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Gear Testing

So I went up to the mountains last night to test out all my new gear. At least half my gear is new as of right now. Meaning it hasn’t been field tested yet. I recently bought new GoLite zip off pants, a pair of Merino wool socks and a Merino wool long sleeve shirt, a new GoLite backpack, a 20 degree ultralite sleeping bag, and a new tarp shelter.

Of all my new gear the tarp shelter is the cheapest and possibly the best! I bought a 8×10 blue tarp for $5, eight stakes for $3, and some rope for $3. It is super spacious for one person, even pitched down to ground, and could easily fit two people, especially if the sides are pitched a few inches off the ground and you use side pull-outs. Best thing is it only weighs two pounds total. If I spend the money on some more expensive silnylon then I can get the weight down to a pound.

My new pants worked great to keep me warm all the way down to 32 degrees. I was actually surprised. I brought some spandex long underwear just in case, but I don’t think I will need them. Actually thinking of pulling those out and replacing them with a lightweight runner’s short I can sleep in.

I am a little disappointed in the Merino wool. I put all my clothes in the wash the other day and let them air dry. My fleece jacket and my performance t-shirts dried extremely fast. I was actually impressed with the fleece jacket which was a Columbia gear jacket I bought on sale for about $35 if I remember correctly. The Merino wool socks and the shirt took forever to dry. They say that Merino wool still performs well even if it is wet, but I think I prefer gear that dries quickly. They also say Merino wool doesn’t hold body odor so maybe I just need to field test it more.

The temperature did get down to 32 degrees at night. It was about 45 degrees when I went to bed and 31 degrees when I woke up. I kept my pants, t-shirt, and fleece jacket on to sleep in along with a beanie hat. I stayed very warm in my 20 degree bag which I am pretty happy with. I’m sure I would have been fine sleeping in the proposed runner’s shorts and a long sleeve shirt instead of the pants and jacket. I guess I need a little more field testing in cold weather to see where my comfort zone is.

I bought the Ledge Featherlite 20 degree bag because it was an inexpensive deal at $40. (If you haven’t figured it out I am trying to go as light in my gear as possible for the least price.) I also bought the GoLite Men’s Quest backpack for $79. It is hard to go cheaper on something that needs to hold up well and hold all your gear and food and everything. I am pretty happy with the bag expect that I wish it had some bigger side pockets, and possibly some extra pockets up higher on the side. At the same time, I think it forces me to pack a little lighter than what my 7 pound expedition pack allowed.

So my shelter system weighs about 2 pounds, my backpack weighs a little over 3 pounds, and my sleeping bag weighs a little over 3 pounds giving me a total of about 8.5 pounds. The problem is that I have a 2 pound Thermarest that I may also need to replace to get the weight down more. My other gear including my stove, water filter, knife, compass, first aid kit, etc. weighs about 4 pounds, and my extra clothes weigh about 4 pounds. This brings my total up to almost 19 pounds. Adding in my camera and lenses adds about 2 more pounds bringing the total up to about 21 pounds base weight.

My longest resupply on the Colorado Trail might have me carrying as much as two liters of water (4 pounds) and about 12 pounds of food bringing my highest possible pack weight to about 37 pounds. As of right now I feel that this is still a little too high so I need to come up with a few ideas to lessen the weight.

The most obvious place to reduce weight is in my sleeping pad. Most inflatable pads weigh 1.5 to 2 pounds. You can shave off a few ounces by going with a 3/4 length option, and there are some “Prolite” versions that go down to a pound or just below. The problem is that they all cost almost $100. I refuse to spend more on my sleeping pad then every single other item that I carry.

The key is probably to switch to a foam pad which is both lighter and cheaper. Gossamer Gear makes the lightest pad which is their NightLight Torso length pad weighing about 3.5 ounces and it currently costs $21 plus $4.99 ground shipping. Thermarest makes a Zlite and a Ridgerest that are anywhere from $20 to $35 and weigh anywhere from 9 ounces to almost a pound. Looks like I just need to field test some of these, especially the Gossamer Gear one. So depending on the option I pick that is at least a pound or more less weight.

I don’t plan on changing my pack, sleeping bag, or tarp shelter at all. Of the three I would have to change to a lighter down sleeping bag or quilt as I mentioned in the last post before I switch to a lighter pack. I also have to get better at this whole ultralight backpacking experience. Meaning I need to learn a more few tricks of the trade before I go with a down sleeping bag (which is useless when wet), and a lighter pack (need to clear more things out before I can go lighter).

Next up would be my extra clothes. 4 pounds actually isn’t too bad when it comes to having extra clothes in a place where I could get snowed on, even if it is June when I will be going. I plan on wearing my 10 ounce GoLite pants most of the time, unless it gets too hot in which case I will zip off the bottom portion. And again, with my wool socks on they kept my legs pretty warm down to 32 degrees. I also will be wearing a very lightweight performance t-shirt, both of which don’t count towards the 4 pounds of extra clothes I will be packing.

The extra 4 pounds includes a fleece jacket (just under a pound, essential), rain jacket (just under a pound, as of right now essential but maybe can go without or be replaced by something lighter), extra socks (couple ounces, essential), extra performance tshirt (around 3 or 4 ounces, non essential but nice to have as backup), extra merino wool longsleeve shirt (6 ounces, probably essential on cold nights), a heavier longsleeve spandex athletic top and long underwear combo (just over a pound, I think these are nonessential on all but the coldest of nights (sub 32 degrees plus wind) or if my other gear gets wet and I can’t dry them by bedtime for some reason.

I think I am going to drop the extra heavy spandex gear and throw in a 3 ounce running short for backup and to sleep in. I just can’t see needing more than 5 layers of clothes (2 tshirts, plus longsleeve, plus fleece, plus rain jacket) even in the worst of conditions, but I may be wrong. In any case, this solution would also drop a pound.

The extra 4 pounds in my gear include a Katadyn Water Purifier plus a 3 liter Nalgene bottle (14 ounces, essential unless I go with tablets, but the problem there is that I will need $40-$50 worth of tablets to have enough water on the whole Colorado Trail), my stove system which includes a primus stove, fuel, and titanium pot (just over a pound with fuel or a few ounces just counting the stove, and essential because I do want some hot foods and drinks along the way), a first aid kit which I need to go through still, a gerber 4 inch blade (4 ounces, always need a knife right?), a lexan spoon, emergency poncho (4 ounces), matches, compass, led light, dr. bronners soap, toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, camp shovel, and duct tape.

Starting over with my shelter, backpack, and sleeping bag we get 8.5 pounds plus maybe half a pound with a Gossomer Gear pad which brings me up to 9 pounds. Adding 3 pounds of extra clothes instead of 4 brings me to 12 pounds. The extra 4 pounds of random gear may be hard to reduce especially when I feel like the water purifier and stove are essential. If I use the emergency poncho in place of my rain jacket I can save almost a pound there or get rid of the emergency poncho altogether. In any case, my total pack weight will be about 16 pounds instead of 19 pounds. About 18 pounds with my camera and lenses.

Here is the thing though. When ultralight backpackers talk about their gear they often list it in a way that makes the weight look smaller than it really is, especially when talking about base weight. Technically my base weight is only 15 pounds with this new setup because I counted my pound of fuel in the equation. Fuel is normally counted as a consumable. A lot of ultralight backpackers also don’t count their “extra” clothes as base weight if they can wear them all at the same time. Besides maybe my extra socks I could wear all my extra clothes and count my base pack weight as 12 pounds. Going to a down sleeping bag, a lighter pack, and a silnylon tarp would easily bring me down into the elusive sub 10 pound ultralight backpacking range, but it just isn’t worth it at this time.

This is part of the “Thru Hiking the Colorado Trail” Series…

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The Ultra Lightweight Backpacking Philosophy

To hike the Colorado Trail within the time limit I have I needed to go lighter and faster than I have ever gone before. Well that isn’t entirely true. I have gone lighter and faster before, just not for this length of time. In fact, whether I was going heavy or going light, I have never gone on a backpacking trip this long.

The natural way of thinking would be to say that a long trip should equal a lot of gear, but the reverse is actually true. To travel a lot of miles you need to travel as light as you can. Many people would say that you need a lot of gear for all the different conditions you will face, and you will need a lot of food for all those days out in the wilderness. Well that isn’t true either.

No matter how long your hike is you always need to come back to civilization to resupply. This usually happens every 3-4 days and no more than a week. The more often you resupply the less you need to carry a ton of food.

For a very long time the whole backpacking industry was based off of what the military was doing. Taking long expeditions into foreign territory carrying all kinds of gear ranging from guns to radio equipment. And so the backpacking industry took a very similar “expedition” style approach. Gear was made heavy and durable to follow suit. What you ended up with was fully loaded 50-60 pound pack for a week long adventure.

Ultra Lightweight Backpackers (ULB’s) often talk about the Big 3. These are the heaviest items that you carry and they are your pack (carrying system), your sleeping system (sleeping bag, bivy, pad, etc.), and your shelter system (tent, tarp, hammock, etc.).

Notice that each is called a system. ULB’s have what is called a systems approach to backpacking. Everything must work together as a system. The most important system is your sleeping system. A well thought out sleeping system can count as a shelter system as well (ex. hammock with tarp, or sleeping bag with a bivy).

When I first started backpacking my Big 3 added up to about 22 pounds. I had a 7 pound expedition style pack, a 9 pound shelter system that included a heavy tent, and a 6 pound sleeping system. I now have a 3 pound pack, a 2 pound shelter system, and a 4 pound sleeping system giving me a total weight of 9 pounds. Big difference right?

I also learned some other ways to cut weight…

I had an eating system (stove, mess kit, etc.) that weighed over 3 pounds. I even had a fork, spoon, knife set that was made of stainless steel. I certainly wasn’t thinking about reducing weight at all when I first started. Some people are so minimalist that they don’t even take a stove or anything. They only eat foods that don’t need any cooking, or rely on fire when they can make one. Some take an alcohol stove which is really light. I prefer to stick with a canister stove, a titanium pot, and a cheap plastic spoon that weighs over a pound when the canister is full of fuel, and will weigh less than a pound as it empties.

I have heard that a lot of ultralight backpackers don’t filter or treat their drinking water at all. They simply choose their water sources wisely. Some are lucky, and some aren’t. Many people take either iodine or chlorine dioxide tablets. These are really great to use, but I haven’t decided yet if I want to take tablets or my trusty Katadyn water filter that weighs a pound.

Shoes are another big choice to think about. I made the graduation from hiking boots to running shoes a few years ago just out of experience. Trail runners work great, are much lighter, and much more breathable than hiking boots. The only advantage hiking boots have over trail runners is that they last a lot longer. All shoes will only last a certain number of miles though. 500+ for trail runners. 1000+ for hiking boots.

Tents are just plain heavy. Tarp Tents are a great move in the right direction. Remove some of the heavy poles, heavy wall material, make the roof tarp like, make the walls mesh, and the floor minimal and you have a nice light tarp tent. Well designed ones are expensive though so I bought a simple 8×10 urethane nylon tarp. Silnylon (silicone impregnated nylon) weighs about half what the urethane nylon does, but it also costs twice as much.

Which brings us to the real problem with always striving for ultra lightweight solutions. Currently the hottest lightweight material out their is cuben fibre. This is literally lighter than anything else on the market and is just as durable. The problem is that is costs anything from double to triple what similar gear would cost made out of other fabrics like silnylon.

So you can almost always go lighter than what you have, but it starts costing a lot to do so. My simple and cost effective solutions have been to buy a pack for $79 that weighs 3 pounds (GoLite Quest), buy a lighter 3 pound sleeping bag (Featherlite 20 degree) that cost $40, and buy a $45 8×10 tarp system (Etowah) that weighs 24 oz (about 1.5 pounds).

For comparison, if I wanted to spend the money I would buy the Gossamer Gear Mariposa Plus pack for $170 that weighs just under 1.5 pounds.

A lot of ultralight backpackers use quilts in place of sleeping bags. A quilt is basically a sleeping bag that still has a footbox but it has no zipper or hood that a lot of sleeping bags have. Instead you would use some type of hat or headcover when sleeping in colder weather. I would buy the GoLite 3 season quilt for $229 which weighs about 1.5 pounds, try to find a similar quilt on sale, or make my own. A common acronym in ultralight backpacking is BYOG (Build Your Own Gear).

Finally I would either buy a silnylon (around $100) or cuben fibre (about $200) tarp (8-13 oz) or splurge on the TarpTent Double Rainbow for $275 which weighs about 2.5 pounds.

So my new gear cost $165 versus the $675 I could potentially spend.

As of right now my gear choices aren’t solidified because I still plan on testing a few things out on weekend backpacking trips, but they are pretty darn close.

The only other piece/s of gear I haven’t discussed is the clothes I will be wearing. And they of course deserve their own article…

This is part of the “Thru Hiking the Colorado Trail” Series…

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