Thursday, December 19, 2019

Best Gear of the Decade and Long Term Reflections on Ultralight Backpacking

*First let me get the same old disclaimer I've been giving over and over again this past decade out of the way: I am not sponsored.  Never have been.  I get no free gear, and never have.  There are no ads on this blog, i.e. this blog is not monetized.  I am not a Youtube partner, i.e. no ads on my channel and I make/made literally no money off of it. 

Introduction and Reflections

The beginning of the 2010's saw me discover and then quickly transition into ultralight backpacking.  It was a pretty fast transition because I saw and felt the benefits of UL for myself in practice right away, and I was soon a die-hard UL convert.  The problem was that at the same time I went back to university and was a struggling student again, so I didn't have much spare cash to put into my rediscovered hobby.  But that didn't stop me, of course.  I had been backpacking well before that, and had used a lot of old army gear and traditional and heavy K-Mart camping gear--both of which are pretty cheap.  I was determined to go UL.

By 2011 I designed and had my wife help me make my first key piece of UL gear, a MYOG backpack that only weighed 445g/15.7oz.  And while of course it had its shortcomings and was pretty minimalist or even a bit crude, it actually worked--and I put it to good use as well.  And it only cost around 10 bucks.  That same year, and for a few years to come, I rocked a cheap but decent MYOG tarp, and my instructions on how to make this tarp still remain one of the most popular posts on my blog.  And I was happy with my makeshift but fully functional UL gear, and went on plenty of great overnighters and section hikes.

I continued to do a lot more UL experiments with DIY/MYOG, while at the same time I saved up for high quality, cottage made gear.  By the mid 2010's I had a very dialed in UL and even SUL set of gear with plenty of fancy UL gear.  And I was happy with my improved UL gear, and went on plenty of great overnighters and section hikes.  But naturally my evolution as an UL backpacker wouldn't stop there, and there was still a fair amount of fine tuning to be done.  I also became less interested in going SUL--maybe I'm getting older and value comfort more now?  By the later part of the 2010's I had sold or given away a lot of my hardcore SUL gear, like my Zpacks Hexamid tarp that weighed a mere 150g/5.3oz, and my small Zpacks Zero clocking in at 240g/8.5oz.

Yet here I am at the end of the 2010's with my most dialed in set of gear, and I can say hands down that this is the best gear I've ever had.  I am the happiest I've ever been in my life when it comes to my gear, and I over the past few years my backpacking trips have never been better.  If you're interested in a complete list of my most commonly used gear lists, I recently wrote a post about these five lists

However this post is about my favorite gear, and will go into detail on specific items that I consider to be the best UL gear for my needs.  It wouldn't be possible for me to jump down the rabbit hole on each and every item I have in my gear closet, so I am going to limit this list to my top ten "big" pieces of gear--stuff that makes up the "big 4" categories of gear (shelter, sleep system, pack, and cook kit).  And I will also do a shorter write up of my top five "small" items--even though some of them are heavier than some of the "big" items! 

But I needed to have some requirements to narrow things down more.  So this list also has the pieces of gear that see the most use out in the field as of now, and that I also plan on running into the ground in the future and have no plans or interest in replacing.  This eliminated a lot of great gear that has more of a niche or specific use throughout the year.  

And speaking of year-round backpacking, I should again highlight that I am a section hiker and random overnight trip taker.  I'm not a thru-hiker, though I have been doing this whole backpacking/outdoors thing as a regular hobby for over twenty years.  I've used all sorts of different gear over the course of these years, and a lot of it... well, sucked.  A fair amount of gear was just not bad or alright.  And some that was good, but not great.  

But this gear I am going to write about now, is fucking awesome.  At least, it's fucking awesome for me here in my neck of the woods.  So keep in mind that this gear is also fine tuned for use in the forests and mountains Scandinavia, which is generally a cold, rainy place much of the year.  And used by a soon to be 40 year old Chicano, happy and thankful to be able to continue this lovely little passion of walking and sleeping outside.

Honorable Mentions

First, here are my top five honorable mentions, and also why they didn't make the top ten big or top five small:

1. Borah Gear down vest - It was a tough to choose between this and another layer, but ultimately for the top ten I chose the one that is used and will be used more.  Plus after many years of use, it's finally getting a bit worn out and may be replaced in the future.  But it served me well and it packs a big punch of warmth for how little it weighs (105g/3.7oz).

2. SOL Escape Lite bivy - It has seen a fair amount use over the years, and if I were to go on a thru-hike in cooler (3 season) temps, I would most likely bring it along.  But its job is just too specific to get used regularly, which is to bump up the warmth and also efficiency of my sleep system.  It keeps my down quilts drier (and thus puffier and warmer), keeps out drafts, reflects back heat, and is also very breathable.  

At only 150g/5.3oz, it's lighter than a lot of single layers of insulated clothing, like say a pair of merino wool bottoms or a light puffy jacket--yet is warmer than any single article of clothing by providing full body coverage and thermal efficiency.  I think it's a must have for any regular section hiker or weekender that gets out year round in various seasons/temperatures.

3. MLD Silnylon Duomid - I just got it this year, so it wouldn't be fair to put it in my top ten!  But I have very strong first impressions and really look forward to putting it to good use, especially up in the fjälls.  And fully loaded (paired with a silnylon solo XL inner net, bungee cords, guy lines, drysack, 10 stakes) it clocks in at 970g/34.2oz, which is lighter than a lot of tents, even some UL tents.  Considering that this is also a palace for one and adequate for two, it provides such excellent 360 degree protection from the elements, is much less bulky than DCF/Cuben, quick and easy to set up, and it has such a high HH (5,000mm), that's pretty amazing.

4. Lems Boulder Boots - I really like these shoes, and they get a lot of use--I just don't love them.  They are not the best hiking shoe, and I think this says more about the state of the market of minimalist/zero drop/barefoot hiking shoes.  I've tried various different kinds of these types of shoes that are favorites among us ULers, but there are some deal breakers for shoes that I have that have prevented me from falling in love with any pair of hiking shoes.  

I want a pair of high top hiking shoes that are zero drop/barefoot, durable, are very breathable/have little to no insulation, and are not super expensive.  These don't exist as far as I am aware.  The Boulder boots are high top, zero drop, durable, and are only somewhat expensive.  I will have to keep on looking for the perfect hiking shoe for me, but until then the Boulder boots are good enough.

5. Generic 100% Merino Wool base layer -  There is no need to pay big bucks for base layers, if you ask me.  When I was a struggling student back when I discovered UL, I used generic polyester base layers, and they worked just fine.  Weight was low, warmth was decent, and pretty cheap (20 bucks for a pair) but the stink factor (they get smelly only after a few days) and general comfort (I prefer the feel of merino on my skin) were issues.  So after a while I kept my eyes peeled for merino wool base layers from a generic brand and eventually found merino/synthetic blends for a good price (40 bucks for a pair), and switched to those.  

Then finally I upgraded to 100% merino wool, and it only cost me about 65 bucks total.  The top and bottom are from different generic brands, and I got each of them on sale at different stores.  And they work great and get lots of use!  Decent weight (185g/6.5oz for the top, 165g/5.8oz for the bottoms), great warmth and comfort, and it takes a lot for them to stink (roughly a week).  

They don't make the top ten because they are nothing revolutionary or ground breaking, and in a pinch a generic poly base layer or a blended fabric are not bad as an alternative.  But this is one place where most people can spoil themselves a bit and pay the extra bucks and go with a generic brand (or name brand in the bargain bin or on sale) 100% merino wool base layer.  And these certainly get used a lot for the majority of the year, and will continue to be used as a key layer.

Top Five Small Things

Going left to right:

1. Anker II 6700 battery - 145g/5.1oz with charging cable.
It's light, it's small, it charges my phone and headlamp.  More than enough for weekend trips, which is nice because then I don't have to worry about jamming out to music, taking lots of pictures/video, etc.  But on week long section hikes it's enough so long as one is more careful with rationing energy.  Yet if you find a nice little cafe or pizzeria in a small town to re-charge it, you're good to go with no worries of energy.

2. Sawyer Mini water filter - 50g/1.8oz (dry) filter + 30g/1.1oz bladder = 80g/2.8oz

Yes, it requires maintenance, such as back-flushing and soaking in bleach water and vinegar water (here's a good video on the subject for those who don't know), in order to keep a good flow.  But if you are willing to put up with this slight inconvenience, I think this is the best option for water purification.  If I were a thru-hiker, however, I would go with the regular sized Sawyer filter, which has a better flow rate and is easier to maintain.  But for me as a section hiker, I can enjoy the lower bulk and weight of the Mini, and have been doing so for like half a decade now.  

The Mini also can filter over 375,000 liters of water, so it will likely last a lifetime of section hikes, if you take good care of it.  Yet to replace one, it will only set you back like 20 bucks--which is what I would do if/when I need to.  Chemical purification requires you to resupply pills or drops--not to mention the questionable issue of adding more chemicals to your body.  UV lights need batteries, and are bulky and fragile by comparison.  For me the Sawyer filters (both the Mini and regular size) are going to be hard to beat.

3. Sea to Summit Xcup folding, silicone mug - 45g/1.6oz

Some more hardcore UL people (especially all you SUL peeps) would scoff at this admitted luxury item of mine.  But I love it and it always comes with me.  It's just so damn useful, easy to pack, and for what it does it's light and very durable.  I use it to fill my water bladder, drink hot drinks, as a container for wild edibles, as a lid for my wife's bowl, even as a paperweight (e.g. maps, train tickets, etc.), etc.

4. Opinel No.07 folding knife - 40g/1.4oz with cord and mini s-clip

I am cool with a lot of ULers taking the tiny Swiss Army knife, which seems to be the most popular UL knife of choice.  But I find a bigger knife like this much more useful for cutting up food, opening packaging, making simple wooden tools (e.g. chopsticks, skewers for campfire cooking, butter knives, etc.), cleaning up wild mushrooms, making feather sticks to help get a fire going, etc.  Yes, the lil' Swiss Army knife comes with tiny scissors, and I can see the appeal of that for thru-hikers to trim nails and such.  So for a thru-hike I'd take a tiny pair of nail clipper along with this knife to cover pretty much all the cutting bases.

5. Nitecore NU25 with Litesmith mod - 35g/1.2oz

Best headlamp or flashlight I've used for backpacking, period.  Another example that is going to be hard to beat.  Good battery life, good brightness when needed (max 360 lumens!), low brightness when you are just chilling in your shelter, also has a red light, etc.  What's really impressive is that it only weighs only about 5g more than the headlamp I used for years at the beginning of the 2010's--Petzel E-lite, with a crappy max 30 lumens!--yet is so much better in all regards.

Top 10 Big Gear

Now on to the main course.  They are in no particular order.  All have been put to the test and represent what I think are the pinnacle of backpacking gear for my needs.

1. Mountain Laurel Design DCF Burn backpack, 2018 version - 450g/15.9oz with a few small mods

What can I say that I've not already said about the Mountain Laurel Designs DCF Burn?  I've already done a video on it, and also did a review of it as part of a trip report over on Reddit, where I wrote:

"Holy shit. It's finally happened. I've got pretty much the perfect pack: 9.7/10. I love it. Best backpack I've ever used. Sometimes I will walk into my gear closet and just look at it and daydream of the potential trips in the future. I had thought for several years now that if/when I finally get around to doing a longer hike like a thru-hike, I'd go for my Zpacks Arc Haul. I figured for a thru-hike that with the added food and a few luxuries to push my BPW to around 4.5kg (I usually have 2.5-4kg BPW for section hikes 3 season), it would be best to go with my framed pack. My new Burn is now my go-to pack for everything except short SUL summer trips and heavy winter trips, and will be my pack of choice for a future thru.

The wider Prophet shoulder straps are amazing, significantly better than my older Burn. The front pocket clip is improved, and the front pocket in general is slightly larger and holds stuff better. My mods on the side pockets and the sternum strap worked great. We packed a bunch of bulky/heavy luxury food and I had no problem with space up top. I am soooooo glad I decided against chopping the hip belt off! Not only is it really comfy, but I discovered something great about having larger padded hip belts on a frameless pack: they double as lumbar pads when not in use! When I didn't need or want to use them, I could fold them behind the pack and against the small of my back, and it was like a little pillow back there! Great while road hiking and sweaty to vent my back, as it also creates a nice gap back there.

Yeah, so I have nothing bad to say about this pack. And the mossy green buckles are dope, IDK what the fuck the haters were saying, MLD should bring them back."

2. UL Enchilada 35F/2C quilt - 455g/16oz

Size reg/long, 9oz of 950 fill goose dry down, 2.5oz Apex insulated footbox, 0.75oz Membrane 10 ripstop nylon, plus 4 clips with bungee cord on the bottom

The best quilt I've ever used, and better than any sleeping bag I've used too.  I consider myself lucky, as this is a quilt you can't buy anymore.  For a short time another UL nut and all around nice guy named Ryan, who goes by ULenchilada on Reddit, made and sold quilts independently as a hobby.  Recently he stopped taking orders to focus on getting his Ph.D, which is totally understandable.  But wow is he great at making quilts (and lots of other gear)!  I love this quilt!  I contacted him after seeing his work on Reddit and asked him to make me what is essentially my dream quilt.  

He sized it perfectly for my body, and also did custom work like put in a Climashield Apex insulated footbox rather than down.  I wanted this because over the years I've noticed that the footbox of my bags or quilts tended to be less puffy in the mornings and even a bit damp, which is due to all the water vapor that feet produce in a night.  I had it made with one of the best dry-downs on the market, and we agreed that it should be conservatively rated.  After testing it out, it was excellent.  On several occasions I've pushed it down to around or slightly below freezing and slept quite well (with proper layers, of course).

This is my go-to quilt for the majority of the year.  The only time I wouldn't pack this quilt would be the height of summer or in deep winter, or if/when I travel north to colder conditions.  Paired with my SOL Escape Lite bivy, this would be an excellent combo for a 3 season thru-hike that I am confident could deal with cold snaps down to around -5C/23F, and would be very efficient at regulating a constant issue here in Scandinavia: humidity.  The dry down on its own deals better with moisture, but in a bivy (the SOL or a typical UL bivy) the condensation/vapor is wicked out all the more.

Thanks again Ryan.  I really do appreciate your talents and wish you all the best.  Zpacks and Enlightened Equipment ain't got nothing on you, man.  Looking forward to spending plenty of time inside this quilt in the 2020's.  Speaking of sleep...

3. Thermarest Xlite, size regular - 350g/12.3oz

I don't really need to write much for this one.  It's already been more or less established that this is the gold standard for not just UL backpacking, but backpacking in general, when it comes to inflatable sleeping mats.  And with good reason.  Odds are you already know about all about this mat and maybe even own one yourself.  I have found the criticisms of this pad to be exaggerated as well, like that it is "noisy."  Not an issue for me.  I sleep great on it and always have.  I had one that started to de-laminate and I was sent a new one under the Thermarest warranty, which only makes owning this mat all the more worthwhile.

I've been so happy with this mat I wasn't even tempted by the new Uberlite mats that came out somewhat recently.  I am fine with having more durability and warmth for a difference of only around 85g/3oz.  Let's stick to sleep, shall we?

4. Exped Ultralight inflatable pillow, size medium - 50g/1.8oz

I've tried so many different pillows and pillow replacements over the years.  From foam to other inflatable pillows to stuff sacks full of various gear to no pillow at all.  And this is my favorite pillow of them all.  It's just as comfortable as other inflatable pillows I've tried that weigh twice as much, and more comfortable than foam or pillow replacements.  

Even the SUL crazies are packing pillows more and more now a days compared to the early 2010's.  Seriously, if you don't pack a pillow to "save weight," you're doing it wrong.  You'll sleep better, and you can find good and very light weight pillows like this one out there.  I've put three pieces of gear in my top ten that are related to sleep for a good reason: good sleep is worth it.

5. Borah Gear 7x9 (2.1mx2.7m) silpoly flat tarp - 320g/11.3oz
Seam sealed with 2 ridgelines, 6 guylines, and two mini carabiners


6. Borah Gear Dimma bivy - 180g/6.3oz
Argon 67 and mesh top, silnylon bottom, two guy lines

I have made several videos related to this tarp and this bivy, so be sure to check out my Youtube channel if you haven't already.  Here's one where you can see both of them in action.  I've discussed the pros and cons of the various UL fabrics many times over the years.  And at the end of this decade, after testing and trying out several different tarps and bivys, this is my favorite tarp and bivy combo.  Yes, they are both slightly heavier than their DCF versions.  But weight shouldn't be everything you consider when you go UL.  Over the years less bulk, ease of use, and abrasion durability won out over less weight, ease of repair, and tear durability.

I also chose these two pieces of gear for their flexibility of use.  I can use them year round below tree line with relative ease, and they can be adapted for use with the terrain or trail shelters.  This is also something I've written and spoken a lot about over the years: the benefits of a modular shelter system.  I only seem to like it all the more as time goes by.  Some things reach a certain level of efficient simplicity that it becomes a challenge to improve on it, and this shelter combo is an example of that.

But of course this shelter system is not perfect and is not for all occasions.  For example, when it is peak bug season here in the summer (July), a bivy would not be my first choice to pair with a flat tarp.  That's when a net tent comes in handy so you can have more space to escape the relentless multitude of bloodsucking pests.  But the bivy gets far more use when there are less bugs in the spring, early summer, fall, and early winter.

If you paid close attention to a few of the pictures above (or watch the video linked above), you'll see the next piece of gear that makes my top 10:

7. My Trail Gear silnylon Poncho/Tarp - 200g/7oz

For many years I used a Golite poncho/tarp and loved it.  Great rain gear, pack cover, and also a front door/vestibule for my tarp shelters.  It got worn out eventually and I replaced it with what is essentially the same company that got rebranded: My Trail Gear.  They sell a lot of the same or similar gear, such as this poncho/tarp.  But I was pleasantly surprised to see that there were improvements to the poncho/tarp.  The seams were taped, as you can see in the picture above, and the hood and neck fit better.  I don't know why poncho/tarps are not more popular in the UL community.  I've been discussing their advantages for a long time, for example here on Reddit, where I go into much more detail if you are interested in the nitty-gritty on everything poncho/tarp.

8. Custom Mixed Esbit Cook Kit* - 185g/6.5oz

Titanium pot, mini Bic lighter, Ti-Wing Esbit stove, titanium wind screen, DIY aluminum ground cover, Sea to Summit hardened aluminum spoon, small rag, and a plastic bag.  

*Yeah I know I am cheating a bit by choosing a set of gear as one choice in my top ten, but it functions as a whole, and I am not about to waste spots on just a pot or a spoon.  So I say cook kit counts as one.

Most of the year, I'm all about hot meals and drinks, and this kit has been the same for quite a while now.  It has served me well, and also my wife and kids on duo and family trips.  At times Esbit fuel can be hard to find, but with proper planning/stockpiling, it's not a big deal.  And yeah, it does smell a bit funky, so keeping it in a good stink-proof container is essential I'd say.

Just like there is a DCF vs silpoly debate in the UL world, and a down vs synthetic debate, there's also an Esbit vs alcohol vs canister stove debate.  But Esbit is easy to use, easy to extinguish (just blow it out), can be counted and measured easier than other fuels, and is easy to store and is very low on bulk.  Just right for a minimalist like me.  I don't mind waiting a few extra minutes for my water to boil, so it's all good.

9. Treadlite Gear Hybrid DCF shoulder bag, with strap mod - 55g/1.9oz

I've also done a video on this bag a few years ago, but it was more of a first impressions review back then.  Since then I've only grown to love this bag even more and have put it through its paces.  I replaced the strap and strap buckles with some that I had sitting around to make it more comfortable, as I prefer a slightly thinner strap that stays out of the way more, and as an added bonus it's also a bit lighter.  

I've always preferred shoulder bags/satchels to other pack accessories like hip belt pockets and fanny packs.  This one is by far the best one I've ever used.  The three pockets make it easy to store and organize small things I need while I am hiking, and I especially like the net pocket to store my water filter, water bladder, and folding mug.  That way I can fill up on water without having to take my backpack off on trail, and when I put it my wet water purification items back they have a place to dry off without getting anything else wet.

I can also throw snacks, train/bus tickets, gum, and lots of other small odds and ends in there.  But one of the biggest conveniences is having a quick, easy, and practically waterproof place to store my phone/camera and paper maps.  These items see the most use, and it's great not having to think about them, always having them literally by my side when I need them with quick and easy access.  Other small things that live in this bag are my knife, compass, and headlamp--two of which I covered earlier (see: above).  But now on to my final choice.

10. Enlightened Equipment Torrid jacket, size large - 285g/10oz
Hooded, 20D nylon outer shell, 10D inner

As is the pattern here, I've done a video on this jacket before that you can check out.  And again with time this has proven to be a stellar addition to my kit.  This jacket makes me question if I will ever go back to down puffy jackets.  It really does beg the question of how relevant down puffies are now and in the future as insulating layers for backpacking, especially in a humid environment.  This synthetic jacket is just as warm as down jackets that I've used, yet for the same or nearly the same weight.  This means you get all the pros of synthetic (e.g. warmer when damp/wet, easier to wash and repair) without the con of it being heavier than down puffy.

It's comfortable and fits me well (I am 183cm and around 84kg), and is the layer I am most thankful to put on when I am taking a lunch break and a cold breeze is blowing, or sitting around camp when the temps are dropping, or there's a cold snap at night and I need to bundle up in my quilt.  Much like my favorite quilt (see: above), this layer also sees quite a lot of use year round.  In the summer I will swap it for my Borah vest, and in deep winter I will switch it for my big, winter down puffy.  This would surely be a packed insulation layer I would take on a thru hike here in Scandinavia.


So there you have it, what I think is the best UL gear of the decade.  While this list may come as no surprise for anyone that has followed my blog or Youtube channel, I thought it would be nice to have this also serve as a big follow up or long term review of several key pieces of gear.  It's also good to reflect on one's choices and evolution.  Doing this, what I can say in summary is that my time spent walking and sleeping out in nature is easier, simpler, more comfortable, warmer, drier, and overall just a better experience for me.  If only I could get out there more!  But more trips are on the horizon, and I look forward to writing a best gear of the 2020's, and continuing to evolve and reflect on it all again in the future.

Ten years.  Hundreds of pieces of gear.  Thousands of stars in the sky.  Millions of footsteps.  Billions of leaves.

It's been a good decade.  I wish anyone reading this happy trails where ever you may hike, and may you have better decades to come.