The How (AKA Obligatory Gear Post)

Less than a month to go! One month from today I will be starting my hike. I have to be honest, the nerves are setting in.

This is insane. Am I in good enough shape for this? What if I can’t hack the mileage? Did I buy the right gear? What about the record snow levels this year? Should I buy more/different gear? 

The answers to those questions is something along the lines of:

Yes. Start slow and build up. Your gear is fine. You’ll learn as you go. Don’t panic buy any more gear, seriously – your gear is fine.

This is another post that may require some definitions so let’s deal with that right off the bat.

Base weight: The weight the pack and all the gear within, excluding consumables such as food and water.  Worn items (clothes, shoes, trekking poles etc.), are not considered to be part of the base weight. When I talk about “pack weight” in this post, I am referring to the base weight. 

Ultralight: a philosophy of gear that involves lightening your pack as much as possible. While specific numbers of what qualifies as an ultralight kit do vary by whom you ask, a kit with a base weight of less than 15lb is often considered “lightweight” and anything under 10lbs is “ultralight”.

Once upon a time, people would hike the PCT with heavy, external frame packs that could weigh over 30lbs. Sometimes even as much as 60! How those champs managed to carry that weight from border to border is beyond me. These days we have advanced engineered materials that can allow us to reduce pack weight significantly. We can have sleeping bags that are warm and weigh around one pound. We can have tents with poles that are light, flexible, but still strong enough to hold up in a storm. And once you bring down the weight of your gear, the weights of the packs themselves also drops. If your gear is going to weigh less than 20lbs, you don’t need a monster backpack rated for 60. A lot more hikers these days are going for internal frame (or no frame) backpacks, which can weigh less than two pounds. Compare against the 30lb base weights of the past – I’ve seen packs posted in the past few weeks that weigh in at 6lb. Amazing.

That's a heavy bag.

When I hauled that beast onto my back, I remember being stunned by how heavy it was.

This is the pack that I brought on the Bruce Trail last summer. At the time I’d already started reading about ultralight backpacking philosophy and trying to reduce the number of things I brought hiking. I had made a stop at Cabela’s en route to pick up some last minute gear, so when I got to the trailhead and went to load it all into my bag…it didn’t even fit! I was hiking alone for the first time, so I had brought more gear than previous trips. It turned out, I didn’t have enough space in my pack for everything. I cut some food from my bag, filled the exterior pockets and left some things behind that I had planned to bring. In the end, I didn’t miss anything I’d left behind. And let me tell you, that was not a fun pack to haul up and down the Niagara Escarpment.

Why work so hard to reduce your pack weight?

Several reasons. The first is that you can hike further when you’re carrying less. If you can hike further, then you need to carry less food and water between resupplies and water sources. That reduces your pack weight even more. And secondly, it’s easier to hike when you’re carrying less. You’ll enjoy yourself more if you don’t feel like a pack horse. And you are far less prone to injury when carrying a lighter pack.

Okay, so how do people cut so much weight from their pack?

For example, I am not planning to bring a pillow. My pillow is a tiny inflatable camping pillow that weighs 2.5 oz, and I’m not bringing it. I’m not insane – hear me out. I also swapped my trowel for one that weight 1.5 oz less, chose to bring my 2oz mini multitool instead of my 9oz full sized one, I got a pot and stove combination that weighs around 10 oz total (my old stove weighed 7.5 oz alone and the pot was another 11). I hope you can see that a few ounces here and there are very quickly adding up to a full pound of weight. Don’t even get me started on Nalgenes – those things weigh 6.2 ounces empty! Grab a Gatorade or SmartWater bottle, they weigh less than 2 ounces. It happens faster than you might think. By making a few small sacrifices, you can drop your pack weight significantly. Also, if anyone still thinks I’m mad for leaving a pillow behind, I’ll just put extra clothes into a stuff sack for a pillow – my down coat is nice and fluffy.

I met a guy a few months ago who was selling Mountain House camping meals for cheap on Kijiji. I told him about my upcoming adventure and he was absolutely thrilled. We met up again the next day so he could show me his ultralight pack (that thing weighed less than 1.5lbs), and some other camping gear. We talked for quite a while and as we parted, he left me with this adage:

Two is one. One is none.

Catchy, right? It means that if you have a piece of gear that has two or more uses in your kit, bring it along (two is one). If you have a piece of gear that only has a single purpose, don’t bother (one is none). The mentality behind this is to encourage versatility in your tools. Use your clothes as your pillow. Bring a multitool that has a knife, scissors, corkscrew, bottle opener rather than having to bring multiple items with a single purpose. Buy a shelter that uses your trekking poles to support it rather than bringing tent poles along. By using each piece of gear for several purposes, you cut down on the  total number of items required.

That leads me into the next tenant of ultralight hiking – minimalism. The most obvious way to bring down your pack weight is to simply bring less stuff. Coffee press? Not necessary. Frisbee? Only if you use it as your plate too. More serious hikers might choose to bring no electronics at all. This all sounds very spartan – and frankly a little boring – but it boils down to choosing your luxuries. My luxuries include bringing my e-reader and an extra pair of  warm socks to wear while sleeping. Some people bring a fancy camera, or a coffee press, or a lightweight cribbage board (props). It’s when you want to start bringing all of those things that the weight starts creeping up.

In review, the main aspects of ultralight hiking are:

  1. Engineered materials
  2. Small sacrifices add up
  3. Tool versatility
  4. Minimalism (choose your luxuries)

Okay. Now that we’ve discussed the ideals of ultralight backpacking, let’s get to the point of this post – my PCT gear. Here is all (most) of it laid out:

IMG_20170406_201906

Not pictured: My flip flops (at work), my Sawyer Squeeze water filter and Snow Peak LiteMax stove (both still in the mail), and my sun hat/SPOT locator (haven’t bought them yet). I also forgot to put my toque in the pile because I wore it biking the other day. Everything is laid out on top of my sleeping mat (REI inflatable, in the middle) and my sleeping bag (Enlightened Equipment Revelation 20F, right).

Sad to say, despite all my big talk about ultralight, my gear does not weigh in under the UL benchmark. However, my goal was to have a base weight ideally around 15lbs (maximum 20) and I am currently weighing in at just under 17lbs. Not bad. I obsessively weighed every piece of gear that I owned, and compiled all the information together at lighterpack.com.

lighterpack 06AR17

Note that the bottom two categories are weighing in at zero – those are my spares and specific items that I will not require for the entire hike. If I break/lose/wear out something in my kit, I can get my parents to mail me my spare, or I’ll buy online and ship to my nearest resupply location. Seasonal items include my bear can (required from Kennedy Meadows to Sonora Pass), microspikes, ice axe, etc.

Here is a more detailed breakdown of the specifics, for those among us that love spreadsheets:

There are a few items I am still debating about. Shorts or zip off pants? What sun hat to buy? Will I need a fleece layer in the mountains? Microspikes or crampons? Ice ax or whippet? Over the next few weeks, I’ll have to make some of those decisions. I can use my time in the desert to decide what my gear will look like in the mountains. I’m sure talking to other hikers will help me decide. And at the end of the day, the trail will be the best teacher.

If you’re interested in seeing the most detailed and up to date (yes the above spreadsheet is not even the most detailed version, I trimmed it for the sake of this post), you can check out my lighterpack list here.

4 thoughts on “The How (AKA Obligatory Gear Post)

  1. I always take zipoffs in Sierra. Probably microspikes will do ya. Was just in Yosemite this week and snow is consolidated and slushy with warm daytime temps.

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    1. I did end up buying zipoffs. I figure they’ll give me good sun protection. And I have microspikes in the mail! Glad to hear that things are melting up there. Hopefully by the time I get up there the Sierra’s are manageable.

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