Monday, May 1, 2017

The Cost of an UL Backpacking Kit Revisted, Spring 2017


*Update 07/05/2017: A member of the UL forum on Reddit was nice enough to create a TLDR summary of all the gear.  So if you want to get right to the full gear list, scroll all the way down to the bottom of this post.  Thanks to u/cwcoleman!

The most popular post on my blog right now (and for a while now) covers the cost of a good yet affordable set of UL backpacking gear for a beginner.  That was roughly three years ago, and I while I still think it's a pretty solid gear list, of course I have given plenty of thought on how to improve or expand on this conceptual gear list.  So here's another crack at it, but this time with a few changes to the given context going into this project, and naturally some changes in gear selection as well.

This new gear list is aimed more at either a traditional (i.e. "heavy") backpacker with some experience that wants to transition into a solid UL kit right away, or someone new to UL backpacking that has already tried things out with cheap/borrowed/DIY gear but now wants an upgraded and improved set of UL gear.  Some of the gear mentioned you may already have, or maybe even something just as good or better.  In which case, the transition to UL will be even cheaper and easier.

If you are entirely new to backpacking and the outdoors in general, then this gear list is probably not for you.  I suggest you start with some entry level cheap/DIY gear before you move on to a bigger transition like this, which is more of an investment of both money and future free time to actually get out there and use the gear.  Remember, not everyone likes or becomes passionate about wilderness backpacking, and it can be a fairly demanding activity.  You can read more in depth advice for new backpackers here.

Yet another way to look at this gear list is with a hypothetical: if my house were to burn down tomorrow and most of my gear with it, the new gear list I would buy to rebuild my gear closet would be more or less the same as the one this post describes.  And for anyone that is new to my blog and my experience, well stick around here long enough and you'll see that I'm pretty crazy about the outdoors--and especially UL, long distance, wilderness backpacking.  That's why I've been backpacking for over two decades now, got into UL around 7 years ago, and still pretty much everyday I daydream about getting back out to the woods.

Another change to this gear list is that I am also going to allow for a larger budget, with a max of 1000 USD to get some top-of-the-line pieces of gear.  So if you are a ramen eating, frugal student that is pinching pennies to get by, then this is also probably not the gear list for you.  There are already plenty of cheap and not bad solutions out there for you, some of which I already covered before, which will cost you between 500-650 USD.  

My advice to anyone that is of lower income but has a passion for the outdoors is to simply be patient and save up, so that in the future you can just get good gear as soon as you can.  I suffered through using heavy, ineffective, bulky, and generally pretty crappy gear for years in my youth--and there is simply no need for this!  I wish I would have discovered UL backpacking sooner and avoided all that 2nd hand army surplus gear.  

Speaking of being frugal, you can also have the cost of this gear list go way down if you buy used or on sale.  And in the meantime while you save up, you can still get out and have a good time with passible and even decent budget gear.  1000 bucks may sound like a lot all at once, especially if you are of meager means, but if you can save up 100 bucks a month, in less than a year you'll have it saved up.  Don't forget that everyone has friends and family and holidays where gifts are involved (e.g. birthdays, Christmas, Eid al-Fitr, etc.), so make sure the people that love you know about your UL wishlist!

Finally to anyone that may still claim that UL backpacking is "expensive," I (still) challenge you to compare this gear list to other hobbies and how much they cost to see if that claim actually holds much water.  Sure, there are some hobbies that are more affordable--say bird watching, for instance, where all you really need is a decent pair of binoculars and a field guide on birds.  But as I have mentioned before in videos and forums, when compared to other outdoor hobbies like hunting, traditional backpacking, kayaking, scuba diving, etc., it's really not that bad, and is even in the realm of affordable. 

Plus when you get a solid gear list completed, it is intended to be used after all, so get out there and run it into the ground.  You may be surprised how good quality UL gear (with common sense care and maintenance, of course) can last you.  There are plenty of pieces of gear that I still use that I've had for years, some that have seen nearly a decade of regular use (for a section hiker).  I mean, you can look at plenty of thru-hikers out there that often reuse a significant amount or even the majority of their gear on multiple long thru-hikes.  A solid set of gear is built for longevity and durability, or at least it should be.  Those UL triple crowners simply wouldn't have been able to do what they did/do if UL gear didn't work and/or wasn't durable.

Assumed Conditions/Givens

Obviously I can't create a gear list for every season, location, and situation.  But my goal here is to put together a gear list that can be used on longer section hikes, or even certain thru hikes, under the right conditions.  These "right conditions" being temperatures that match a somewhat wide range of the typical high season of wilderness backpacking in temperate environments.  Or in other words, from generally late spring, summer, and early fall in a lot of places all over the world.  For example: May in many parts of the USA (e.g. Pennsylvania, Oregon, Maine, Minnesota, etc.), June in much of Scandinavia, December in a good deal of New Zealand, January in a fairly large portion of Patagonia, etc.  And obviously this is for leisurely backpacking as well, not mountain climbing/expeditions or extreme conditions, it should almost go without saying.  

In short: think possible lows of around freezing (30F/-1C) during a cold snap, but generally temperatures that are roughly 40F/4C to 50F/10C as a low at night and early in the morning.

Prices and weights I will round up for conservative estimates of both, and in some cases I will also point out some alternatives and will note some pros, cons, and differences in price and weight.  Prices are also based on the USA, which is currently the best place to get UL gear in the world as far as I am aware, and are the current prices on either the relevant UL cottage company website, or Amazon.  So of course things like shipping and customs will be factors that rise the price if you live outside the USA, but lucky for you Americans, I'm pretty sure everything on this gear list has free shipping.  

Don't loose all hope, non-USA residents!  There are some solutions to these price factors, but requires some extra planning and resourcefulness.  For example, do you have a vacation or business trip to the USA coming up?  That's the time to stock up on gear while you are there.  Or perhaps you have a friend or family member that is coming to visit you?  You could order gear to them if they are nice enough to help you out and bring it over to you.  Make sure to buy them a beer or two and/or cook them a nice meal for their efforts, naturally.

The Big Three (sleep system, shelter, backpack)

1.a. MYOG (make your own gear) hoodless, synthetic sleeping bag or quilt.  

I am avoiding the down feather option here to keep costs and labor lower, and synthetic insulation has the added benefit of being lower maintenance than down as a plus--though at the cost of added weight.  My first true UL sleeping bag was synthetic, and I loved it and got great use out of it for several years.  If you stick with UL backpacking for a while, you can save up later to get into the world of down feather bags/quilts.  

I find having both synthetic and down bags/quilts to be great additions to my kits as a perpetual section hiker, so I can really fine tune my sleep systems to the specific trip and season.  A good synthetic bag/quilt is also great to use as an overbag on top of a down bag in the winter, so that way you don't have to buy an expensive winter bag that you can only really use for a few months of the year.  You'll not only be warmer using this double bag system, but the down sleeping bag will also be drier and require less maintenance (i.e. airing/drying out), as the synthetic bag will wick your body vapor and/or any dampness out of the down bag.

But how do you make this MYOG bag or quilt?  Either you sew it yourself if you already have a sewing machine, or you know someone that does and can help you.  In the case of you knowing someone, like say a friendly family member or friend, trade labor for labor.  For example, they make you the quilt, you shovel snow in their driveway or mow their lawn or do their laundry for say a month.  Included in the cost of the sleeping bag or quilt I am also including the price of a large pizza, because this person is doing you a solid, so why not hook them up with a nice pizza on top of the labor exchange.

Go to Ripstop by the Roll (or your outdoor DIY store of choice) and order materials.  It's about 80 USD for five yards of .66oz Membrane 10d nylon, two yards of 5oz Climashield Apex insulation, and whatever hardware you prefer (cord locks, zipper, snaps, buckles, etc.).  You can then make (or get made) your custom built bag or quilt.  Weight will depend on the size of the bag/quilt and how many accessories it has, but for say an average sized man and slightly taller woman around 70 inches/180cm, it should be around 20-23oz or 550-650g.

There are plenty of instructions and patterns that you can Google, or just come up with on your own.  The insulation does not need to be baffled, so this project is a glorified sandwich of nylon-insulation-nylon that is pretty straight forward.  I recommend having a draw string around the neck of the bag or quilt to snuggle up and keep in heat when you sleep.  This bag or quilt would be rated roughly to 30F/-1C, but remember that everyone sleeps at different temperatures.  If you sleep cold, I'd suggest you also invest in a silk or synthetic bag liner or SOL Escape Lite bivy to use with your sleep system.  They are fairly inexpensive and lightweight too.  And don't forget a warm hat and tops with hoods.

So let's call it an even 100 USD for the bag or quilt (remember, buy the person that helped you a pizza), and let's go with the higher end weight of 23oz/650g.

1.b. Neoair Xlite or Thermarest Zlite Sol sleeping mats

I am choosing size regular for both, but weight can be saved by trimming or sizing down.  The Xlite and Zlite are two of the most common choice of sleeping mats for us gram geeks, and with good reasons.  They are simply two of the very best sleeping pads money can buy.  They are both light, durable, and depending on your preference, comfortable for sleeping on the ground.  Both have their own pros and cons, and for me each has their place depending on what kind of trip I am going on.  I will say this: the Xlite gets more use.

The Xlite is more expensive, and if it is damaged will only provide a fraction of its warmth and comfort as a deflated mat.  You also have to blow it up and then deflate and pack it every day, which let's face it, is kind of annoying.  Yet it is warmer than the Zlite, and many other lightweight inflatable pads for that matter.  And if you have trouble sleeping on foam pads, then an air pad is the clear option.  But if you are fine sleeping on foam, prefer not bothering with the added chore of inflating/deflating, and value the peace of mind of not having to worry about a punctured mat, then the Zlite is for you. So let's compare the brass tacks of each pad:

Current cost on Amazon: 160 USD (Xlite) vs 45 USD (Zlite)
Weight: 12-13oz/340g-370g vs 11-12oz/310-340g
R Value: 3.2 vs 2.6

From my experiences, most people get a better night's sleep on an air mat than a foam mat, so for this gear list I will use the Xlite.

1.c. Generic Inflatable Travel Pillow

Searching around on Amazon, there are various reasonably priced and lightweight air pillows.  From my experience, it's worth the small amount of weight for a better night's sleep.  Cheap and easy fix at between 15-20 USD and around 2-3oz/60-85g.  There are lighter options that will cost a bit more, or you can just stuff some clothing in a stuff sack.

2. The Classic, Modular, UL Shelter System: Tarp and Net Tent or Bivy

A flat tarp combined with either a net tent or a bivy is one of the best, most versatile, flexible, efficient, effective, and with some practice, easy to set up shelters, period.  Find two trees with some flat ground between them, or one tree and one stick/trekking pole, or two sticks/trekking poles, and you have a way to pitch your tarp.  A person experienced with pitching tarps can easily have one tightly pitched in under 10 minutes, no sweat, working at a normal pace.  Maybe even under 5 minutes if such a person hasn't had dinner yet!  Here is a video of me showing off my flat tarp and net tent if you are interested.

Let's start with the tarp, and I always recommend going with a flat tarp rather than a shaped tarp (i.e. mid or cat cut) for the most flexibility to pitch many different ways, though you will most likely only want/need to pitch it two or three ways.  The A-frame, half pyramid, and lean-to are my go-to pitches.  Also good as a front door to a trail shelter to keep out wind/rain/snow, or just for privacy.  This time around I will not be including a poncho/tarp, which are for the more experienced/hardcore minimalists out there.  Though if you are the type, I highly recommend and use the MLD silnylon poncho/tarp.

There are debates as to what the best size for solo use is, with the more hardcore minimalists generally opting for 5x9 ft rectangles, but there are 10x10 ft options and beyond for very spacious protection from the elements.  I have a 6x9 ft flat tarp that I find is pretty much just right for my needs, spacious even.  But let's find a happy medium that will make the most people happy as far size, weight, and cost all go.

Yama Mountain Gear has a great reputation in the UL community, and they have a 7x9 ft flat tarp with great looking specs at a reasonable price, 125 USD including seam sealing, guy lines, line locks, and stuff sack.  They are also using a new and very waterproof fabric, which is the newer generations of silpoly (silicone impregnated polyester, similar to silnylon).  This tarp clocks in at 13-14oz/370-400g.  Throw in some good quality tent stakes and some ridge lines and two mini-carabineers, of course, which you should already have--if not these are very cheap and easy fixes.

Next up for shelter are the two things that go under the tarp.  The first thing is easy, which is the ground cover, so let's get that out of the way: buy a SOL emergency blanket, cut it in half, and now you've got two fairly durable and waterproof ground covers for about 5 USD.  They can also double to be used for signaling or warmth in the rare event of an emergency, and the peace of mind this provides is also nice to have.

If you are claustrophobic, or just prefer to have more space in an enclosed shelter, Yama also sells solo net tents for 145 USD--no seam sealing, as I don't see the need to have a net tent seam sealed--that clocks in at 11-12oz/310-340g.

Or you can go with a bivy, which has certain benefits.  Easy to set up, for one, especially if the skies are clear and you're just going to cowboy camp, or for sleeping in trail shelters.  UL bivies also are generally slightly lighter than UL net tents.  My favorite bivy is the one I designed myself that is made by Borah Gear.  It's a custom bivy called the Dimma bivy (you can read more about it here), but there are a few complications in ordering it at the moment.  They are currently not taking new orders so they can catch up on their orders, as they are a small cottage company.  The Dimma is also not (yet) listed on their website, so you need to email them and ask for it by name.  

Not sure what the cost will be once new orders are taken again by Borah Gear, so I'll hold off on that for now and update this info later on.  My Dimma weighs 8.3oz/235g with stuff sack and guy lines.

3. MLD Dyneema X Prophet, 48 Liter, Frameless Backpack

Simply put, MLD is one of the best producers of UL gear and have one of the best reputations out there with us gram geeks.  I have an older MLD Exodus pack that I really like, though it's usually too big for my needs--but great for family backpacking trips.  And MLD have since further improved on their already pretty sweet packs.  Extremely durable material, and for a frameless pack, MLD's shoulder straps are very comfy.

The options on this pack are also great, in that it has things you need and not too many bells and whistles you don't that will just weight it down.  Side pockets for me are a must, as is a top strap, and the side straps are also very useful to have.  As a frameless pack, to give it structure and padding, you just fold up your sleeping mat and use it as back support.  Cost is 195 USD, and it clocks in at 16oz/455g.

Another good alternative for a pack that has pros of saving some money, but cons of being slightly heavier and also has less volume, check out the Gossamer Gear Kumo.  It costs 165 USD and comes in at 19.6oz/555g, and has a total of 36 liters of volume.  It's not the pack I'd want to take on a thru-hike, personally.  But would be great for section hikes, weekend trips, and the like.  I have an older Zpacks Zero that was my go-to pack for section hikes and overnight trips for years that is only around 33 liters, and it worked out great for me.  That being said though, when I upgraded to a newer Zero, I opted for a slightly larger volume (as well as a few more extra features) of around 41 liters for longer section hikes.

Big Three Summary:
MYOG sleeping bag/quilt, 100 USD and 23oz/650g
Neoair Xlite size regular, 160 USD and 13oz/370g
Generic inflatable pillow, 20 USD and 3oz/85g
Yama 7x9 silpoly tarp, 125 USD and 14oz/400g
Yama solo silpoly net tent, 145 USD and 12/340g
Tent stakes x10, 0 USD and 4oz/115g
Ridge lines and x2 mini-carabineers, 0 USD and 2oz/55g
SOL emergency blanket ground cover (trimmed), 5 USD and 1.5oz/45g
MLD Prophet, 195 USD and 16oz/455g

Total cost and weight of the big three: 750 USD, 5.5lbs/2515g

Now on to the rest of the gear.  What I won't cover is any clothing worn or packed (other than rain gear), because not only do you probably already have some good clothing around to use, but preferences and sizes can be all over the place.  I will also assume that you have a smartphone, which can serve as your camera, GPS, internet, etc., and will not include that or its accessories in cost or weight either.

Rain Gear

MLD rain chaps, 45 USD and 2oz/55g

IKEA rain poncho, 9 USD and 7oz/200g
This can also be used as a pack cover and front door/vestibule for your tarp.  Not quite as good as using a poncho/tarp, but will get the job done, and can't beat the price.  This poncho has received some good reviews from UL backpackers somewhat recently.  

You can also get a Frogg Toggs poncho on Amazon for around the same price, or a few bucks more.  The Frogg Toggs poncho weighs a bit more at 9oz/255g, though I will mention that this brand has a good reputation in the UL community, especially the rain jacket.  I prefer a poncho (rain gear, pack cover, and front door of your shelter is hard to beat!), but if you prefer to go with a pack cover or liner and a rain jacket, then Frogg Toggs is a good, light, and very affordable choice.  But for this gear list, because it's slightly cheaper and lighter, I will include the IKEA poncho.

Water and Cooking

Sawyer Squeeze water filter (regular) plus 1 liter bladder, 26 USD and 4oz/115g

Recycled plastic water bottles, 750ml x2, 0 USD and 3oz/85g

Esbit Ultralight folding stove, 15 USD and .5oz/15g
I find Esbit fuel easy to use, store, and it's also pretty light.  I prefer the 4g small cubes to have more control over how much to use.  Can be harder to find this fuel at times/places, but with proper planning this is a non-issue.  Fuel can also be used as emergency fire starter, of just if you are lazy/tired and want to get a fire going quick.

If you prefer using alcohol fuel, you can also make your own alcohol stove for free using tin cans and such, just Google it and you'll find lots of options.  No cook is also common in the UL world, which will save you more money and weight, but will require more planning and research--and you don't get to have warm meals or beverages.  No cook UL hikers usually just have a spoon and a waterproof, recycled plastic jar (e.g. big peanut butter jar) to rehydrate meals and eat out of.

Bic lighter, 1 USD and 20g

Toaks titanium long spoon, 12 USD and .7oz/20g

Toaks titanium 700ml pot, 40 USD and 3.2oz/90g

Heavy duty aluminum foil DIY wind screen, 0 USD .5oz/15g

Sea to Summit 8 liter dry bag (for food), 20 USD and 1.2oz/35g

Health and Safety

Generic but good quality compass, 15 USD and 1oz/30g

Mora knife and plastic sheath (basic stainless steel model) 10 USD and 3.7oz/105g

Black Diamond Gizmo Headlamp, 20 USD and 2.1oz/60g

Biodegradable soap of your choice (repackaged) 5 USD and .7oz/20g

Small can or bottle of bug repellent, 5 USD and 2.6oz/75g

Bug head net, 10 USD and 1.4oz/40g

Small bottle of sunscreen, 3 USD and 2.1oz/60g

First aid kit (Ziplock bag with a handful of band-aids, ibuprofen, anti-bacterial ointment, etc.), 5 USD and 3.5oz/100g

Toothbrush and mini toothpaste tube,  3 USD and 1oz/30g

Additional gear total: 244 USD and 1170g

Odds and Ends

Last is some stuff that is most likely laying around your house that is good to have in your kit.  This stuff is pretty much free or you've already got it.  There was some stuff above that also falls in the category, but as I said before, I wanted to have a conservative estimate as far as cost goes.

Water resistant stuff sack for your sleeping bag or quilt, .7oz/20g

Recycled plastic bottle, cut in half to pour water into filter bladder, doubles as a mug, .4oz/10g

1 liter Ziplock bag for diddy bag, waterproof electronics, etc., .4oz/10g

Bandana or small towel, 1oz/30g

Toilet paper, 1oz/30g

10m paracord or thin nylon rope, 1.8oz/50g

Book of matches, .4oz/10g

Duct tap wrapped around a pen, 1oz/30g

The Grand Total:

994 USD and 8.5lbs/3875g 

Now to be clear, I would not call this a full BPW (base pack weight), but it certainly covers almost all essentials, and even includes some fancy gear and luxuries.  And as I noted earlier, there are some options (like the Zlite and/or a bivy and/or a poncho/tarp) that can lower both cost and weight.  

From here what will further complicate things are the tricky things I left out, which is clothing and phone/electronics accessories. You will need some packed clothing, such as spare socks, a sleep hat, and a warm layer for sitting around camp/sleeping/cold snaps.  And as far as electronics go, you're probably going to want to have an external battery charger (e.g. an Anker) and some cords and such.  

Then there are packing accessories such as hip belt and shoulder pockets and the like, but not only can you DIY/MYOG solutions for that, they only add a tiny bit of weight (1-3oz/30-85g).  Personally, for the past few years now I have been happily using a plain old DIY, nylon satchel where I keep things like maps, snacks, my phone, etc.  Super cheap and easy fix, and can be made out of all sorts of good scraps of fabric you might have laying around, like Tyvek or nylon.

But once again, you probably already own some or all of these things, so what we're left with is weight.  It is still entirely possible to get under the traditional UL benchmark of 10lbs/4.5kg, but honestly for me there is little difference from that weight and 11-12lbs/5-5.5kg.  I use 11lbs/5kg as my own "max out" BPW for trips in the conditions outlined above, and for the past few years rarely hit the trail over 9lbs/4kg BPW.  

It may not seem like much of a difference to someone unfamiliar with UL, but when comparing a 5-7lb/2.3-3.2kg UL BPW vs a 9-11lb/4-5kg BPW, there is a huge amount of differences when it comes to comfort and luxuries.  And while there are times I have gone and would still go to those lower UL/SUL weights, most of the time I find that a small amount of added comfort and luxuries are totally worth it, especially on longer trips.  Yet that being said, I also think it is a worthwhile endeavor to try out a spartan, SUL trip to see what it's like.  You'll likely learn a lot and really fine tune your gear and technique.  But first nail down a solid, dialed in UL kit that works great for you, and I hope this gear list can help you accomplish that goal and/or give you perspective on some good possiblities, options, and combinations available.

That about wraps things up.  I hope all this is helpful!  Please feel free to ask questions or give feedback, and I'll pose some questions to the readers of my own.  Did I miss a key piece of gear?  Do all the numbers add up correctly?  What other options do you think should be considered for a good starter UL gear list?



The Big Three
MYOG sleeping bag/quilt, $100 and 23oz
Neoair Xlite size regular, $160 and 13oz
Generic inflatable pillow, $20 and 3oz
Yama 7x9 silpoly tarp, $125 and 14oz
Yama solo silpoly net tent, $145 and 12oz
Tent stakes x10, $0 and 4oz
Ridge lines and x2 mini-carabineers, $0 and 2oz
SOL emergency blanket ground cover (trimmed), $5 and 1.5oz
MLD Prophet, $195 and 16oz

Big three total: $750 and 88.71oz

Core Gear
MLD rain chaps, $45 and 2oz
IKEA rain poncho, $9 and 7oz
Sawyer Squeeze water filter plus 1 liter bladder, $26 and 4oz
Recycled plastic water bottles, 750ml x2, $0 and 3oz
Esbit Ultralight folding stove, $15 and .5oz
Bic lighter, $1 and .7oz
Toaks titanium long spoon, $12 and .7oz
Toaks titanium 700ml pot, $40 and 3.2oz
Heavy duty aluminum foil DIY wind screen, $0 and .5oz
Sea to Summit 8 liter dry bag (for food), $20 and 1.2oz
Generic but good quality compass, $15 and 1oz
Mora knife and plastic sheath, $10 and 3.7oz
Black Diamond Gizmo Headlamp, $20 and 2.1oz
Biodegradable soap, $5 and .7oz
Small can or bottle of bug repellent, $5 and 2.6oz
Bug head net, $10 and 1.4oz
Small bottle of sunscreen, $3 and 2.1oz
First aid kit, $5 and 3.5oz
Toothbrush and mini toothpaste tube, $3 and 1oz

Core gear total: $244 and 41.27oz

Odds and Ends
Water resistant stuff sack for your sleeping bag or quilt, .7oz
Recycled plastic bottle, cut in half to pour water into filter bladder, doubles as a mug, .4oz
1 liter Ziplock bag for diddy bag, waterproof electronics, etc., .4oz
Bandana or small towel, 1oz
Toilet paper, 1oz
10m paracord or thin nylon rope, 1.8oz
Book of matches, .4oz
Duct tap wrapped around a pen, 1oz

Odds and ends total: ~$6 and 6.7oz

The Grand Total: ~$1000 USD and 8.5lbs/137oz/3875g

*Minor update: About half a day after posting this, I went back and fixed up some typos and also added a few more details and points.  Also forgot to mention that I am still not sponsored by anyone.