Wednesday, March 7, 2012

A Backpacking Aficionado's 3 Season System, Part 1: Clothing and The Big Three

An aficionado is, to paraphrase Hemingway, one who has passion.  

Before I begin to breakdown in detail my entire 3 season backpacking system, I would note a few things for context.  I don't play any musical instruments, as many of my friends do, and hence own no guitars or drum kits or amplifiers.  I don't care really care about cars, other than to get my family and I and our stuff from one place to another.  As such, I own a 7 year old station wagon that we bought used.  I not only don't care about fashionable clothing, I harbor a certain degree of antipathy towards the fashion industry and people who are devoted to constantly buying trendy, expensive clothing.  

I honestly don't do all that much, and live a simple and happy life most of the time (or try to at least).  When I am not focused on my family, I am focused on my post-graduate studies, and whatever time is left over after that I like to backpack as much as reasonably possible.

Thus, I spend the majority of my free time and money on going out into the woods, which I deeply love; and to go there for extended periods of time and distance, I have endeavored to master the art and science of backpacking.  So yes, some of my gear (which is of high quality) might be a bit expensive to some, but as I have observed here on this blog in the past, backpacking compared to other outdoor hobbies can often be much cheaper--for example, next to kayaking, nature photography, hunting, skiing, etc.  If you are looking to save money but still get good gear, I wrote a whole other post about backpacking on a budget.

The style of backpacking that has served me best and allowed me to have the greatest amount of pleasure out of the experience of being in nature has been ultralight backpacking, which if you have been reading my blog at all you already know, if not check out the archives (or Wikipedia) for more information.  My backpacking system has changed a lot over time, quite drastically if you were to compare it my system a decade ago.  But even now, maybe once a month or season, I will learn a new trick from myself or others to improve my system.  What follows is the most current version of my backpacking system, and therefore what I consider at the moment to be "best" for my wants and needs for 3 season use.

What is 3 season use?  Depends on who you ask and where they live, and as of now even Wikipedia has nothing to define it.  My own personal 3 season is from roughly March to November, meaning I could use this gear list anytime during these seasons.  However for summer time (June to August) and winter (December to February) I have different, more specialized systems, which is why I will often call this my "spring and fall list."

The total weight of literally everything I bring with me (full skin out): 8045g (17.7lbs)

Weight of clothing worn: 2299g (5.06lbs)
Base pack weight (no food, water, fuel): 3806g (8.37lbs)

Click here to see a detailed report from the wonderful geargrams website.

Now keep in mind that this gear list, like any gear list, makes some assumptions.  For one, it includes rations for just 1 day (3 meals and 2 snacks), and 1 day of fuel (though if conditions are right, I can always opt to use a campfire).  The above list is more or less the complete list for the most challenging conditions normally present in the earliest and latest parts of the seasons in question, which means rain and/or snow in chilly early March or late November.  Taking this entire gear system, I would feel comfortable going out in nearly any weather (I am not going to risk my life in a storm if I can help it) down to low temperatures of around -4C (25F).  When it is warmer, or say if there is very little or no chance of rain, then I can leave some layers at home, of course.  So this represents the heaviest possible combination, and is by no means a static list.

I very recently updated my clothing system, and made sure to go out and test it to ensure it worked properly.  The test was pretty straight forward, on a chilly night of -3.6C I went out on a long walk, then came back and sat in my backyard with my night layers for awhile to simulate sitting around camp.  I was warm and comfy during both experiments, and only shivered for the first few minutes going out into the cold at the beginning.  With this new system of clothing, I was able to shave nearly a whopping kilo (2.2lbs) of weight of clothing worn compared to my old system.  Efficient warmth does not have to mean thicker, heavier clothing!

Here are some pictures of all the clothing and some reasoning behind my choices.
Wool socks, 88g.  I could go lighter here with shorter synthetic socks, but don't feel like it is worth it.  These are very warm and comfy socks, for one, plus I find that synthetic socks tend to get smellier and get smelly faster.

Cotton underwear, 92g.  Again, could go lighter here, but this is good enough. This is the only piece of cotton clothing I take with me now.  Like socks, I found that synthetic underwear gets stinky, and not as breathable for a part of my body I'd like to be very breathable.  These boxer briefs also double as my swimwear if I want to take a dip, and dry easy either hanging off my pack or near a campfire.  I don't mind going commando, though with the base layer bottoms, it's not as big a deal anyhow.

Merino wool base layer pants, 196g.  Very warm and comfy, worth the small amount of weight over synthetic bottoms, and for some odd reason I don't find bottoms as itchy as tops.  Maybe because I have very hairy legs?

Synthetic base later top, 175g.  I also have a merino wool top, but after trying both on, I found the synthetic one to be more comfortable.  Wool, even merino wool, can be a bit itchy, though it is warmer.

Mexico football jersey, synthetic, 135g.  I wear this over my base layer, or if it is warmer out I can leave the base layer top at home and use the jersey as my base layer.
Synthetic running pants, 155g.  I am a bit concerned about how durable these will be for my needs, as I am at times literally crawling and climbing around rough stretches of nature.  But very light, comfy, and cheap.

Synthetic sweater, 265g.  I'd like to switch this out for a down-feather sweater, which are warmer, lighter, less bulky, and very comfy--but very expensive.  Until then, this is a decent layer, especially for the low price you can pick one of these up for.  This would be the first thing I would leave at home if it was not as cold out.

Windbreaker, 207g.  Very comfy, and my most "stylish" piece of backpacking clothing, even though I got it for very cheap at a clearance sale.
Rain pants, *0g (165g, but noted in my base pack weight, not my clothing worn, as I usually don't wear this unless it's raining/snowing).

Glove liners, synthetic, 35g.

Leather gloves, 105g.  Could go lighter here, but these gloves have not only good warmth value, but also good utility value, e.g. protecting hands while collecting/breaking up firewood, and pot holder.

Rain jacket, waterproof/breathable, *0g (380g in base weight).  I can put this on over everything for a solid amount of added warmth.

Merino wool scarf/buff, 55g.  One of my favorite accessories, can also be used as a balaclava

Baseball hat, 77g.  My least "stylish" piece of clothing with redneck camo, but I love it, good buddy.
Synthetic vest, *0g (210g in base weight).  This is worn at night when it is colder, or as an emergency layer if there is a sudden change in the weather and it is windier/colder than expected.

Synthetic socks, *0g (26g in base weight).  For sleeping, or if my hiking socks get wet, a spare pair of socks.

Synthetic beanie, *0g (50g in base weight).  For nighttime and sleeping.

Not pictured are my shoes, which are a pair of New Balance tough trail running sneakers, which come in at 714g.

And there you have my new and improved 3 season full clothing worn.  Now on to my choices for the big three: backpack, shelter, sleep system.  I should also note that I am by no means sponsored or paid by any of the companies below, nor have I received any free gear for review purposes.

After trying many backpacks out over the years (my go-to backpack for years in my youth was an old army issue ALICE pack), I have finally settled on my favorite for my 3 season requirements.  It is the Mountain Laurel Design Exodus 50 liter frameless pack, and mine comes out at 445g without any shock cord or pockets.

I use a big rectangular strip of generic foam mat as back support, which only adds 40g of weight, and when I get to camp the foam strip acts as my sit/kneel pad.  I was also able to buy this great pack used from a backpacking website for nearly 100 bucks less total than brand new, which goes to show you that you can save money and win out on used gear.

Next, my shelter of choice, the amazing Zpacks Hexamid solo tarp:
At its longest and widest, it is 2.7m x 1.3m (9ft x 4.5ft), and when it is all folded up it can fit into a one liter stuff sack.  With guy lines, titanium tent stakes, and stuff sack the total weight for this shelter is a mere 180g.  To finish off my shelter, I made a ground cover out of a garbage bag and space blanket that only weighs 85g.  I opted to go for a tougher double-layer ground cover to give added protection (and a tiny amount of added warmth) to my sleeping mat, which is often inflatable.

Which brings us to sleep system.  I'll start with the mat, as I just mentioned itIt is the brand new 2012 Therm-a-Rest Neoair Xlite.  With an R rating of 3.2 and a weight of 360g, this sleep mat is hard to beat.  Very comfy, and not slippery either, a common issue with sleep mats.

For my sleeping bag, I opted for the warmth and light weight of a down feather bag.  After buying my first, mid-rage down bag last year, I was very happy with it and wanted to go deluxe and spoil myself a bit.  I say if you are going to spurge anyplace on your gear, it's your sleep system.  Behold, the most awesome sleeping bag I have ever used, the Marmot Plasma 30.

I love pretty much everything about this bag, from the weight of 645g for a temperature rating of 0C, to the colors, to the build in draft collar inside the bag to keep you extra warm and cozy inside.  I don't like the price, but lucky for me, this was a X-mass gift from my dear old mama.  Thanks again mama!  So if you are crazy about backpacking and can hold out until your birthday and holidays, sometimes your family can jump in and hook you up.  Just be sure to try and hook them up too, as best as you can.  Many parents are happy with a hug and more time spent with them.

Well there you have it, a complete run down of my clothing and my big three for this gear list.  You can read part two of this breakdown here, where I go into even more detail, plus you can see the gear in action.  

Looking forward to enjoying yet another year of stomping around the woods with a new and much improved gear system.  Good luck finding the right set of gear for you, and remember that this can and will change ;).