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Backpacking gear

January 15th, 2011

Backpacking has a fundamental trade-off: the more stuff you carry in your pack, the more comfortable you will be in camp, but the less stuff you carry in your pack, the more comfortable you will be on the trail.

I subscribe to the comfort-on-the-trail school of thought. That was not always the case.

Back on my first significant backpacking trip, at Philmont in 1998, I carried too much of the wrong stuff.  That led to less-than-ideal comfort on the trail combined with less-than-ideal comfort in camp.  I didn’t know any better, so I still had a great time, but I can’t imagine doing what I did then again.

The most bone-headed of my errors: I assumed that New Mexico in mid-August would be warm all of the time.  That might have been true during the day in the desert, but it most certainly was not true up in the mountains where we spent most of our time.  I’m actually kind of amazed that they let me go out on the trail without a warm jacket, without a sleeping pad, and without decent gloves.  I seem to recall arguing that I “liked the cold.”

For whatever reason, I did virtually no backpacking after that trip for nearly a decade.  It wasn’t until 2007 that I caught the bug again.

This time, influenced by the excellent Allen and Mike’s Really Cool Backpackin’ Book and the writings of Sam Haraldson, I prioritized comfort on the trail.  However, thanks to the wisdom imparted by experience and the march of technological progress, I managed to have a fair amount of in-camp comfort, too.

Here’s my extended-weekend-length (say, up to 4 nights) backpacking gear list that I used during the summer of 2010.  As you can see, I travel light.  On-back, with food and water, I carry about 23 pounds.  Skin-out — which includes things like my boots and the clothes I’m wearing — the total is less than 29 pounds.  I carry only things that I will need at least once on the trail, and I opt for the lighter versions of each item where practical.  For example, I carry an LED headlamp instead of a flashlight, and I bring a mini multitool instead of a big, heavy pocketknife.

The main variable is the amount of food.  I find that I’m seldom very hungry when I go backpacking, which works out fine for the length of trips that I typically take.  Beyond that, I need to force myself to eat more or I’ll start getting lethargic, so add on about a pound per day for food beyond a quick two-nighter.

Unpacking at Tent Creek

Unpacking my portable home at Tent Creek in Flathead NF (Photo credit: Vince)

Now, I’m no weight weenie.  I won’t cut the handle of my toothbrush to save a few grams.  I also recognize that I could eliminate a huge amount of weight — perhaps as much as I currently carry in my pack — simply by dieting and exercise.  But never mind all that.

The main problem with my system is sleeping comfort.  The blue foam pad is great for insulation, but it provides lousy padding for side-sleepers like me.  Likewise, the tarp is great for weight and convenience, but it is totally ineffective against mosquitoes.  For those reasons, I’m considering switching back to a lightweight tent and insulated, inflatable sleeping pad.  Thanks to high-tech materials, the weight will be about the same as what I’m using now — less than 3 pounds for my shelter and less than a pound for my mat.  The downside is mostly cost: my blue foam pad cost $5 new, but the new pad I’d like to have checks in at around $150.  Ouch.

We’ll see how much I can afford to upgrade before SiES begins.  With stops in Denali, Banff, Yellowstone, and Acadia on the docket, there’s sure to be plenty of backpacking along the way.

  1. Hachfeld
    January 15th, 2011 at 20:14 | #1

    Have you considered http://www.tarptent.com? They seem to be a nice compromise between a tarp setup and a true tent.

  2. Jeff
    January 15th, 2011 at 20:21 | #2

    I had not been aware of them, but a quick look suggests that they might sell what I’m looking for. The current front-runner is the Big Agnes Copper Spur UL 1. Might you have any first-hand experience with the Tarptent products?

  3. January 16th, 2011 at 00:23 | #3

    Hit up the next REI scratch & dent sale! There always seem to be a lot of sleeping pads. I got mine (normally $100) for $30.

  4. Jeff
    January 16th, 2011 at 12:26 | #4

    The REI scratch and dent is awesome! I picked up a really nice Garmin hiking GPS there for over half off retail.

    I’ve always been a bit suspicious of the numerous sleeping pads and tents they have at those sales, given the risk of leaks. Ideally, I’d find a sample that somebody used for a weekend “wardrobing” excursion.

  5. Hachfeld
    January 17th, 2011 at 17:33 | #5

    I don’t have any personal experience with their products unfortunately. I didn’t learn about them until after I had purchased my tent. I’d be intrigued to know that you do purchase. I’ve got a great 2 person tent, REI Half Dome 2 Plus, but need to consider a more suitable solo option. Of course it needs to accommodate my height, which is a challenge.

  6. Jeff
    January 23rd, 2011 at 22:18 | #6

    I now have a Tarptent Contrail on order. Let’s see how she handles…

  7. Tim
    January 29th, 2011 at 16:33 | #7

    I’ll be interested to hear how the tent works out. A lightweight single person tent is on the list of items to purchase.

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