Some time has passed by since the end of the Arizona Trail, 800 miles of gear testing on rugged terrain and along spikey bushes or cacti. Let’s talk gear for a minute.
I started off on the PCT with a much different setup than on the AZT, not only because it’s a different trail at a different time of the year.
The PCT was my first long-distance hike and I didn’t try to go ultra-light but as light, as I could with experience that was more kind of “If it’s on the internet I can read it!”. Of course, I was uncertain about the comforts I needed, so I ended up with about 22lbs/10kg of pure gear, no food, no water (incl. some warmer clothes I sent ahead to Kennedy Meadows). The first day of the PCT my pack weight was about 42lbs/19kg incl. some days, maybe 4, worth of food and 7 liters of water – considering I might not be able to do the 20 miles to the first water source at Lake Morena, but I made it, yeah.
I started shaking down my pack pretty much immediately by getting rid of things, sent stuff ahead or home and picking up knowledge from other more experienced hikers. So I went through 2 backpacks (they were not broken down but too big) on the PCT to find out that I wanted to go even smaller and lighter. At the end, the fact to fit all the necessary belongings into basically the size of a daypack was appealing to me. But furthermore, I liked the lower weight and the ability to move more freely. On good days you can find me now dancing, skipping, jumping and running down the trail just like a kid exploring the forest.
After the PCT and the experience gathered there especially in spooky cold, wet and snowy conditions I went for some X-mas presents for myself and lightened my base weight to about 4kg – and even that was up to further changes along the AZT.
Let’s start off with the big 3, backpack, shelter and sleeping bag.
The Osprey Exos 58 was the first backpack I used for about 2/3 of the PCT. It’s a solid light backpack with a frame. The frame actually truly connects with the hipbelt and therefore does a good job in transferring weight to your hips and only weighs about 1kg. Of course with other Osprey or Deuter packs with a frame the load transfers even better and they might even be more comfortable but also weigh at least double or three times as much.
The 55 liter of volume the backpack provided in size small was good for the start but have been way too much for me, especially after the Sierras. It got floppy so the weight wasn’t placed correctly anymore. The mesh is a bit fragile if you’re not using your gear lightly but overall it’s durable for being a lightweight pack with a frame.
For the AZT and further hikes, I got myself a Mountain Laurel Designs Burn. This backpack is super simple and durable, providing 28 liters of volume in the main compartment and 10 more with the mesh pockets on the side and the front. Arizona’s cacti and other spikes couldn’t tear up this pack and besides the sweat lines and stands of dirt, it looks like new ;). The most I like about this pack is the big mesh pocket on the front and the side pockets for easy to grab bottles.
I’d wish the shoulder straps would be a bit more s-shaped than they are, but that’s it, no other remarks to that.
Some modifications I did: I took off the sternum strap, fewer buckles less hassle. I wasn’t bold enough to cut off the thin hipbelt yet even though I rarely use it. The bungee cord which comes with the backpack I mounted in the back so it holds my sleeping pad between my back and the backpack.
I carried a free-standing tent on the PCT, an MSR Hubba NX. Relatively light for it’s kind, free-standing as mentioned before so easy to set up anywhere, double-walled which should help with condensation, fully enclosed so it protects you from bugs and also provides you with some extra warmth.
Here is the thing though, I really got hooked on cowboy camping which means sleeping on the ground without a shelter. I did this quite often on the PCT and I got fed up with carrying tent poles and two sets of fabric with me every day and most of the time not even using it. My rule was if I haven’t been using an item out of my backpack within two weeks leave it behind. Obviously, a shelter is a crucial thing you can’t just leave behind, but for future hikes, I wanted to improve on this piece.
So I asked myself the following: What does my shelter have to provide me and which comforts do I really need.
Free-standing? I can learn how to set up a shelter with hiking poles and/or sticks. It’s not rocket science and actually fun to play with. Same with the ‘easy to set up anywhere’ argument, I just have to get more aware in finding a spot to set up camp.
Double wall? When it comes to condensation and your down sleeping bag is touching a single wall tent the bag would get soaked, that is where double wall tents do good, as the condensation stays pretty much on the rainfly and shouldn’t touch the bugnet so the inside stays dry. A tarp though is much more open depending on the setup and weather conditions so it provides more ventilation and you don’t have a condensation issue.
Bug protection? Nice to have indeed but possible with a headnet and hiding in the sleeping bag too. For really bad places there are also full bug-nets available which you can use within a tarp or by itself.
All these things are just personal thoughts on the pros and cons and everyone has to decide themselves what they are comfortable with and willing to try.
Again I went through 2 sleeping bags on the PCT, ups. I guess you can call me shopping queen. No, well, let’s take a closer look. I started off with a Mountain Equipment Classic 500 (comfort rating 0°C/32°F, 750 down fill). Nice, cozy backpacking sleeping bag, which will last for years, the outside material is pretty tough. It has nice buffles around the neck to close off and to cover the zipper on the inside. Pricing wise this item was alright but with 1kg a bit too heavy for a 2650mile/4200km long backpacking trip.
Lighten the load was especially necessary after being injured on the PCT to avoid further injuries. I walked up on this on sale Mountain Hardwear Phantasia 32 (comfort rating 0°C/32°F, 800 down fill, 21oz) in a store while being off-trail injured after Sonora Pass. With 21oz this was more the weight I’d be willing to put on my back. It’s a simple sleeping bag, so no extra buffles but well designed to close off and keep the cold air out. What makes it that light and still warm is the better down fill and the super-light Pertex outer material. Pertex is a more and more popular thin material used now for outdoor products like sleeping bags, rain jackets and more. The main features are its low weight and its durability.
On the AZT though the temperature at night was very often around freezing, an upgrade in the temperature rating of my sleep system was needed as I was getting too cold and not able to sleep. The choice fell on an Enlighten Equipment Revelation Quilt (temp.-rating -12°C/10°F, 850 down fill, 20oz). Besides the obvious features like a higher temperature rating and a higher fill power, there’s some other things I like about having a quilt. And how is it even possible that I get a higher temp.-rating with a lighter sleeping bag?
- The quilt doesn’t have a full-length zipper, it covers only 1/3 of the whole length to close the bottom of the quilt.
- Higher down fill power: the higher the fill power the better the down, means the down is providing more insulation on less cubic inches when compressed, so it needs less down to get the same temperature rating.
- No hood: A quilt usually doesn’t provide a hood. It comes with a bungee cord or similar to close it around your neck if needed.
- Less material: Besides leaving out the hood a quilt doesn’t necessarily close up all the way underneath you. It’s considered that the insulation from the ground is provided by your sleeping pad and the down underneath you would anyways be compressed and not provide anything – so they leave this part of the sleeping bag out, though you can buckle it up, and the sides of the quilt stay tucked under you.
What are your thoughts about the big three? Let me know, I am always curious on other people’s setup.
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