Sunday, March 31, 2013

Cesar's Updated Ultralight 1+ Season Gear List (2013)

Dedicated backpackers are often on the continual quest to put together a "better" set of gear, myself included.  I am constantly--and I consider this part of the backpacking process enjoyable unto itself--checking out gear reviews, trip reports, forums, etc. to gain more knowledge, tips, perspectives, modifications, etc. to the many aspects of both backpacking skills and gear.  Several months ago over the winter holidays I asked myself, after several years of transitioning and then becoming a UL, SUL, and even XUL backpacker: what would be your "dream list" of gear after everything you have learned and experienced?

What follows is the closest approximation of an answer to that question.  This year I have two big section hikes (each about 5 days) planned during my 1+ season (roughly May-September), and wanted to put together the best possible combination of gear for my goals and preferences.  Here is a fairly thorough breakdown of my completed gear list, and I will update this page with any changes to the list before I set out on my section hikes.

The total base weight as of *now (31/03/13) is 3336g / 7.35lbs.  And of course the obligatory geargrams spreadsheet that reflect all my efforts in front of my scale:

(*The only thing not accounted for as of yet is a camera.  I'd like to get a newer, better quality and lower weight camera than the one I have used in the past, which is several years old and weighs 212g.  However this will have to wait for now.)

I will answer some questions that I have either been asked or have asked myself in the process of putting this gear list together.

I packed up my backpack today with nearly everything I plan on taking on an unsupported section hike, and with maximum possible water (2.13 liters).  The total pack weight (including things in pockets and such) was 7595g / 16.75lbs with 4 days of food.

The only thing missing was a few more snacks, plus my first day's rations of food.  My first day out on the trail I like to celebrate by bringing along some perishable foods to eat that day, like sandwiches, fruit, raw meat, etc.  There is enough room for these rations, even without strapping stuff to the top of my pack with the top strap.  If I really pushed it, I could fit 6 days of food in/on my pack, but 5 days is no problem.

Here is everything all packed.  For size reference, I am about 183cm / 6ft tall and 85kg / 187lbs. 

Zpacks Custom Zero backpack: size small (total volume about 33 liters), full hybrid Cuben fabric, sternum strap, webbing hip belt, roll top, front and side pockets, seam sealed (I did this myself).
Note: not my clothing worn, just my normal urban outfit.

While hiking I wear a shoulder and hip pocket, along with my knife on my belt.

SUL Backpacking Person Q: Why go all hybrid Cuben?  You could save several precious ounces with a regular Cuben Zero.

A: As I have written about several times before on my blog, I need something that is more durable and tough because I do a lot of off-trail hiking and bushwhacking.  Also, the hybrid material lasts longer, particularly in strengthening the seams and blocking UV degradation.  I have had the pack for over a year now and it is still in great shape.

Traditional Backpacking Person Q: That hip belt is so small!  Why opt for such a small hip belt?  You could have better support and weight distribution with a solid hip belt.

A: I have never carried more than 10kg / 22lbs of weight in this pack before, so support and weight distribution are not as big an issue for me.  The small belt does provide a marginal amount of both, but I wanted it mostly for two reasons: 1. stability while hiking/climbing (especially in rough terrain), i.e. less shifting and flopping around, and 2. to carry my knife and hip pockets.

Contents of side pockets, hip/shoulder pockets.  Platypus is for raw water only, under the filter is a bladder with the top cut off to scoop and pour water into the Platypus.  Small bottle on the bottom with Mr. Yuck is for fuel--250ml is more than enough for my typical usage during 5 days.  On the orange string is compass, whistle, and mini-LED light; this goes on my neck or in shoulder pouch.  Contents of hip belt in more detail below.

SUL Q: Why so many containers?  You could save one or two precious ounces by only having one Platypus bladder to drink from and nixing the scoop/pour thing.

A: All the containers combined are 90g.  Having just two Platypuses (one clean one raw) would be 50g.  I am happy to pay 40g to have firm bottles that are easy to handle, pour, and fill.  I also like having a dedicated bottle to drink from so I never contaminate my big water bottle with either germs or drink mixes, and I can have easy access to a drink of water while I am hiking.

Trad Q: Are those containers durable?  What happens if they break?  They are all just plastic, after all.

A: Actually they are all pretty strong.  I test any container I take with me hiking to make sure it will survive the grand majority of the wear and tear of trail life.  I do simple drop tests, squeeze them, punch them (obviously not with 100% power, more like 25%), etc. to make sure they are tough.  And in the rare event that any of them break, I can replace them pretty easily in any town I pass.  No matter how small a town, it will have some kind of plastic beverage bottles to buy and/or recycle; and while it is not ideal, I can use most soda bottles to act as my raw water bottle and that fits my filter.

Contents of front pocket.  The two Ziplock bags in more detail below.  Tarp stakes in tiny Cuben sack, head net in tiny blue sack.  While I hike I also keep my daily snacks and lunch in the front pocket, plus maps I am not using (not pictured but included in weight).
First layer from inside backpack: food for the day, snacks, rain jacket, spare socks in plastic baggie, windbreaker.  Easy access items.
Cuben dry sack on the bottom is 2nd layer.  Here it is packed with 9 meals, but could fit a few more.  Above is 3rd layer, cook kit and tarp/ground cover in Cuben sack.
Bottom two bags are 4th layer: clothing in silnylon sack, bivy in Cuben sack.  Above is 5th layer: sleeping mat.

SUL Q: You could save lots of weight by going with a foam pad or a small torso inflatable mat, why not go for those choices?  And why so much clothing?

A: My mat is more for warmth than comfort.  Remember that I live and do most of my hiking in Scandinavia.  Temperatures can drop a lot at night and at dawn, which is also why I include base layers to wear at night/during sleep/morning.  During warmer conditions (which is not as common) I do switch out the mat for a foam one.  I am a bit taller than average, so a torso mat does not give me enough coverage as I would like, and I feel the weight difference between most torso mats and my regular sized Xilte are not worth it.  I admit that having a set of dry clothing to change into at the end of the day before bed is a bit of a luxury, but this also keeps sweat and body oil off my sleeping bag.

Trad Q: For such a low weight sleeping mat, this seems like it is more prone to pop or get damaged.  What do you do then?

A: First of all Neoair mats have a pretty good reputation with all sorts of backpackers.  There are thru-hikers that claim to have used a Neoair for their entire thru-hikes, after all.  If it does get damaged, I have a repair kit, but if I can't fix it a flat Neoair Xlite still has an R-value of 1--plus I can use my backpack frame foam mat as a torso pad, my backpack can go under my legs, and I could use natural insulation (e.g. pine boughs, moss, leaves, etc.) if I really had to.

6th and last layer: Cuben drysack with down sleeping bag.  Foam pad is pack's back frame, also acts as a sit/kneel pad around camp.

The biggest upgrade to my systems was a new sleeping bag and bivy.  My first impressions on both are great, and I look forward to testing them out.  There is a big debate between using a tent vs. tarp/bivy combo for full protection from the elements and bugs/critters, but in the end I decided I favor tarp/bivy combo even though I have a few tents that I love.  I suppose I am lucky in that I don't mind being all cocooned inside a bivy--in fact, I like it a lot.  It makes me feel cozy and safe.

Then there are a lot of pragmatic benefits to using a tarp/bivy combo, the main two points for me are flexibility and weight savings.  With a tarp/bivy shelter system you can fine tune your options for shelter.  No clouds?  Cowboy camp in just the bivy.  No bugs and warm?  Just set up the tarp.  Using a trail shelter?  Use the bivy inside if needed.  Etc.

In fairness to tents, there are some that really are pretty light, but I have yet to see one that can beat my shelter system, which clocks in at 350g.  Some people think that condensation inside the bivy, which can happen, is too much of a drawback*.  With my old bivy (Ti Goat Ptarm) I only ever got minor condensation in the foot box, and it didn't bother me that much.  My new bivy should in theory have even less dampness due to a slightly more breathable fabric top (M50) than my old one (silnylon).

*Note: After doing some tests (see below) I nearly switched out my bivy for a net tent, but have since modified my bivy (again, see below) to effectively eliminate the issue of condensation.  Sorry if this causes some confusion, but for the record my go-to shelter now for section hikes is the tarp/bivy combo detailed in this post. 

But on to pictures of the new goodies:

Zpacks 5C/40F wide and long down sleeping bag, with the Cuben dry sack and packed bivy.
Love the colors!
Bag and fully inflated mat in the bivy.
Bivy has plenty of room.  My three year old son even got inside with me as I tested it out.

SUL Q: Why not just ditch the bivy altogether and just use a bug net to cover your face, like the GG Bug Canopy?

A: I seriously thought about it, but then I would not get the added benefits if using a full on bivy--wind protection, rain spray from edges of tarp, small warmth bonus, etc.  If I have had too many bad experiences with my new bivy by the end of the season, I will either get a Bug Canopy or something similar, or just use a Zpacks net tent that I have and accept a 110g weight penalty vs. this bivy.

Trad Q: Are you really fully protected from the elements and bugs/critters using a bivy/tarp shelter system?  And there has to be durability issues for a shelter that is really pushing the limits as far as weight goes, right?  And if down bags get wet, they don't keep you warm, so what do you do if your bag gets soaked?

A: I have used the tarp in question many times, and you can see it in action in a trip report I wrote here.  It is an outstanding piece of gear that I have a hard time saying anything bad about, and you really do get good protection from the elements with it.  Throw in the bivy, and you really have a solid shelter system to brave most bad weather.  The bivy also protects my down bag from getting wet--as does my seam sealed backpack, waterproof stuff sack, and water resistant shell on the bag itself.  It would be a feat indeed to get my bag totally soaked, like my pack being submerged for a prolonged period of time totally underwater--this is simply not a realistically probable scenario.   

Joe, founder/owner of Zpacks, is a triple crown thru-hiker and has done the majority of his trips with both Cuben shelters and backpacks.  Durability really is not that big an issue with Cuben fiber shelters, not to mention that you don't use shelters for tough jobs, but to keep you out of the rain/snow.  In an email to me, Joe said that he knows of at least one person that has done three thru-hikes with the same .51 Cuben fiber tent.  It is pretty strong against tears, and even if it does get damaged (which can happen to traditional tents too), it is easy to make a field repair to Cuben just using duct tape (which I always carry).

Which brings us to my dinky stuff, which has seen plenty of changes over the years, and is spread out in several different bags.  I have always enjoyed looking over other people's dinky stuff to see what they take.  Here are my updated dinky kits, though a few small items are not pictured (but are included in the weight, see: link to gear grams report above), like ID card, map, house key, etc.  Pretty self-explanatory, but I will note a few things:

The tea bag is in case I need an astringent poultice, and next to it a serving of sugar.  In the bottle is alcohol gel, and next to that is triple ointment.  The pills are paracetamol (for fever/colds), and I have since added a few ibuprofen pills (additional fever medication, aches/pains, etc.) as well.
Pink sticks are fire starters, the tiny bottle is concentrated, biodegradable soap.  Above the TP is a small jar of lip balm.  The round green thing is a spare bottle cap that fits both my water bottles.  The tiny baggie is for ID, bank card, cash, etc.

And that's about it for my updated, dream gear list.  Hopefully I will put it to good use this summer/fall when I plan on finishing Bohusleden, and then next summer I will try and do a large chunk of Kungsleden.

Gear porn?  Perhaps.  But sometimes focusing (obsessing?) on something can really unlock more potential.  And it is nice to sit back and enjoy the momentary feeling of gear nirvana ;)

As always, I will be happy to answer any questions or address any feedback, and none of the above gear was given to me by any companies or anything like that.


* Update 05/03/13:

(See note and further update below this one, I have since fixed the issue this update documents.)

Been trying to find the time to get out on an overnight trip, but life has just been too busy as of late, so I got desperate and decided to test out my new sleeping bag and bivy outside in my backyard last night.  There was some good news and some bad news.

I checked the temperature before going outside around 11:30pm and it was -1C/30F. Clear skies, not much wind. Put down my ground cover, then set up cowboy camping (bivy, sleeping mat, sleeping bag only) to gaze at the stars. I wore my synth base layers, sleep socks, gloves, down beanie from my gear list--plus added a wool buff and light fleece pullover from my normal clothing worn because I am pushing the given rating of the bag, which is 5C/40F. Used my hiking pants and windbreaker as a pillow.

It is much easier getting in and out of a bivy with a side zip, I noticed. I then noticed and was pleasantly surprised how quickly the sleeping bag seemed to warm me up from the chill of the night I got as I set things up. Shortly after getting inside the bag and fumbling around with the zipper I was no longer chilled--very impressed. Was also pleasantly surprised that it was easier than I thought to zip up bottom zipper (just rolled to the side, zipped, rolled back). By the time I had the bag zipped and drawstring pulled so that the bag was snug around my neck, I was nice and warm. After no more than 5 minutes of adjusting the bag a bit and getting comfy, I was fast asleep and quite cozy. I opted to sleep with the bivy hood open to see the stars, and could feel the night chill only on my face, but the rest of my body was quite warm, so this chill was very superficial and no drafts got in at all.

So the good news is the bag passed my first test very well, even with pushing the temp rating, though I do tend to sleep a bit on the warmer side.

The bivy on the other hand... was the bad news. I woke up chilled around 2:30am, and this was in stark contrast to how warm I was before and how fast I fell asleep. I tried to go back to sleep for about 15min before the thought of my nice warm bed just inside my house won out. I was convinced that the temps must have dropped significantly in the time I was asleep, and aborted my test. As I got out of my bag I noticed that the bag was slightly damp on top, and I soon found the inside of the bivy to be fairly soaked. When I got back inside with all my gear I noticed that my sleeping bag seemed slightly deflated than before and was a bit damp on most of the top. I turned the bivy inside out and sure enough, most of the inside of the top was covered with drops of condensation. It was like I had taken a spray bottle to the inside of the bivy, and this is the first time I have had such so much condensation.

I checked the temperature again, and it was exactly the same as it was when I went outside: -1C/30F.

As is clear, I really want the tarp/bivy combo to work because of so many great benefits it brings to the table... but I never want to repeat last night's experience. I have done plenty of bivy nights before, but nothing like this has ever happened. In fact, last April with the same temps and conditions I did cowboy camping on top of a mossy hill in a clearing, and slept quite well and woke up with only minor foot box dampness.

I also managed to finally go on a last minute overnight trip shortly after my backyard test to further test my sleeping bag, and slept in a trail shelter without any bivy or net.  It was a colder night, with lows of -3C/27F.  At first I went to sleep warm and cozy, but this was before the low temps set in.  I woke up chilled in the middle of the night, but put on my windbreaker and my hiking pants, and was able to get back to sleep.  I think I found the pretty much the exact limit of my sleeping bag and clothing packed/worn (I wore everything but my rain jacket)--anything colder and I would not have been able to sleep that well or for that long.  However this bag and clothing system I am intending on using in a warmer season when there is a low chance of it getting to around a low of freezing, and this is mostly for late spring/early fall.

My plan will be to finish my companion trail guide this year after completing Bohusleden.  So if you like trip reports, there should be lots more on the way soon after my section hikes, which I am of course really looking forward to.

Yet another update: I have since modified my bivy and have tested it, and it was a success!  You can read more about that here.  To be clear, I will be using the Zpacks Hex solo tarp / modified Cuben Borah bivy as my shelter system, and this will probably also be used often as my shelter system for 3 season camping as well.