The Evolution of Backpacking Gear
Backpacking and thru-hiking gear are experiencing an evolutionary change. Few innovations had occurred in outdoor gear for decades. Thankfully, the new millennium brought about several shifts that have benefited the backpacking and thru-hiking community immensely.
The rise of blogging in the early 2000s, followed by increased social media use in the 2010s, contributed to an increased awareness of some of the lesser-known gear makers in the United States. Suddenly, cottage industry companies like Mountain Laurel Designs, Zpacks, and Western Mountaineering had a platform and a voice.
As backpacking and thru-hiking has become more popular, the chatter around gear has increased. More entrepreneurs are joining the industry every year, and their influence is pushing the name-brand gear companies to innovate and evolve as well.
Suddenly backpackers wishing to drop pounds of weight don’t have to own a sewing machine or dish out thousands of dollars for gear. The industry is booming and we’re benefiting.
Mummy Bag to Sleeping Quilt
Back in the 1990s backpacker gossip revolved around this crazy guy named Ray Jardine, who was daring to make his own gear and in so doing shed pounds off his back. One of his more widely accepted pioneering ideas was switching from a sleeping bag to a sleeping quilt. Jardine’s argument was that your weight compresses any insulation under you to nearly nothing, making that part of the sleeping bag useless. He designed a wide-open sleeping bag cut narrower and having no zipper–for the express purpose of saving bulk and weight. (source)
Sleeping quilts have now taken the long-distance backpacking industry by storm. According to recent trail surveys, over 30% of backpackers on the PCT and AT are opting for a quilt instead of a bag. The quilts are lighter and more versatile than their zippered cousins and pack down to the size of a water bottle. The most favored quilts are designed and sold by Enlightened Equipment. Well-known name brands such as Therm-a-Rest and REI are also starting to offer quilts alongside their sleeping bag lines.
External/Internal Frame to Frameless Packs
While nowadays we praise Ray Jardine’s innovative lightweight gear stylings, it wasn’t always the case. In the early 1990s his ultralight philosophy and designs were so controversial that he was largely scorned and ridiculed. On their thru-hikes, Ray and Jenny would pass other hikers who “were resting, or sleeping, or taking layover days because they were all so tired from lugging those huge packs.” Most of which would have been external frame packs.
Ray Jardine’s ultralight pack was designed without a frame or a hip belt. There were no zippers or fancy stash compartments, just mesh and nylon. Many of the frameless backpacks available from small retailers today hearken back to Ray’s original designs. They feature one main roll-top or cinch-tie compartment, no zippers, basic padding, and large external mesh or fabric pockets. Hip belts are still widely used in the designs, and these newer backpacks are made with strong but light ripstop fabrics. The most popular packs worn by thru-hikers this past season all weighed under two pounds, a significant reduction from the 3-5 pound weight of more traditional internal-frame packs on the market today.
Polyester to Dyneema Tents
Dyneema (previously known as Cuben Fiber) is the lightest waterproof fabric available and is being used to make stuff sacks, tarps, tents, packs, rope, and more. The first Dyneema shelters were available in and around 2005, mostly made by cottage industry entrepreneurs. Those first shelters were tarp-style, with no mesh or attached floor.
The increased availability of Dyneema, as well as composite fabrics that are waterproof and breathable, has caused a sensational change in the lightweight tent industry. Enclosed tents, weighing in under two pounds, are now available from a handful of small retailers including ZPacks and Tarptent.
Even basic ripstop nylon has evolved and is being replaced by silnylon, a waterproof fabric coated with a silicone/polyurethane layer. While large-scale outdoor gear makers have yet to embrace Dyneema, many are starting to offer silnylon shelters.
Leather Boots to Lightweight Runners
The past few years have seen a significant change in hiker’s footwear. Gone are the heavy leather boots cherished for decades by backpackers. Enter the trail runner. Thru-hikers are discovering that less weight on their feet combined with less weight on their back equals more ground covered in a day.
Companies are combining 3D printing technology with new textiles to create lightweight performance-enhancing footwear. Trail runners provide a wide base for the foot and dry quickly. New chemicals are currently being developed for enhanced breathable waterproofing as well as odor-resistance.
One of the big leaders on the trail runner scene is Altra, popular for their zero-drop footbed, grippy sole, and cushioning technology. According to the PCT and AT 2019 trail surveys, the Altra Lone Peak was the leading favorite, worn by over one-third of hikers.
Synthetic Fiber to Merino Wool
Merino wool has been recognized as a miracle fabric since the first merino sheep were brought to Spain in the 12th century. Merino wool offers a range of performance benefits unmatched by any synthetic textile available today. Hikers have been wooed for decades by synthetic fibers (read: plastic) but are now able to access a wide range of performance products made with merino wool.
Compared to other types of wool, merino is super soft and strong. The yarn and fabric have increased resiliency, allowing for stretchier and longer-wearing garments. The natural crimp of the wool increases the warmth of the garment, allowing for thinner materials. The miraculous fiber moves moisture away from the skin, keeping you warmer when it’s cold and wet and keeping you cool when it’s hot. Perhaps most importantly to thru-hikers, merino wool is naturally odor resistant.
Hand Pump to Squeeze Filter
Perhaps the most beneficial gear evolution is the emergence of the squeeze filter. Hand pumping was a chore. It was a time-consuming process that often required a comfortable spot to sit, strong arm muscles, and a partner to help hold the hose and bottle. Don’t even get me started on the pre-planning and patience required for chlorine or iodine tablets, to say nothing of the taste and enjoyment of all the little floaties in the water.
One company in particular—Sawyer—has revolutionized the world of water purification. While other companies continue to offer ceramic filters, Sawyer’s hollow fiber membrane, which is derived from kidney dialysis technology, is the only filter certified for 0.1 micron filtration. Plus, they’ve now developed a filter that can absorb pesticides and viruses.
Featured image via Elise Ott
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