Backpacking

I was a backpacking nut as a kid (mostly in the Boy Scouts) and have become a nut again the past few years (this post was written in 2014).

I post my individual trips in the Travel section of this website.  This post is to explain what I’ve learned about backpacking, what and how to pack, and other tips and tricks that might prove helpful.

I’m a big believer in lightweight/ultralight backpacking.   I believe that the less weight you carry the more you enjoy your trip.  I am a lightweight backpacker (less than 20 lbs. base weight) and not an ultralight backpacker (less than 10 lbs. base weight).  My base weight on my John Muir Trail trip was 16.5 lbs.  Base weight is the weight you carry on your back and body minus food and water.  Fully loaded with seven days of food and two liters of water my backpack weighted 29 lbs.  Water is the worst weight offender.  A liter of water weighs one kilogram (2.2 lbs). The primary reason for not going ultralight is that I want hot food and a bit more comfortable sleeping situation.  I can do 20+ miles a day in the High Sierras with 16.5 lbs. of base weight.

Below is my equipment list for a High Sierra backpacking trip:

Core Gear:

Clothes:

  • Sun hat – Sunday Afternoons Adventure
  • Bandana
  • Trekking shirt
  • Trekking pants
  • Down jacket
  • Rain jacket
  • Sleeping shirt
  • Hiking gloves
  • Warmer gloves
  • Rain gloves – Mountain Laurel Designs
  • Fleece hat
  • Socks (2 pair)
  • Underwear (two pair)
  • Crocs (only if there will be a ton of stream crossings)
  • Running tights (only for really cold trips)

Miscellaneous:

  • Trekking poles
  • Sunglasses
  • Toothbrush/paste
  • Chapstick
  • Mosquito head net
  • Bug repellant
  • Head lamp
  • Ear plugs
  • Biodegradable soap
  • Salt pills – Thermotab
  • Knife
  • First aid kit
  • Repair kit
  • Lighter
  • Umbrella (when in desert-like conditions) – Golite
  • Maps
  • Pen/Paper
  • Cell phone/charger
  • Cash/credit card

Equipment always starts with the carrying vessel.  I used this GoLite Jam 50 for my JMT trip and it was fantastic. At 1 lb. 14 oz. it is 2-3 pounds lighter than most other backpacks. Even fully loaded at 29 lbs. it was very comfortable. It is also very affordable. I couldn’t be happier with this backpack and also own the Jam 35 (for shorter trips) and the Jam 70 (in case I ever need to do a really long trip or carry a bunch of extra stuff).

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Inside the backpack I have a waterproof, clear Pack Liner from Mountain Laurel Designs. As a lightweight backpacker you most likely won’t be carrying a tent.  As such, it is imperative that you have a method for keeping your sleeping gear dry.  This sack does the trick beautifully. It was worth the $5 because I like the liner being clear so I can see my stuff inside. If you’re on a budget your ordinary garden variety garbage sack will serve just fine.

[pic of Pack Liner]

For three season backpacking I don’t use a tent. I use a Bivy Sack (essentially a tent-like bag that keeps you dry and warm).  I prefer a bivy for several reasons.  One, it is very light compared to a tent (1 lb.).  Two, it is really fast and easy to set up at the end of a long day of hiking and stow back in your pack in the morning.  Three, I find it much less stuffy than a tent. I sleep better with some fresh air to breathe. And four, I backpack to be in nature. You feel much more a part of nature when you can see (and feel) all of it that is around you.

There are several negatives to a Bivy Sack.  First, It is harder to stay dry in a heavy rain. For this reason it is imperative to carry a tarp or poncho if you use a bivy. Hardcore ultralight backpacker often don’t carry a tent or bivy, just a tarp/poncho. Because I carry a down sleeping bag this is too much of a risk for me. Wet down is dangerous in very cold weather as it loses its insulation qualities.

I have spent many stormy and rainy nights in my bivy. Once you learn how to set up your tarp/poncho you’ll stay warm and dry in all but the wildest of storms. In that very rare instance that you get snow or crazy rain storms you’ll stay dry, but you won’t get a lot of sleep.

Many backpackers prefer tents because of the two Bs – bugs and bears. If you are in a hot, muggy and buggy climate then I would agree that a tent will work better against bugs. Where I usually backpack (in the mountains), I find a Mosquito Headnet and long sleeves works almost as effectively. Bears are a different matter. Logically a person can understand that a bear could, with one swipe of its paw, obliterate any tent. That said there is undoubtedly a psychological advantage to a tent. And it’s not just bears. Raccoons, snakes, etc. all scare many people.  A tent provides more protection, both physically and psychologically. And lastly, a tent provides more privacy. If you are on your honeymoon I would suggest bringing a tent.

A final consideration: tents take a long time to dry when they are wet. They are heavy to begin with, and heavier still when wet. I love to wake up with the sun, get my s**t packed fast, and get on the trail within 15-20 minutes of waking up. Even if my bivy is wet a few shakes gets 80% of the moisture off and what is left doesn’t weigh much. I pass many camps when I already have several miles under my belt where backpackers are waiting for their tents to dry.

Speaking of getting packed up quickly, my bivy is the rare example of using a stuff sack.  Normally I don’t use stuff sacks (more on this later). My bivy is usually a little bit wet or dirty when I wake up. I carry it inside my pack so stuffing it in its sack keeps everything cleaner and dryer.  Here is a pick of my bivy stuffed. It weighs 1 lb.

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Here is a pic of my bivy with my Therm-a-Rest ProLite inside. Notice how the corners are rounded to save weight. I have experimented with a few different sleeping pads. Ultralight backpackers often use a 2/3 or 3/4 length pad. For both warmth and comfort I choose to use the ProLite which weighs in at 1 lb. It is still pretty skinny and my hips are usually sore for the first couple of nights of a trip. A trick I learned is to roll up your rain jacket and place it beside your sleeping pad. The pad isn’t quite wide enough for my torso and having my rain jacket there is both more comfortable and keeps me from rolling off the pad. An added benefit is that your rain jacket is right there in case you need it. I this pick you can see the sleeping pad in the bivy with the rolled up rain jacket:

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Tip: Don’t use the stuff sack for the Therm-a-Rest for two reasons.  First, every ounce counts. Get rid of them whenever you have a chance. Second, getting that Therm-a-Rest into the stuff sack is a pain, especially with cold, stiff fingers. I use a velcro strap I got from REI to hold the Therm-a-Rest together. Much lighter and faster.

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Your sleeping bag is a personal choice. Every lightweight or ultralight backpacker I know uses a down bag because if its light weight. Maybe one day a lightweight synthetic option will be invented, but for now down is it. As previously mentioned it is imperative that you keep your down bag dry. That said, condensation builds up in most tents and bivys. There is usually a bit of moisture on your bag when you wake up in the morning if you slept inside the bag. Note: unless it is raining or really cold I sleep with my sleeping bag on top of the bivy. If it starts to rain or gets cold I get inside quickly.

I currently use the REI Halo +25 sleeping bag. The +25 means that it is rated for 25 degrees Fahrenheit. Some ultralight backpackers use a quilt (no down on the bottom). I personally don’t take a chance with the sleeping bag. Your life might depend on it. Even in August I have woken up in the High Sierras with frost on my bag or bivy. If you get hit with a bad snowstorm and have to weather out a couple of days I want a bag that might weigh a little more but will keep me warm (provided I keep it dry!). REI doesn’t sell the Halo anymore and I’m looking forward to upgrading to a lighter bag that is rated to 30 degrees.

Think about your sleeping bag carefully. I think it is the single most important piece of equipment. A mummy style is essential in my opinion. There have been many nights where I had nothing but a small hole for my exhalation exposed. The warmth your body can create in a down mummy bag can be unbelievably comforting.

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If you aren’t going to carry a tent, and you aren’t psycho, you must have a tarp or poncho. I use the 7 oz. GoLite Tarp/Poncho and love it. It take awhile to learn how to set it up so I’m going to show a few pics to help you learn faster than I did. I watched several uTube videos which gave me some ideas.

The GoLite Tarp/Poncho is approximately 8′ X 5′.  You can set it up in several different configurations. I don’t carry tent stakes in the Sierras because there are always plenty of rocks or trees and because the ground usually isn’t conducive to stakes. Plus stakes, even light ones, have weight I don’t want to carry! I carry several different lengths of very small rope and wrap them around rocks. One improvement I am working on is getting different colors to represent different lengths (for speed).

Here is one of the easier ways to set up your tarp. I was at Evolution Lake on the JMT. The wind was coming from the direction of the picture. I used one trekking pole and made the windward side act as a windbreak.

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Here is a different configuration. It was raining hard and I needed to cover me and my equipment a bit better. I used both trekking poles here. This configuration takes longer to set up. If the wind is blowing everywhere this configuration won’t work well either. In every case your bivy sticks out of the bottom and gets wet (but that’s what it is for!).

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I’m not a huge fan of spending multiple soggy nights in pouring rain. Most of my backpacking is done in the West where you will most likely get no rain, or an afternoon rainshower. As such I usually don’t even set up my Tarp, but just have it behind me ready to pull over my head. This below pic from the Trinity Alps is illustrative. Usually I don’t even use a Trekking pole. Because the fallen tree was there it just took a couple of minutes to set up so I did. If I get a sprinkle in the night I’ll just get in my bivy and pull the tarp over my body. Note: If you think it might rain and you want to sleep comfortably set up your tarp! I’ve learned this lesson the hard way. When the tarp is draped over you it is stuffy and loud with heavy rain. You likely won’t sleep well. If your tarp is set up you’ll sleep cool and comfy all night.

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In the above pic you can see there there is a plastic groundsheet under my bivy. This keeps your equipment clean and dry and weighs very little. Many backpackers use a piece of Tyvek house wrap that you can scrounge from a construction site.

Here is one last look at why you should sleep with a bivy. This is on the Grand Staircase of the JMT. On the ledge down below me and slightly to the right is a tent that looks like a rock. Which experience would you prefer?

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To round out my sleeping experience I use a blow up pillow – Pillow X by Klymit.  Yes, I’m a wimp. In a world where every ounce counts I have three things to say in my defense. First, this weighs only 2 oz. Second, I don’t carry enough clothes or have a stuff sack large enough to make a pillow. Third, I sleep like crap at altitude. This pillow helps me sleep.

Judge me as you wish but this sucker is worth the extra 2 oz. for me.

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While we are on the subject of wimpy let’s talk about another piece of gear that ultralight purists consider wimpy – a cooking system. Most ultralighters don’t carry one, and just eat uncooked food. This is another area where I’m willing to carry a bit of extra weight for comfort.  I use the Jetboil Sol TI.  It is a mostly titanium system that weighs 8.5 oz. (not including the fuel).  Here is a pic:

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I use it only to boil water for freeze dried meals, tea, coffee and bullion. The fuel cannisters weigh 3.5 oz. In the High Sierras one will last me for approximately seven days (boiling twice each day). So, the weight price for me to have hot food is about 12 oz. For the comfort of a tasty hot meal every day I’ll carry it!

I eat freeze dried backpacker meals. My favorite brand is Mountain House. These meals are a bit bulkier than Backpacker’s Pantry but taste much better in my opinion.

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You just tear off the top, fill with two cups of boiling water, wait for about fifteen minutes, and chow down on a tasty hot meal. I carry this spoon – the Alpha Light Long from Sea-to-Summit.  It weighs only .4 oz. and has a long handle so you can eat right out of the bag!

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I also carry a simple plastic cup with which to drink hot beverages such as tea, instant coffee and most importantly, bullion (for the salt). I got this one at REI. It doesn’t matter which one you use as long as it is super light weight. I also use this cup for scooping water into my water bladder.

Your water bladder is one of your most important pieces of equipment. Pay close attention to this purchase as your life might depend on it. Bladders fit inside your backpack, right up against your spine. I use the Platypus Big Zip 3 Liter. I’ve experimented with several different brands and this is my favorite.

[Pic of Platypus]

You’ll be getting this in and out of your backpack a couple of times a day. I picked this one because I really like the weight and ease of use. The zip makes it really easy to get water in and the ability to snap off the drinking hose is awesome.

I don’t carry a water bottle (too heavy).  I carry a very lightweight water bag – the Platypus SoftBottle 1 Liter.

[Pic of Water bag]

You can almost get away with no water bag, but I find the convenience of having water at hand in camp is worth the 1.2 oz. Plus, you might find yourself in a situation where you need to carry more than three liters of water. This does the trick.

Filtering or treating water to prevent illness is a subject of much debate. Preventing Giardia is the primary objective.

Bear canisters are required on many trails. Although heavy, they are certainly the right thing to do environmentally (keeping crappy human food away from bears) and do serve some useful purposes.  Here is a pic of all the bear canisters I own.  On the right is the Garcia and the two on the left are by Bear Vault.

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Of the two brands I much prefer Bear Vault.  They are a bit lighter and far more usable.  The good things about carrying the extra weight are 1) Your food will also be safe from bugs and other critters (in addition to bears), and 2) The canister functions as a pretty comfortable seat.

The only negative about the Bear Vault is that it is really hard to open, especially in cold weather, without knowing a trick.  Watch this video on Youtube.  Don’t leave home without an old credit card!!

Clothes

I’m going to talk a lot about clothes.  The first order of business is to bring the MINIMUM!!

I carry two hats the first is for sun protection.  This is particularly important for me as I am bald.  I use the Sunday Afternoons Adventure Hat.  It looks dorky but is a great hat for sun protection and is lightweight.  It is also great in the rain in that it keeps the rain out of your face.  Here is a pic of me near the top of Mt. Whitney with my trusty hat.

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Supposedly humans lose 40% of their heat from their head.  As a baldy I’m guessing I lose more than that.  As such I alway carry a fleece beenie style hat for warmth. From a safety perspective it is foolish not to carry one.

In the above pic you can see a couple of other pieces of clothing I recommend.  First is your trekking shirt. The one I’m wearing is from Kuhl.  The brand isn’t important. What is important is that this shirt is a light color (unless you want to roast in the sun). It should have long sleeves that you can roll up easily, and should be lightweight and made of moisture wicking material. This shirt has great breathability around the armpits. Don’t ever use cotton for your trekking shirt.  You’ll be sweating all day long and this shirt will usually be wet.  Unless it is really cold I wash this shirt every day during the hot part of the day. Yes – it will be dirty as hell, and smell bad.  That’s the price you pay when you backpack.

I only carry one other shirt – a camp t-shirt. I prefer to sleep in cotton. As soon as I get to camp and get washed up (more on that below) I put on the relatively clean t-shirt and my down jacket if it is cold.  Here is a pic of camp clothing. You can see fleece hat, t-shirt and down jacket.

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For the down jacket you don’t need to buy a super expensive one.  Just make sure it is as lightweight as you can find. If it is very cold you’ll end up keeping it on in your sleeping bag (as well as your fleece hat).

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