Gear – Everyone’s Favorite Subject
At some point during a long hike, the conversation inevitably turns to backpacking gear. How much (or how little) it weighs, how much it costs, and why it is the best (or worst) equipment out there. And of course, no matter how lightweight any particular piece of equipment you may have, someone else has something that weighs less.
After my section hike last year, I realized I needed to lose weight. My pack, when fully laden with food and water weighed about 42 lbs(!) at the trailhead.
Hikers focus on the “big three” – the tent, the sleep system (sleeping bag, mattress), and the backpack. But I would also add a fourth category: fear. Invariably one adds things to mitigate some aspect of the hike that one fears. It may be cold, so you pack extra clothes. It may be hunger, so you add more food. Mosquitoes, so add nets and repellent. Or discomfort, so add a chair, or extra thick sleeping pad.
I love my back backpack. It’s a 48 liter Osprey Kestrel, that can carry 42 lbs without too much discomfort, it is easy to organize and is compact pushing the center of gravity close to your back. Love it, but it weighs 3.5 lbs. So it had to be relegated to weekend trips. Finding a backpack replacement was the hardest part of the weight loss endeavor. Not only is there a vast array of manufacturers, some even have a whole subset of customizations. To complicate things even further, many of these backpacks are not sold through brick and mortar stores, so there is no reasonable way of testing the backpacks before purchasing. So you end up trawling through blogs and reviews trying to figure out which to purchase. The process has a bit of a chicken and egg aspect as well, as the carrying weight of some packs is very limited, so you don’t really know what are real options until you figure out how little weight you need, which is in part driven by the weight of the backpack.
I was tempted (briefly) to completely embrace the ultralight lifestyle and go with a frameless vest pack, but decided that would have to wait until the next round of downsizing as I couldn’t be sure I would get my pack weight under 25 lbs. Another factor is price. The price range for a lightweight back is huge. From sub-200 to over $400. After much to and fro-ing I settled on the Gossamer Gear Gorilla 50. It comes in three lengths, depending on the length of your spine, can be converted to a frameless pack, and includes a removeable sitpad that functions as a structural element of the pack. At 32 oz (for the Large) it is lightweight, and with a list price of $255, is on the low end of the ultra-light garage gear packs. And weighs 1.5 lbs less than the Osprey.
I had already replaced my tent the previous year, relegating the roomier 5.5 lbs Marmot tent to weekend trips and replaced it with a Nemo Hornet 2P. I had briefly considered a hiking pole suspended tent system, but ultimately figured the relatively small amount of weight saved didn’t quite make up for the fact that the Nemo Hornet is semi-freestanding, allowing you to move it around after it is erected to find the best place to put it. It has held up well, but I have not used in heavy rain or wind. At 36 oz it saves 3.25 lbs off the Marmot. And it actually fits two people, albeit two people who know each other very well.
I believe I invented the sleeping quilt before it was a thing. For years I have used my unzipped sleeping bag as a comforter. My sleeping bags over the years have all been rated for zero degrees, or colder, as I do snow camp, and I never considered getting a sleeping bag just for the summer or shoulder seasons, until this year. My latest bag was a zero degree 800 fill power bag from Hyke and Byke that weighs 3 lbs 6 oz, but is too heavy and warm for long summer hiking. Buying a lightweight sleeping bag has some of the same problems as buying a lightweight backpack. There are a lot of small manufacturers, but very few of these bags are sold through stores where you can pick them up and feel them. Again, much reading of the reviews and blogs was required before I settled on the Moondance 25 from Featherstone. It is rated for 25 degrees, 850 fill power, and weighs 1 lbs 11 oz (Long/Wide) and for $230 is not super expensive.
I had an off-brand air mattress that I purchased on Amazon for $30, years ago, and it has worked well for snow camping, cowboy camping, and hanging out in camp. And at 1.5 lbs, it wasn’t too heavy either. It was replaced with a Thermarest NeoAir XLite (not the NXT model) which, at 1 lbs, shaved another half pound of weight.
The fears I packed for last year were mosquitoes and comfort. The mosquito weight penalty wasn’t large (1/2 lbs maybe), a head net and a repellent system powered by an isobutane canister. The comfort add-on was more significant. A light-weight camp chair (11 oz) and a whole extra set of clothes for camp added at least another pound. These will all be ditched except for the head net.
I also replaced my Optimus FE cook set that weight 16 oz (without fuel) and can boil a pint of water with 3 grams of fuel, or about 30 quarts of water on one 8 oz gas canister. It’s super compact as everything fits inside the pot. This is a great solution for camping in warm weather, but sucks if it is below freezing. I don’t know exactly what the weight saving was, but I suspect 1/2 lbs or more. This system has been replaced with a Toaks 650 ml pot, a titanium Esbit solid fuel burner, and a titanium windscreen. This system, with solid fuel for a week (cooking once a day), weighs about 6 oz, saving more than a pound and costing $60.
The cost of this weight loss regimen would be significant. The list price for the tent was over $400, the quilt, $230, the backpack, $255, the air mattress, $200, the cook system, $100, or almost $1200 total. This is where planning a long time ahead is your friend. Start in the off-season and look for coupons and sales. Some products get discontinued to make way for a new model that is by and large not much different from what is being replaced.
I lucked out on the tent when I found a shop in the mid-west that was selling the Nemo Hornet for $180. Featherstone sells sleeping bags with cosmetic flaws for $50 off suggest retail price. These bags are generally not available during the peak hiking season, but are available in the winter time. For me I saved more by buying it new on-line from a seller that was selling it $20 below retail price plus they had a 20% off coupon. The Thermarest NeoAir XLite had been discontinued (replaced with the NXT), so I was able to get mine for less than $100. I found my backpack on eBay in unused condition for $175. All in all I ended spending about $700 to lose about 7 lbs 2 oz of weight, or about $100 a pound.
The takeaway here is to plan your gear purchases as far in advance as you can for significant savings, and do as much research and reading to find the products that best fits your needs before you start shopping. It is also wise to have one or more options in each category, as this will increase your chances of finding one of them on sale.
Remember – there is no perfect piece of equipment. One item that is “the best” under one set of conditions, may not be so under a different set of conditions. All equipment, and the selection thereof, is the result of a series of compromises.
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