Thursday, January 23, 2014

Cesar's Complete Gear Combinations for 2014: Introduction

It has been several years since I began going through a kind of backpacking metamorphosis.  Now, however, it feels more or less complete.  I have very few items on my wish list, and only minor upgrades and changes in mind for the future.  Having an Ultralight and/or Super-ultralight perspective can really open up doors and potential when done properly.  And let's just face it, aside from all the abstract hippie theory ("It's like, a state of mind dude--not numbers and stuff,") sometimes found in the lightweight backpacking community online, having good UL/SUL gear and clothing is a part of this process too.  

I now look at maps with much more excitement than I did several years ago, knowing that not only do I have the experience and knowledge to take on most of what nature can throw at me, but hiking up all those hills and putting in more kilometers is easier and more fun than before.  Backpacking for me is better now than it ever was before, and I have been at this for nearly two decades now.

Last year over the winter holidays I sat and ruminated over the ways I could polish and improve my gear for my most active season, roughly from May to September.  I made some adjustments, got a few upgrades, and my 2013 +1 season gear list really served me well last year.  This past winter holiday, as I again sat around after eating a bunch of pickled fish from the Julbord, my daydreams of the adventures to come were much the same.  As was my perhaps somewhat obsessive deconstruction of what would make the best combination of gear for a given set of conditions.

This time, I gave more thought to different conditions, and the various different types of gear that would be best suited to them.  The two biggest determinants of what I take with me on backpacking trips are temperature and if I am going on or off trail/bushwhacking, and I wanted to organize my thoughts into something more concrete, and something in more detail than my previous efforts--hence this series of blog posts.  I began to write out some notes on paper of what I did in my head when I packed my stuff from my gear closet for a given trip, and tried to turn this process into more of an open ended and yet pragmatic formula.

On or off trail is pretty cut and dry, but not temperatures.  It might sound easy in theory, but when I tried to figure out what my own personal, subjective levels of comfort are for my own personal, subjective definitions of temperature... well, it got a bit tricky.  What is "cold" to me?  What temperature range does this represent?  What are my best gear choices based on all this?  At first I tried to just divide all the temperatures into uniform increments (should it be units of 5?  10?), but that didn't reflect what I experienced.  Yet eventually something coherent came together as I sat and tinkered around with numbers and reflected back on past trips, as I will soon show.

The first thing I usually take into consideration when planning a trip is the lowest temperature in the weather forecast, and try to plan accordingly.  The temperature affects several different sets of gear like clothing, sleep system, and cook kit.  Having used gear enough to know how it preforms and what its limitations are is essential in building an effective set of gear, and this is especially true with gear that is more tied to the various aspect of weather.  

Next, much less complicated, is the aspect of on or off trail.  If I am going off trail I generally take more items for safety or "just in case" because of the obvious complications of being more isolated, dealing with rougher terrain, and often being further from civilization and/or marked trails.

Before I further delineate these two perhaps most influential aspects of my gear lists, there are also some things which I naturally take for granted that ought to be mentioned to the reader.  Things I account for automatically and don't give much thought to because that's just the way it is.  So here are some givens:

  * I am a section hiker, not a thru-hiker.  Be it a section of marked trail, or a section of raw wilderness.  This means I usually take trips between 1-5 days, and this is due to family and work obligations.  If I won the lotto, then I'd be a thru-hiker!

  * I live in Sweden, and will spend 2014 only backpacking in Sweden--though I may also do a few trips to Norway if possible.

  * I am mostly a very active hiker.  This means I often hike all day, go swimming, explore interesting natural features (caves, cliffs, bodies of water, etc.) I might bump into, harvest wild edibles, and more.  I keep busy, and I'm usual too restless to just sit around at camp--unless I am traveling with friends, because who doesn't like to sit, relax, and hang out with friends?  However I usually go solo, especially for longer and/or more involved trips.

  * I nearly always bring clothing to shield me from precipitation.  Unless the weather reports have clear skies for my entire trip and there is an extremely low chance of precipitation, I'll pack something for rain/snow/hail.  Here in Sweden there is what perhaps many people (not Scots or PNW people) would call a lot of precipitation.  Thus for me adding a third aspect of precipitation is pretty pointless, as it's rarely relevant.

I divide my gear lists into three broad categories made up of two more specific sub-categories, all based on temperature.  I will focus on two of these three categories in these gear lists.  These are just guidelines for me when I pack for a trip, and are not set in stone.  If the forecast calls for temps that are hovering in between categories, I will just mix in some gear to play it safe.  Please note that the subjective terms I chose below for the sub-categories are/were to help organize my thoughts and just give them names, and the numbers reflect *my own personal experiences with the gear in question (*obligatory "hike your own hike" disclaimer).  

Also note that the numbers represent the lowest projected temperatures expected on a given trip, not average temperatures.  In each gear list stuff that never changes (i.e. stuff I always bring) is sorted first, then gear tied to temperature is worked out next, followed by how on or off trail affects things and why, and finally a total base pack weight plus clothing/items worn weight for both on and off trail is given.

I will not bother with consumables, total pack weight, or full skin out weight.  Just not interested--this changes so much based on my mood alone that I find it frustrating to do different estimates for food/water/booze/etc.  Footwear is not discussed in detail in these gear lists, but to read more about what kind of shoes I use for backpacking and why, check out my related article on footwear.

One last detail about format.  In most of my previous gear lists, I used's spreadsheets to create full reports of my gear.  However since I am going to be covering four different types of gear lists for use in two different types of situations (on and off trail), it would be too much work and with too many redundancies to make potentially eight different spreadsheets.  So I'm kicking it old school and just going to list items and their weights, and when I feel it's needed or nice to have a visual, throw in some pictures along with these figures.  Most weights will be in grams.  Deal with it.

Okay, now that I've gotten all the givens and background information out of the way, here is how I divide up my gear lists and the gear lists themselves:

4 Season Gear and Clothing
Frigid (-15 to -9 C / 5 to 16 F) to Very Cold (-8 to -3 C / 18 to 26 F)

3 Season Gear and Clothing

Cold (-2 to 9 C / 28 to 48 F) to Cool (10 to 15 C / 50 to 59 F)

I am currently not interested in backpacking in temperatures lower than what I call "frigid"--everyone has their limits, and for the record my coldest night out to date was -18C.  Rarely do the lowest temperatures go higher than what I call "cool" here, so no need to make a "warm" or "hot" gear list (this year at least).  I had initially intended on doing a breakdown of a "warm" gear list when I first started this project, but have since decided that it's not really worth it.  If you just check out my "cool" list and swap out a handful of items, you're generally good to go--and cotton becomes relevant and useful again in warmer temps, so this is cheap and easy to do.

I did eventually get around to doing a breakdown of my summer gear list, and even made a video about it.

For those of you that have been following my blog or have read some of my other gear lists, you'll see a lot of familiar items--this (the test of time) I think speaks volumes about the quality of these items.  I try quite diligently to find the best gear for my needs and that I can afford, and go backpacking roughly one trip per month, so for me to regularly use something means it's passed some pretty high expectations.

I hope that these gear lists are informative, helpful, and for fellow Gram Geeks maybe even enjoyable.  Constructive feedback, as always, is encourage and appreciated.

Updated 23/06/2014 - Edited out the prospect of doing a "warm" set of gear lists.

Updated 30/06/2014 - Added link to my summer gear list for this year.