Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Essential Gear...

You may be wondering how my pack got to weigh 40 pounds.  

There are different kinds of hikers.  From those who can't do without their creature comforts (and are willing to carry that comfort on their backs) to the "ultra-lite" hiker who thinks tents and mattress pads are for wimps.  They try to get to the shelters first and if they don't... well they have a tarp to hang from a tree to keep off the rain and the morning dew.  

There are also those who are considered "slack packers."  These people often travel in groups.  They hire a modern day sherpa to drive their gear from one shelter or campsite to the next, so they can just walk unencumbered by any gear other than a day pack or waist pack to carry water and lunch or snack food.  

I fall somewhere in the middle.  First of all, I am way too cheap (or poor) to pay someone to carry, set up and break down my gear.  It also seems a little like cheating to me.  Plus, I value my privacy, so I like the idea of a tent.  And as much as I want to be one with nature, I draw the line at nature crawling all over me while I'm trying to sleep.  Again, the tent is helpful with that.

So I do carry a certain amount of comfort in my pack, but I did upgrade some of my hiking/camping gear to keep the weight down.

Also, just from these last two trips out, I'm learning what I REALLY need and what is worth bringing because I enjoy the luxury.  There are things that I packed and never used.  With one exception, that should never happen.  It is just extra weight in your pack.  The one thing that you should pack and (hopefully) never use is the First Aid Kit.  

I have acquired most of my gear over time at EMS, Dick's Sporting Goods, Kittery Trading Post (in ME) and a few items at the new Cabellas (in CT).  Some gear I upgraded at the outfitter in GA at Neals Gap.  

Let's take a tour through my gear.  I'll try to give you name brands when I can remember them (in case you decide to come with me on one of these section hikes!)  Also, if you know of better or lighter equipment, feel free to share the info.  I still have lots of discount coupons for EMS. 

By far,  the two most important pieces of gear on a long distance hike are the Backpack and the Boots.  

I've had my Mountainsmith backpack for a couple years now.  It's where I store my survival/escape gear.  It came complete with two Ryolite Trekking Poles that velcro right onto the pack when not in use.  

Unfortunately, my original six months of thru-hiking gear did not fit into this pack.  So I went off to Cabellas to get a larger pack.  I really liked Cabellas own brand of pack as it had a built in water bladder with a drinking hose.  It felt like a good fit in the store, but with 50 pounds of gear in it (this was before "shake down") the waist belt would not pull tight enough to carry the pack over my hips.  It kept sliding down so all the weight was on my shoulders.  This is bad.  So ultimately, I switched back to my original pack.  The good thing is, this forced me to weed out the goofy stuff.  This pack is a much better fit.  Even at 40 pounds, it's pretty comfortable, but I'll bet that next trip out it will be much lighter.

Tied with first place in the "most important gear" category is Boots.  You absolutely MUST be good to your feet.  Since I love my walking/day hiking shoes so much (Merrell's Chameleon) I decided to make Merrell's hiking boot my first choice.  At EVERY outfitter they tried to talk me into going with a heavier boot with a wider base and higher ankle support.  But being me, I went with my gut instinct and chose the Merrell Reflex-Mid Gore-Tex.  They are sturdy and lightweight.  And like my Chameleons they are waterproof and breathable.  Not sure how they manage that, but my feet did stay dry- even in the rain and many water crossings.  

The base is plenty wide enough for me.  And traction has been good going both up and down hill, wet and dry, whether on dirt, rock or tree.  Yes, tree.  In order to pass over some water crossings you need to negotiate  a tree or log like a balance beam-- or wade through the water. 

And I opted for the Mid-Ankle support as opposed to the High Ankle support which seemed too restricting to me.

On top of the comfort and durability, they were reasonably priced and I am very pleased with my choice.  

Before getting into the luxury items, let's talk about what I consider the other Essentials.  

The Tent:  this is one of the items that I upgraded to accommodate the long distance hiking.   I love my old tent and will keep it for recreational camping trips that stay in one place.  It is a spacious  dome tent that  will comfortably sleep two (including gear or three without.)  But because it is a dinosaur it weighs about 8-9 pounds.  This is not practical for long distance hiking.  

My new Big Agnes Speed House 1 is very sturdy and comfortably sleeps me... alone.  The tent itself is less than 4 pounds, but weighs in at 4 pounds 4 ounces if you include the stakes and stuff sack.  

It is free standing and easy to set up.  There is only one aluminum pole that forks at one end,  and it is corded and spring loaded so it folds into itself.  The tent, pole and stakes easily fit inside the backpack.  My old tent is so big I had to lash it horizontally to the underside of my pack.

One feature I really like is that the top part of the tent is mesh/netting.  This is great on warm, clear, nights when you want to star gaze.  The nylon "fly" easily hooks into place in seconds if you decide it is too cold, windy or raining.  My old dome tent has a similar feature.  

Another item to be upgraded was my big thick, warm comfortable sleeping bag.  At first I was a little concerned about giving this up.  It has been very good to me over the years.  And these fancy new sleeping bags seem so flimsy and light.  How can they possibly be warm enough?  

Well I can officially say that my new North Face Wasatch sleeping bag is plenty warm enough.  And I not only cut my sleeping bag weight in half, but I am also using less than half the space.  

When I saw the stuff sack that came with the sleeping bag it made me laugh.  It looks big enough to hold about 3 pairs of socks.  But when you roll up the sleeping bag and squeeze out all the air-- it fits in this tiny bag!  It's amazing.  

And a related item to be retired is my old air mattress.  The old one is a full body, self-inflating air mattress with a built in pillow.  When fully inflated it's about 3 inches thick.  On the down side it weighs about 5-6 pounds and because it is so wide (about 26 inches) it also needed to be strapped under the backpack with the old tent.  

The new self-inflating air mattress inflates to about an inch, is only about 15 inches wide and is not a "full body" pad.  It just keeps my upper body off the ground.  It gets the job done, fits inside my pack and weighs ounces.  

The bottom line is:  my new tent, mattress pad AND sleeping bag together weigh less and take up less space than my old sleeping bag ALONE.  

Another fairly important item to have is a Water Filtration System.  What a lot of people don't understand is that when the Data Book (I'll explain what that is shortly) directs you to a water source-- that does not mean you will find a faucet with hot and cold filtered water.  

Usually that means a moving body of water like a brook, stream or river.  Sometimes you have to climb over the swampy, mosquito infested still water to get to where it flows.  

Your best bet for clean water is moving water.  Not a puddle, swamp or lake.  But just the fact that it's moving is not enough.  It still needs to be filtered, just in case.  

There are three common ways to filter the water.  First, I have a Katadyn Vario Micro Filter Water Purification System (15 ounces.)  This is similar to your home "Brita" system, but requires a little more work.

One end of a hose is dropped into the unfiltered water (either a water bag or directly into the source.)  The other end of the hose connects to a pump and filter.  You then proceed to pump the water into your water bottles and drinking water bladder.  

This is a little time consuming but the alternative is drinking potentially unsafe water.  So it's worth the effort.  

I've been told that the filters sometimes clog.  Most people don't carry spare filters because they are bulky and take up space in your pack.  So when you need a replacement, you just stop at the next outfitter and get one.  

In the mean time, you have two alternative ways to filter your water.  

The first is to use germicidal tablets.  This is less work than the pump but also time consuming due to the fact that you have to wait half an hour for the tablets to dissolve.  I do have the tablets in my pack as a precaution.  They are tiny and lightweight, but I don't like the idea of chemically treating my drinking water.  The pro's and con's are similar to using chlorine in your swimming pool.  

A less lethal method is to boil your water in the cookstove.  Unfortunately, there are also disadvantages with this option.  

Again, it is time consuming.  Actually, the amount of time to boil is very quick (I'll write more about the cookstove in the "Luxuries" post.)  It's the cool down time after boiling that's time consuming.  If you pour boiling water into the water bladder, it will melt.  Also, the cookstove is generally small in order to be lightweight and take up little space.  So it takes more than 10 "boils" to fill two water bottles and the water bladder.  

Which brings me to the other major disadvantage.  All that boiling uses up a lot of fuel.  So it is potentially costly but even more important, those fuel canisters take up valuable real estate in the backpack.

So this is my plan:  use the filter until it clogs itself to death.  Then depending on how close I am to the next resupply outfitter when the filter clogs, I would (1) use the germicidal tablets if the outfitter is far away to save fuel for cooking, or (2) use the cookstove to boil the water if the outfitter is only a day or two away, so I don't have to use the chemical tablets.  

The next item on the list is one that most people don't really think about.  Many of the campsites and shelters have privies that, believe it or not, are very well maintained (in my experience, so far.)   But as you know, Mother Nature does not always care if you are near the privy.  So all hikers carry a shovel.  Mine looks like a garden too.  It's six inches long (about two inches of that is handle) and weighs about 6-8 ounces.  

The shovel only ever digs in the dirt, but I keep it in a separate plastic bag just in case.  

And the last thing that I'll include in this Essential Gear post is the "Data Book."  This is a bare essential "Just the facts, ma'am" book that is published by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy annually.  It tells you how many trail miles from one place to the next and if you will find a reliable water source, campground or shelter.  It also tells you if there is a nearby outfitter, grocery store, hotel/motel/hostel, or even a post office for mail drops (and how far each is off the Trail.)  

Another helpful piece of information included in the Data Book is the elevation of significant points.  These are all important things to consider when planning your day.

As in real life, the more accurate information we have, the easier it is to make good decisions.  

For example:  Would you rather spend the night at a campground or a shelter?  What if the campground has a reliable water source but the shelter does not?  Would you stay at the campground to filter your water while you are already stopped for the night?  What if it's raining?  Would you continue to the shelter and then stop at another water source the next day?  

What if there is a campground in 12 miles and a shelter in 15 miles?  Would you hike the extra 3 miles?  Would you still hike it knowing that the elevation of the campground is at 1000 feet and the shelter is at 4,500 feet, which means your last 3 miles of the day will be almost straight up?  

There are many  factors involved in your daily planning.  In the next post on "Luxury Gear" I'll write about two other books that I brought with me to help with the decision making process.  And about the other luxury items in my pack.  And which of those will not make the next leg of the journey with me.  

Get outside.  Go for a walk....
Peace and Love,

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