked. By the end, it became a bit of a laundry list: ripped mesh, small holes in the top and sides, and literally every single zipper slider had to be replaced. Sewing the mesh and patching the holes was no big deal, and an understandable failure. But the zipper sliders…that was annoying. Waiting on the replacements meant sleeping for a few nights trying to share one vestibule. That is much more annoying than you would think. For one of the vestibule zippers, it meant trying to tape the zipper shut just to keep the rain out (because that slider just totally broke off halfway up). I got pretty good at babying the zipper sliders, but I felt a little resentful that I had to at all. When you’re living in the woods, even the smallest gear issues can feel really burdensome.
- Rain pants: Frogg Toggs. I kept my Frogg Toggs the entire trail. By the end, they were pretty beat up, but they still worked! I really liked how light they were, and the material was really waterproof and super nice for warmth when it was a nasty cold rain (which was almost always). They are delicate, and I definitely had some spots of duct tape holding them together by the end, but for $20 I’m not going to complain. Limbo, on the other hand, didn’t have so much luck with his. His pair of Frogg Toggs basically disintegrated in the crotch and inner thigh area. The outer waterproof layer was peeling off in a really bad way, and the bottoms of the legs were pretty ripped after just a few uses as well. So Limbo upgraded to the Montbell Versalite. They were a bit pricey (~$80), but they are insanely light and compact to the size of a tennis ball. They seemed to be pretty effective at keeping Limbo dry and warm, so I would say it was a worthy upgrade.
Helpful additions along the way
- A writing pen: I kept my trail journal on my phone, so when we started out I didn’t think a pen would be necessary. Then we had a 5+ hour layover trying to get to Atlanta and no one would lend us a pen to do a crossword. this sounds trivial, but I was really annoyed, so I stubbornly bought a 2-pack of pens during one of our first resupplies. They lasted the rest of the journey! They came in handy for shelter logs missing a writing utensil and when I needed to make phone calls that required me to write down information.
- Wet wipes: We started with a couple single packs of wet wipes, thinking they would be a luxury item. We quickly discovered that, for us, they are a necessity. Just two examples: my face broke out badly if I didn’t wipe it off at night, and sometimes it was nice to wipe our legs off after a particularly muddy day.
- Hat: Outdoor Research, unknown model of wide brimmed hat. I didn’t start the hike with a hat, but now I don’t think I can hike without one. It protected from the sun and bugs brilliantly. The only downside was that when it was really hot, the sweatband didn’t really catch all the sweat. I still used my Buff to wipe my brow, which Limbo loved to tease me about.
I think this list illustrates that no matter how well you try to prepare with the “right” gear, there are going to be issues or additions. Before we left, I was absolutely agonizing over my sock choice. How many pairs should I bring? Do I have to use Ininji’s to avoid toe blisters? On the trail, I sent some socks home and had some replacements, but it really was just not that big of a deal. The reality is, you have to learn as you go. What might seem perfect just might not work for you out there. My last word of advice? Don’t read so many gear reviews that you go cross-eyed. Decide what’s most important to you and seems like the best fit for you, and just go for it. Use it until it’s totally worn out, and best case- use it all 2,189 miles.
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