My top 5 gear upgrades for the PCT

I can turn my whole life upside down to hike for five months. But when it comes to backpacking gear, I don’t like change. However, preparing for the Pacific Crest Trail has led me to reconsider some key items in my kit.

Here are some of my favorite gear upgrades I finally made this year (I’m a bit late to the party).

1. Sleeping bag to quilt

I was vaguely aware of backpacking quilts but ignored them as an option (my unwillingness to change my gear habits held strong). The sleeping bag I wanted went indefinitely out of stock, and this forced me to consider a quilt. Unlike traditional mummy bags, quilts eliminate unnecessary material that doesn’t add warmth. For example, when you climb inside a sleeping bag, your weight compresses the bottom, so it serves almost no purpose. Quilts get rid of that part and instead use adjustable

straps that attach to your sleeping pad. You sleep directly on your pad, and the quilt cinches around it, trapping in as much or as little warmth as you need. So, it can be a cozy cocoon on cold nights or open up into a breezy blanket on balmy nights. The quilt is lighter, cheaper and more versatile.

I took home the REI Co-op Magma to try it out and fell in love with the whole system. Then I switched it out for the far superior Enlightened Equipment Revelation.

2. Foam sleeping pad to inflatable sleeping pad

Almost everywhere you look on the trail, you can find someone with the bright-orange or yellow accordion-style foam pad attached to the outside of their pack. It’s super light and hassle-free and enormously popular with thru-hikers. Maybe I’m getting old, but after using the Nemo Switchback on a couple of long trips, I decided I just couldn’t hang. I’m a side sleeper, so without any cushion between me and the ground, half my body goes numb, causing me to toss and turn all night long.

Enter the Sea to Summit Ultralight Air. It takes only 2-3 puffs to inflate via an integrated stuff sack. When I first tested it on my living room floor, rigging it up with my quilt, I actually dozed off for a few minutes (Okay, I was also really tired that day).

3. Boots to trail runners

When people think of hiking footwear, they often imagine boots – maybe those tan Danners with the pink laces from Wild. But gear manufacturers have evolved since the ’90s, and boots are no longer the best thru-hiking shoe for most of us. (To anyone still walking 2,000 miles in boots without shredding your feet, I salute you!).

When hiking longer distances, you start to notice: boots are heavy, they stay hot and wet (from either sweat or water crossings), and this can lead to more hotspots and blisters. They also take time to break in, which is not ideal when you have to replace them during a thru-hike.

Trail runners are light and breathable and require no break-in time. For the PCT, I finally converted to the ubiquitous Altra Lone Peak 5 with Superfeet Trailblazer insoles to add cushion and stabilize my high arches.

4. All-in-one cooking system to a pocket rocket

I’ve used the Jetboil Flash since it was released. The self-igniting, all-in-one cooking system is so convenient and easy, but it’s heavy and bulky (13 ounces) compared to other backpacking stoves.

For the PCT, I switched to the MSR PocketRocket 2 and paired it with the Titan Kettle for a total of 6.8 ounces. The pocket rocket, lighter and fuel canister all fit perfectly inside the pot for easy packing. The stove also has better simmer control than the Jetboil, so I can cook meals directly in the pot (Side note: I’ve resolved to stop eating meals out of freezer bags).

5. Bandana to Kula Cloth

I embraced the idea of the “pee rag” while hiking the John Muir Trail six years ago. Instead of using and packing out toilet paper, you can use and re-use a bandana. Just hang it off the back of your pack to dry, and clean it with biodegradable soap as needed. Nowadays, the Kula Cloth is specifically designed for this. It’s antimicrobial, has a more functional shape, and it clips onto your pack. Plus, I’m using a retractable carabineer, so I don’t have to take off my pack to go.

Final thoughts on gear

You can find my entire gear list here, comprising everything I will carry in my pack. My base weight is around 12 pounds; this means the weight of all my gear excluding consumable items like food, water and fuel (those could easily double my pack weight). The list also calculates the total cost of my gear: $3,118.55.

For me, backpacking has been a lifelong investment. Some of this gear, such as my tent and clothing, I’ve had for years. Other items I bought six months ago. A few things I purchased last week. I’m lucky to have such a supportive family that has gifted some of this gear to me on Christmas and my birthday.

You find ways to make it work. And sometimes, when a piece of gear doesn’t work, you have to make a change.

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