The Cult of Gear
I’m Really Not a Gear Geek
I’m really excited about my upcoming hike of the Long Trail and blogging about it here on The Trek. Although I’ve done a fair amount of technical/medical writing, I’m kinda new to this blogging thing. So I’ve been carefully consulting the Trek Bloggers Manual to get started. The manual suggests compiling a gear list as a topic idea because “people can’t get enough gear talk”. I already had a long list of potential topics to write about. But a gear list? Yeah, no, probably not doing that. I’m just not much of a gear geek. Gear is just gear; the tools we use while backpacking, a means to an end. It’s certainly not something to overthink or obsess about.
Stickers? Did Somebody Say Stickers?
Towards the end of the manual was mention of a cool gear list tool for bloggers. And with it, the promise of some Trek stickers. Stickers? Really? Does Zach know I’m a sucker for stickers? I have stickers all over my beer coolers and homebrew kegs. I also put them on my bear vault, my dyneema food bag and my hiking water bottles. That got my attention!
Lured by the prospect of some new stickers, I took a close look at the gear list widget. I had to admit, it was pretty cool, just as advertised. You simply plug your gear items into separate fields, and it compiles a detailed list, and then calculates a base weight along with a price list. How cool is that? Next thing I know, I’m addicted to the widget and ready to add every item I can think of! As the list started to take shape, I began to think that maybe I did have something to say on the subject of gear. So here goes…
Not Your Average Gear List
Backpacking may be one of the most gear dependent activities a person can undertake. Having the right gear can make or break a trip, but depending on what you chose, it can also break the bank. There is no established “right” way or ultimate gear list. It’s very personal. I’ve curated my gear over the course of a couple of years. Several choices might be different if I was shopping for new gear today.
And of course, the elephant in the room is, what does the item weigh? Weight is often a dealbreaker. But the lightest piece of gear you can buy is no good if it doesn’t perform its function well. The flip side is those extra ounces really start to add up as you put together your kit. So, it’s a balance
As I compiled the list, a common theme became apparent. I’ve tried to strike a balance between comfort, utility, weight, and value when choosing new equipment. I tend to keep stuff for a long time, so it needs to be reliable. In many cases, I’ve chosen gear that can do double duty. I spend more time wilderness canoe tripping than backpacking. I also car camp and fly fish. In those situations, ultralight gear may not always be the best choice.
My full gear list can be found below, but here’s a description of some of my choices.
In searching for a pack I wanted something with a trampoline back for good ventilation. I sweat a LOT. I tried different offerings from both Gregory and Osprey and settled on the Osprey Exos. The Gregory had some features I preferred (hip belt pocket & fitted rain cover), but the fit between the two finalists was quite different. For me it felt like I was “wearing” the Exos, compared with “carrying” any other pack I tried. At just over 2.5 lbs., it’s not ultralight, but it’s close.
The 48L looked to be the perfect size for me for backpacking. But I ended up getting the 58L for a couple of reasons: it will accommodate a bear vault, and the extra capacity is useful when canoe tripping. On paddling trips I’ve moved away from using traditional 100L portage packs in favor of my backpacks. They fit better in my solo canoes than portage packs that are designed for larger tandem canoes. I also have the 38L version when I caught it at a great sale price. I use that in combination with the larger one on canoe trips.
I splurged for a roll top pack liner rather than using a nylofume or trash compactor bag. This is another example of a tactic used in canoe tripping. It’s s a more robust liner option and roll-top closures are typically watertight so that helps keep the contents dry. A pack cover is also useful when the pack is lying flat in a canoe and exposed to rain or splashing.
I’ll be using the Durston X-Mid 1P (2021 version). Since I’ll be hiking in the northeast where it’s humid, I wanted something that had great ventilation to avoid condensation. It’s a solid trekking pole tent that didn’t break the bank and has served me well so far. It might not be the best choice when I’m limited to pitching it on a tent platform, but otherwise a great tent. Ultralight dyneema trekking pole tents are popular. But I’m just not sold on dyneema. To me, the cost is prohibitive for a tent that that is single wall and susceptible to condensation.
I’ve found I sleep much better when confined in a sleep system that integrates bag and pad. I can still roll and turn within the bag, but don’t fall off the pad as I would otherwise. The Big Agnes Thunderhead 30 SL is an interesting product that is discontinued and probably never caught on. It features a cocoon-style construction with a clip-and-loop system that eliminates the need for a zipper.
I like it, with a few caveats. The half-pad sleeve easily attaches to a 20” wide pad at the top of the bag. That works well compared to my cold weather Big Agnes Mystic UL 15 degree system bag, which I have to wrestle with both top and bottom of bag when attaching to the pad in the tight quarters of a small solo tent.
The Thunderhead design requires some flexibility to get in and out of in a small tent since it only opens about a third way down. I’m only 5’7” so I can usually do that maneuver in tight quarters. Although if my legs or hips are tight or cramping from a difficult trail day it becomes a challenge. This isn’t a problem when sleeping in shelters or larger tents with more headroom.
I pair the bag with a NEMO Astro Lite 20R in warm weather. It’s 3.5 inches thick, quiet and comfortable. I like NEMO’s valve system and the Vortex inflation sack. Both make for fast and easy inflation. In colder weather I use the Big Agnes Mystic UL 15 system bag and the NEMO Tensor Insulated Pad.
I currently use the Optimus Elektra FE Cook System. This is different than most stoves and pots I’ve seen on the trail. Once again, it’s gear that I also use for canoe tripping. It includes an aluminum pot and pan/lid that have a non-stick coating. The pot has convenient volume marking in both ounces and milliliters. The heat exchanger built into the pot saves fuel (20% according to the manufacturer), which helps on longer canoe trips. I’d also like to think the increased fuel efficiency equates to fewer spent canisters ending up in landfills. The set includes a clip-on windscreen. To me it’s worth the 3 ounces it contributes to the total weight of the kit (16.37 oz.).
When backpacking I’m typically just heating water for steeping dehydrated or freeze-dried food in bags or making coffee and instant oatmeal for breakfast. But while canoeing I actually cook, often for more than one person. Having a stove that can simmer at low heat is important. The flame control on this stove is great. Optimus also makes a larger 1.95L pot with heat exchanger and strainer lid useful for real cooking when canoe tripping or car camping. Having an Optimus stove is also a nostalgic nod to their cult classic Svea liquid gas stove. That was the first stove I ever used on a backpacking trip back in the 1970’s.
Speaking of which, as an old school backpacker, I’m sometimes puzzled by current common practices. Even though AT culture is often about sharing, I’m surprised that hikers don’t pool resources when preparing meals at a campsite or shelter. I’ve seen as many as six separate stoves going at once. All were just boiling water. On multiple occasions I offered to boil water for other hikers, and they politely declined. I guess it’s more about routine, than efficiency when thru-hiking. Weird.
When compiling my list, I was surprised to discover that clothes made up such a significant portion of the base weight. This is a place where you can cut weight by choosing carefully. If you won’t use it, don’t bring it. There are a few items here that I may decide to go without for this trip since it’ll be in the middle of the summer. When the time comes to replace the rain jacket, puffy, and camp pants, I’ll consider lighter options.
Despite hiking during the summer season, I plan to keep my puffy on the list. It’s not as light as other jackets like this, but I like that it’s slightly roomy for layering, has synthetic insulation for the wet and humid Northeast, and a chest pocket that’s perfect for a phone when hiking in cool weather.
Over the last couple of years, I’ve noticed that almost all thru-hikers wear a plain synthetic t-shirt with no graphics or logo. Really? What’s up with that? It’s pretty boring and doesn’t jibe with a hiker trash ethos. I plan to buck that trend and go with a design from one of my favorite breweries. The shirt on my current gear list is just an example. I already have an Alchemist shirt that is a tri-blend with only 25% cotton. I may swap that out on trail if I find a better one. I’ll be on the lookout when in town to resupply or visiting Vermont breweries.
If I find a cool design in a merino wool or 100% polyester shirt, I’d happily give up the cotton/poly blend for faster drying and odor control. But it must have some personality. In cool or raining weather I just switch to my long-sleeve synthetic shirt. But for now, it’s a beer shirt for me – or maybe a Sasquatch tee!
It took a lot of trial-and-error and several hundred miles to dial in my footwear. When it comes to the never-ending debate between hiking boots or trail runners, it’s a no-brainer for me. I may be old school, but trail runners rule for backpacking. I wear waterproof hiking boots in winter, but trail runners for everything else. Your feet are eventually going to get wet no matter what shoes you wear. It’s important to have a shoe that drains and dries quickly. The light weight and trail feel of trail runners are also advantages.
I’m a runner, so I thought I could take my favorite trail running shoes and backpack with them. Didn’t work out that way. Some trail runners are great for backpacking and others are great for trail running. I haven’t found a shoe yet that works well for both. I use Merrell and Asics trail shoes for running. The traction, stability, and cushioning are great for that.
For backpacking I love the trail feel and wide toe box of Altra Lone Peaks. It took a while, but I got used to the neutral “zero drop” footbed for hiking. It seems to minimize pressure on my knees when carrying a full pack. But I quickly realized the zero drop puts too much pressure on my calves, hamstrings, and Achilles when running in them. So I’m back to more traditional running shoes for trail running.
After several consecutive days of backpacking in Lone Peaks, I felt like I wanted just a little more cushion. So I replaced the stock insoles with Oboz inserts. Bingo! I have over 200 miles on my Lone Peak 6’s with Oboz insoles and that combo just feels right.
Sock choice is also important. I’m wearing Injinji liner socks with Darn Tough lightweight hikers. That combo performs well when wet, and I haven’t had any issues with blisters so far.
My Own Personal Gear Guru
My gear selection didn’t happen in a vacuum, or by solely doing online research. I’ve had the privilege of joining several thru-hikers on sections of the AT and have seen their gear in action. My regular training partner Jeff did a LASH hike last year covering over 1200 miles of the AT. He’s back on trail now, cruising towards Katahdin, on a mission to complete the AT this year. In the interim, he worked for Enwild as a Gear Specialist advising customers on clothing and gear. He was an invaluable resource to me (and countless customers I’m sure). With just a text, I could ask his thoughts on a specific piece of gear. He knew my abilities and preferences, and always pointed me in the right direction. He was also well versed in gear from cottage brands.
He was incredibly helpful in choosing the right footwear. He’s a true “gear geek” and was constantly trying different trail shoes for himself. We have the same size foot, so we’d occasionally get together and swap shoes to see how they performed. His wife thought that was really gross. Yep, hiker trash for sure!
Nerding Out Over Gear
Putting together this list and writing about it was a great exercise. I learned a lot about the gear I had already chosen and what to look for when considering new equipment. Are there things I might change now? Yes, maybe. A tent that works better with my sleep system, or a sleep system that works better with my tent. I also learned to check the actual weight of items rather than trust the sometimes optimistic weights listed in the manufacturer’s specs.
I’m currently trying out a NEMO Hornet 2-person tent that’s only a few ounces heavier than my Durston and is semi-freestanding. I’m also testing a 40-degree quilt that would save several ounces over my current sleeping bag and offer more flexibility in warm weather. It’ll be a last-minute decision if I swap anything out from my current list before hitting the trail.
Okay, I’ll admit it, I’m a gear nerd. Guilty as charged. Damn you Zach – you sucked me in with the really cool gear widget… and some stickers!
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