I’ve been a very gear conscious hiker for years, always looking for that perfect balance between weight and function. This trip was, among other things, a test for the viability of my 3 season system from a versatility and durability point of view, hence it was important for me to keep the gear kit consistent throughout the whole trip: no gear swapping or even replacing (except for the obvious; shoes and socks, basically). I wanted to see if UL gear can last a thru-hike and I wanted to see if I could go lightweight and still be just as comfortable as anyone else with this kit.
I always liked the idea of being out there on my own where “out there” means not only the outdoors but a wider concept of being out of home. Coming from Europe to hike the PCT probably helps with this feeling. Keeping the same set of gear for the whole trip kind of helps me feel this as a trip of its own rather than an addition of several shorter trips. It helps with the feeling of actually travelling from A to B. I’d be a homeless in America.
What follows is really almost as much about backpacking phylosophy as it is about the gear itself
Golite Cave 2
It was my first tarp a few years back and it’s still the one I like the most for all kinds of 3 season conditions. Several points to support this:
- Golite’s silnylon is a tad heavier and beefier than standard 1.3 oz/sq.yd silnylon. I don’t know if it’s a heavier grade base fabric, a thicker silicone coating or both. It feels sturdier and it’s not as elastic so I don’t feel bad about stressing the anchor points when I need a taut, bomb proof pitch.
- Even if it’s meant for 2 people, I like the extra size for one. I can have a high, well vented pitch when needed while keeping still away from the rain and I can still have ample space when pitched low in case of really bad weather.
The Cave 2 is heavier than a standard silnylon, handkerchief size tarp but it makes me feel much better for the long distance trips where I need to know my shelter will face anything the weather brings. I cut the weight down somewhat by replacing the original lines with dauntingly thin but amazingly strong 1.5 mm. Dyneema cord. I know those white guy lines will outlive the tarp and probably the user.
No need to state the typical advantages of a tarp: no structure, so there’s really nothing to break or fail (I used my hiking poles as vertical support), endless pitching options to match the conditions.
I used the tarp only a handful of times but it was really needed then. I’d never set out on such a trip without some sort of full coverage shelter even though the temptation to leave it behind may be strong for most of the length of the trail but I wouldn’t feel like I was the self-reliant hiker I wanted to be.
Carried weight, tarp + guy lines: 543 gr / 19.1 oz
I appreciated a silnylon floor over the more simplistic plastic sheet. The DIY Silsuelo (link in Spanish) can be staked down or tied to the tarp’s corner stakes (in case all stakes are used in the tarp pitch) and it can also be hung from a vertical support to raise the mini-walls to form the bathtub.
I hardly ever used the bathtub feature as it was quite tedious to tie the cords and I never felt I really needed it. Site selection is usually enough. I could have got away without those cords but with a 1 mm. section they weren’t any heavy. In an effort to reduce weight, I made the Silsuelo just wide enough. Sometimes, I missed a little extra width, particularly in Northern Washington when everything in the place was dripping wet.
Carried weight, floor + guy lines: 112 gr / 3.9 oz
DIY pyramid shaped, minimalist net shelter meant only to sleep under. It only covers head and part of the torso. It can be hung from a vertical support and either staked down at the corners or anchored by putting some objects in the corner pockets. It’s made of ultralight nanoseeum mesh from thruhiker.com. The nanoseeum mesh is lighter than the usual noseeum version and it’s proved durable enough. No signs of wear so far.
The net shelter can also be worn over the head while hiking. Only 40 gr / 1.4 oz
Very nice in theory but in my effort to cut the weight down I made it too small to be functional. Only once I pitched it like the pyramid shelter it was meant to be and not because I didn’t need it more times but because it was such a pain to get a workable, stable pitch.
In the end, I wore it over my head for sleeping with a hat’s brim keeping the net off my face. It worked ok in this fashion. It also worked well during the daytime as a head net.
By using this kind of shelter in this size, I knew I was loosing the functionality of a bug-proof, enclosed shelter to hung around and do stuff. It quite fits my style as I prefer to hung around out of whatever my shelter system is until I go to sleep but sure some nights it’d have been nice to be away from the bugs. I think though I’d carry something similar again, just a bit bigger.
Bozeman Mountain Works Vapr
It was sent to Kennedy Meadows as part of my “winter” set for the High Sierra crossing where it was meant to add some warmth to my setup and protect the bag from moisture if I had to sleep on the snow but it worked so well and I used it so much I decided to keep it for the rest of the trip.
I used to like a roof over my head, even in non-rainy weather, the feeling of having a place to call home. I still enjoy that but during the southern California sections I got so used to sleeping under the stars that setting up the tarp became a bit of a nuisance so I wouldn’t do it unless rain was likely. In that situation, the bag cover was very useful to help keep the bag clean and dry. In addition, the bag cover is the perfect complement for a quilt-style sleeping thing like the Arc-Special making the set a very solid kit.
The problem then was that of redundancy. I still needed the tarp but maybe not such a big tarp… but I wasn’t swapping it for a smaller one at that point. I could probably have left the floor behind but I eventually decided to keep everything, consider the bag cover an addition and pay the weight penalty, just 178 gr. / 6.3 oz (I didn’t use the built-in netting for this trip), for the added versatility: now I had endless combinations to match the conditions: floor + cover, floor + tarp, everything together…
The BMW Vapr is a wonderful item: very light, adds some warmth and protects the bag from dirt and humidity, it’s windproof and the Pertex Quantum upper breathes very well. I just have to find a better way to integrate it in my 3 season kit.
As usual, there’s no perfect choice so I went with some variety to be able to face different conditions while keeping as light as possible. I may need as much as 10 stakes for a really bomb-proof pitch in harsh conditions. 6 is minimum to set the tarp up. 15 cm titanium hooks are usually good enough and they’re as light as you can get (8 gr. each) but they may have holding problems in soft ground so I carried only 6 of these plus 3 Y-shaped aluminum stakes (17 gr. each), double the weight of the Ti hooks but with a much higher holding power. These can’t rotate over themselves, a common problem in the thin Ti hooks, and I’d use them preferably in the maximum tension lines (the ones holding the ridge). The tenth stake would be a titanium nail, thick enough to be undestructible. Weight (14 gr.) is similar to the Y-shaped aluminum for some less holding power but you can hammer the nail down with whatever, it’ll never break or bend, so it’s very useful for making a pilot hole for the other stakes in very hard ground. It never happened but it’s good to be prepared.
In short, about all the shelter system elements:
Durable and reliable
Laborious setup in harsh conditions
That was the name when I got it from the Nunatak friends. Now they re-named it to Arc-Specialist and added it to their line-up. Whatever the name, this is one of the versions of that early design from the Backpackinglight.com people that Nunatak was asked to produce: a kind of quilt/bag hybrid based on the concepts of variable girth, no bottom insulation and no hood. I like this design so much I doubt I’ll ever use a traditional bag again.
This slides show the concept well:
The no bottom insulation makes it a bit lighter than a traditional design but unlike other quilts in the market this one still wraps around the sides so you can still feel embraced in down and it’s easy to control drafts. The variable girth allows wearing high loft clothes inside without compressing the bag’s insulation. This is a very important feature for the long distance as it adds a tremendous amount of versatility to any modular system. Finally, and as counterintuitive as it may seem, I like the absence of a hood: I can use whatever head cover I’m already carrying and have it turning with me when I turn so I avoid eating fabric or breathing inside. Needless to say, with a quilt you have to turn inside it without turning it with you… that’s what I did anyway when I was using traditional mummy bags and I always had this problem with the hood staying put.
|Slightly underfilled baffles|
Closed cell foam for me. It’s got a much better insulation/weight ratio than inflatables, it just cannot break or fail and, most important, I sleep perfectly well on foam. All the other criteria are useless if you don’t sleep well.
My choice of pad was somewhat conditioned by the pack I was using, a frameless design where the pad was key for creating that virtual frame that’d give the set rigidity. Some frameless packs have a sleeve for a flat-folded pad but mine was better suited for a pad that rolls so I could use the cylinder strategy with the pad inside the pack. It’s usually a good idea to try a modular system with your pad, or pads, so you can have thicker insulation under your torso or even just under your main points of contact with the ground (upper torso, hips) and thinner insulation (hence a lighter set) for the rest but if you’re relying on the rolled pad for the pack’s virtual frame it’s better to use a one piece pad. I just cut it a bit shorter so it’d cover from feet to shoulders. I’d use some stuff sack as a pillow anyway.
A local brand makes pretty good, lightweight and durable pads in an awful blue color. 243 gr. / 8.5 oz.
Granite Gear Virga & modifications
I love the Granite Gear Virga. It’s a great pack. It was my first lightweight, frameless pack and I chose to trust it once again for my most important trip so far.
I like it for a number or reasons: it’s lightweight yet sturdy and durable. It’s got a very good size for a thru-hike, small enough to not be half empty most of the time but big enough to hold as much as 12 days of food and some extra clothing and hardware for the High Sierra. A superb compression system with those catenary cut panels that are supposed to help spread the stress of the tightened straps and at the least give the Virga its distinctive looks. A very simple design with the right amount of features like a couple of ice axe / poles loops, roll top closure, extension collar, quick release buckles on the upper compression straps that makes them ideal to hold the poles, ice axe or whatever you want to hang from there. Good shoulder straps, wide and very well padded. Elastic side pockets.
It’s a bit of a nuisance that the pockets are hardly accessible while wearing the pack (I could barely reach into them; maybe younger folks can do better) but the biggest problem with this pack is by far the hipbelt. This belt is just a flat nylon webbing strap with a buckle, good to stabilize the pack and little else. Definitely not good for weight transfer to the hips. When I tightened the belt, the strap edge would bite into my skin, even through the clothes, causing a rush that could even develop into a minor but very annoying wound. I already knew this from previous experiences so I avoided tightening the belt but then most of the weight was on my shoulders. Not a problem with a light load, not so welcome at the beginning of a section. Simply not acceptable when leaving Kennedy Meadows with 43 lbs.
In my opinion, it’s a design error. I can use and actually own several packs with a tiny hip belt or no hip belt at all but they’re smaller and not suited for big loads. The Virga is actually capable of carrying big loads if packed correctly except for the lack of capability to transfer weight where it’s carried best.
So I was thinking of a solution to this, if only for the High Sierra traverse… some wider and softer something I could place between the belt and my body… I was thinking of a piece of closed cell foam or something similar… then, while at Kennedy Meadows, someone told me there was a discarded hip belt in the trash can that I might be able to use. And that was the end of the question. It was a ULA belt. ULA stands out for quality and design and it’s one of the most common pack brands on the PCT (or so it was in 06). This was just a hip belt but a very good one indeed: wide, comfortable and not cumbersome… and with two pockets that were there just to make my life easier. It turned out that I could just thread the Virga’s belt under the pockets in the ULA belt so once tightened, everything stayed in place! I cannot put in words the huge quality shift my pack went through with the addition. Now the Virga had everything it needed to be a lightweight load monster. I carried the 43 lbs. with ease. I liked the arrangement so much that I kept the ULA belt for the rest of the trip even though I didn’t strictly needed it after the High Sierra. I still have it and use it with the Virga.
Minimalist but with the right features
Excellent compression system
Good extension collar
Excellent shoulder straps
Simple and reliable opening/closing systems
Difficult access to side pockets with the pack on
Feet are one of the key factors in this trip. It’s paramount to keep your feet healthy. The PCT puts a lot of stress on your feet. It’s so well graded, mostly easy walking that it becomes all about just walking… and you can’t walk well if you have foot problems. Foot gear is thus a relevant choice. Much more than it may seem.
Since I moved to trail runners a few years back, I’m a happier hiker. There was no question I was going with these for the PCT. As with the rest of the equipment, I went with a model I already knew and trusted over the long distance; that meant one only choice, the Vasque Velocity shoes.
They performed as expected: Confortable, breathable, quick drying and reasonably lightweight. There’s really nothing wrong I can find in these shoes. The one outstanding comment I can make about them is that about durability: I made the whole trail in just 2 pairs of shoes. I saw other hikers going through 5 or 6 pairs, usually even more. I don’t know what people do to their shoes. I threw my first pair away when they were still perfectly usable (in South Lake Tahoe, because I could find a new pair there).
The one thing I can think of that may improve the durability (over similar shoes of a different breed) is the synthetic leather side reinforcements. I saw quite a few shoes failing right there. The stiffer, sewn in patches on the Velocities protect the shoe where it usually brushes against rocks or plants. Other than that, I can only think I extended shoe life by just keeping using them but the fact is they were still usable. My second and last pair was almost sole-less but still usable when I was done with the trip. I saw lots of really broken down, unsuable shoes. It never happened to me.
One last plus for these shoes is they’re quite popular hence relatively easy to find locally in the shops when you need a replacement and any e-retailer will have them available in any size if you go that route. The Vasque Velocities weight 750 gr. / 26.4 oz. for the pair.
In 06, there were tons of snow in the High Sierra in june. Not the best conditions for trail runners but, was there a better option? Some hikers switched to boots. I decided to keep the trail runners and I think it was a good decision. Boots are stiffer and better for kicking steps in hard snow and for wearing crampons and may keep your feet warmer. On the other hand, boots are heavier and they’re virtually impossible to dry once they get wet… and they’ll get wet.
The snow is wet as soon as it starts melting in mid morning. Down in the valleys, you’re bound to cross a stream every five minutes, most of them too wide to jump over. Bottom line: whatever your shoes, they’re gonna get wet. Wearing boots may slow the process down but the one big problem is once they get wet they’re very difficult to dry. With trail runners, at least you can hope they may dry and you can cross the streams with the shoes on. You’ll get very wet but in a few steps all the excess water is drained and you just keep walking normally. With boots, you’d get out of a stream with a pair of dripping wet bricks on your feet and, worst of all, they’d be still a pair of dripping wet bricks a good while later. Taking the boots off at every stream crossing is an option but it gets tedious and time consuming when there are so many streams.
Boots will surely work. I think though trail runners were a better option.
Keeping the trail runners for the High Sierra meant I had to choose the snow specific foot wear (crampons and snowshoes) compatible with the trail runners. They must use universal type of bindings.
One of the drawbacks I found in trail runners is the dirt that makes its way through the breathable panels. Gaiters don’t help with this as you can see on this pic:
This was a problem in the many dusty stretches, not only in Southern California but also in Oregon and Washington. Actually, the pic was taken in Oregon near mt. Thielsen and I think the worst dust I found was in Southern Washington. Taking a break and cleaning or washing the feet periodically was a must in this conditions.
Reinforcements in key spots
Easy to replace
By lightweight standards, two pairs should be enough and that’s what I usually take: one for hiking and one for sleeping and emergencies, such as impromptu gloves for those cold spells. It shouldn’t be any different no matter how long the trek as long as ressuply is possible along the way but somehow it feels different to set out for months. I tried to keep my gear set consistent with that of any other (shorter) trip and mostly succeeded but when it was about items I knew I’d have to replace due to wear it felt safer to take extra. In a way, it was a way to keep as self reliant as possible as I could always extend the longevity of my sock system if I couldn’t find what I wanted at a certain ressuply stop. Not much sock bouncing either.
So I took three pairs this time. One for hiking, one for sleeping and one as a substitute for the former and for emergencies. This trip has somehow cooled down my liking for wool socks. While I still appreciate the great performance, I found the durability lacking. I’m aware the working conditions were tough sometimes, particularly when so much dirt made its way into the shoes so the wool socks would develop holes easily where there was any rubbing. Wool is expensive enough for this to be a problem but it’s even worse to feel your gear is not going the distance. I think I’ll probably go for some blend with some nylon in it for some added durability in the future.
The sleeping socks had the easiest job so those are the only ones that survived the trip. I used Bridgedale Trail Runner wool blend short ones. They’re very light and warm. I used them just for sleeping with the only exception of using them also as impromptu mittens when it got cold enough. It sometimes did.
For hiking, I started with Smartwool Adrenaline 3/4s that made their way to Kennedy Meadows, where I had a pair of thicker Smartwool Light Hikers sent together with my “winter” gear. Those took in all the High Sierra beating and took me to Echo Lake, where I shopped for new ones (shopping done in South Lake Tahoe). I couldn’t find any Smartwools here so I went with the most similar thing I could find to what I was wearing before the High Sierra and that was some Wigwam woolen socks that made their way to Ashland. There, I could find the Smartwool Adrenalines again and I got one extra pair sent ahead to Cascade Locks. This last pair was virtually shreded just a few days into Washington.
The emergency pair was bound to be the lightest available (for a wool sock) since it was meant to be mostly in the pack so I took Smartwool Running Ultralight shorts, just 38 gr. / 1.3 oz.
I usually washed (rinsed) my hiking socks every night to find them reasonably dry the next morning and wear them again. I’d use the subtitutes in those stretches where my feet were suffering the most (dusty conditions in Northern California, Oregon and Southern Washington) so I could switch socks every day, particularly if I was dry-camping and couldn’t rinse the day’s socks until sometime the next day.
Clothing is the most fun item to play with, so many combinations… even if colour matching is not part of the question. Top to bottom:
Wide brim hat: you don’t want to be out there without some sort of cover for your head and neck: first, the shadeless desert or chaparral, then the shadeless, rocky and snowy world of the High Sierra, then even in the forests the sun still somehow manages to get to your skin and burn it. Get shade. I like a full brim hat that can be folded for easy storage.
Insulating beanie hat: we loose a huge amount of heat through our head. This has a very interesting effect: the head is a very useful tool for thermal regulation. A hat is easy to put on and off and many times that’s all we may need to warm up or cool down. You don’t even need to stop hiking. Also, in my case, an insulating hat was a key part in my hoodless sleeping kit. I’d use a simple fleece hat, just 50 gr. / 1.75 oz.
Buff: a very versatile piece of gear you can wear as a hat, balaclava or on your neck. 40 gr. / 1.4 oz.
The general idea is using a good number of highly specialized layers rather than fewer items of a wider functional spectrum. This maximizes the versatility of the system. Additionally, there’ll be a set of items used just for sleeping; think of it as your trail pajama.
Base layer: a polyester shirt with the following general specs: light colour, best for intense sun. Long sleeve, high neck and chest zip for sun protection and thermoregulation choices. Always worn. Many choices in the market, I found a model I like in a Millet shirt, I’m in my second. The only drawback I can find is it’s not mosquito proof. When the bugs were bad enough, I had to wear a windshirt and often times be unconfortably warm. I guess being bug proof would make it not as confortable against the skin though.
Windshirt: a simple, thin nylon shirt that blocks the wind, breathes well and weights little. The wind blocking function will come built in with the insulation and waterproof layers but it may be needed separate from any of those. A windshirt is considered a redundant item by some but I think it’s essential for maximum versatility. I hardly ever worn the insulation or waterproof layers while hiking, the windshirt was usually enough unless it was raining or very cold. I used a Montane Featherlite Smock, in Pertex Microlight, with chest zip and elastic cuffs. It breathes well enough but it adds the right amount of warmth while on the go. It’s all I wore during the endless miles on the snow on the High Sierra, even in the chilly mornings. 80 gr. / 2.8 oz.
Insulation: hardly ever worn while hiking but essential in camp and many times during the night. Hence it was mostly in the pack, so it’s key to keep this layer as light as possible. It’s tempting to use down for the best weight/warmth ratio but I still prefer synthetics for this layer for the additional ruggedness and moisture tolerance. Fleece is out of the question: it’s comfortable and breathes best but it’s too heavy and bulky. I still use my MEC Northern Lite Pullover, a thin nylon shell and lining with Primaloft insulation in between.It’s probably not as puffy as it was when new but it still does the job for only 300 gr. / 10.6 oz.
Waterproof: It doesn’t usually rain much on the PCT but it does rain eventually. I need a waterproof jacket to feel I’m appropriately prepared
Sleeping shirt: It’s absolutely essential to keep the sleeping bag as clean as possible to avoid having to wash it. The sleeping shirt is there just for sleeping and maybe for emergencies (very cold weather, wear everything you have; everything got wet…) or town time. It’s bound to be in the pack most of the time so it should be as light as possible. I use a silk shirt, long sleeved and featureless, just 100 gr. / 3.5 oz.
Underwear: Keep your pants somewhat cleaner. One pair should be enough but I always take a super-light, minimalist second pair to wear in town and for emergencies. Ideally, I should use them for sleeping too but I usually prefer to keep things simpler (and just a bit dirtier). Polyester for the usual stuff: moisture management, quick drying, next to skin comfort. 60 gr. / 2.1 oz. and 38 gr. / 1.3 oz.
Pants: My only pants so they should be tough, do it all and do it well. Nothing fancy, just ripstop nylon that breathes well and dries quick. I like convertibles for the versatility, I like hiking in shorts even though I used the legs much more than usual on this trip, basically to protect the legs from too much sun. Next to skin comfort is not an issue here so built-in bug-proofness is welcome (another reason to use the legs when the mosquitoes were bad enough). Clear colour to avoid baking in the sun. I usually have to shop hard to find a pair that I really like as this is an item I like to buy locally. The ones I took on the PCT had all the above plus some features I like:
- Adjustable waist belt for a perfect fit in that shrinking waist.
- Several pockets for the items I need handy, low profile (you don’t even notice they’re there. I hate those bulky pockets), zippered so I don’t have to worry about losing anything.
- Adjustable elastic cuffs. I love this feature: I can raise the lower legs and adjust around the knees to wear “shorts” on and off as conditions dictate (alternate sun/shade, temporarily bad bugs)
The pants made it the whole way, which is good enough. They take a beating. They’re always on so their weight is not so important but it’s still worthy to consider the weight of the zipped-off legs as those may travel in the pack: shorts were 263 gr. / 9.3 oz., legs 122 gr. / 4.3 oz.
Tights: Night time bottoms for keeping the sleeping bag clean and additional warmth plus emergency wear for cold conditions or laundry time. They should be loose enough to allow good blood flow during the night. Another always-in-the-pack item that should be kept lightweight. The lightest available are polypropylene. Silk is another good option I’ve never tried for bottoms (they wouldn’t be tights then but the idea is the same. Probably not as warm). My tights weight just 87 gr. / 3 oz.
Waterproof: This is probably the most freaky item in my whole set. There’s a whole reasoning behind this but I won’t go into it here (it’s explained somewhere else but not yet in english). My DIY rain skirt is as light as you can get (23 gr. / 0.8 oz.), waterproof, non-breathable but airy enough, easy and quick to put on and take off… I can carry it in a pocket and put it on in a matter of seconds without even taking the pack off. I almost don’t have to quit hiking. The rain skirt makes for the funniest laundry time outfit and you can get a trail name you can be both proud and ashamed of.
Bears stand out as the number one reason to protect your food but they’re not the only one. On the PCT, my food was never touched by a bear (and I don’t mean it never happens) but it was eaten by mice.
I sleep much better when I know my food is safe. I don’t know if can trust this thing against bears (never had one trying to break one as far as I know) but I think I can trust it against mice and other rodents and that’s enough reason for me to carry the Ursack for the whole length of the trip.
I use the older, kevlar version of the Ursack which was (conditionally?) approved for bear problem areas some time back. It’s unlined and it’s supposed to be tied to some fixed object so the bear cannot run away with it. Later versions recommend just leaving it on the ground as bears are not supposed to take it anywhere else if they cannot open it on the spot. This is bear psychology and I’m not sure if it only applies to the latest aluminum-lined Ursacks. I didn’t care to retrofit my Ursack with the aluminum liner as I was getting a hard-sided canister for the Sierra anyway.
I always tied the TKO to trees or logs. I don’t know how many times it was attacked by who or if it was at all. The only objective benefit I can mention is that I slept better feeling my food was safe.
I could hold 5-6 days worth of food in the Ursack TKO. Some times, I’d carry more than that and then I’d keep the extra in plain plastic bags. I’d take my chances for 1 or 2 days and keep this extra with me during the night. In one of those, mice chewed through everything in their way (bivy bag and food bags) and had some little fest without me noticing at all. I sleep so well when I’m hiking.
I like the Ursack and I will always take on future trips. It’s worth its not any heavy weight: 174 gr. / 6.1 oz.
I decided to go with a bear canister for the High Sierra. I thought it’d be easier to just accept the drawbacks (weight penalty, odd shape and size) and forget about possible restrictions and complicate things farther by trying to overcome them somehow.
I’d go with the lightest option available which is the Bearikade but I wouldn’t buy an item for which I see no use in the near future so I’d rent one. That’s where the Bearvault became a more attractive option given the PCT thru-hiker oriented rent program from Bearvault. Another smallish weight penalty but it wouldn’t hurt my pretty base weight numbers (it’s seasonal!).
The Bearvault worked ok but, as with the Ursack, I know of no agression attempts. Other than that, it’s reasonably easy to handle, it’s waterproof and I find no significant drawbacks. The fact that’s waterproof allowed me to use it for storing sensible equipment (like the camera) when crossing high streams.
I’d have carried the canister inside the pack but the fit of the horizontal canister was too tight. Vertically, it’d waste tons of room so I carried it tied outside and on top of my pack. The closing straps were just long enough for this but this is already about the pack not the canister.
The people at Bearvault were helpful and nice to deal with. The rental program is very convenient for thru-hikers.
Coleman F1 Ultralight canister fueled
It still amazes me how the US backpackers seemed to jump from the heavy, complex liquid hydrocarbons fed stoves straight to the minimalist alcohol burners with little attention to the power, simplicity, efficiency and ease of use of canister stoves. In Europe, most people use them. I don’t necessarily mean they’re any better. What I mean is how strange I find that so little people use them in America. Anyway, after playing extensively with alcohol, I decided for this trip to go once again with pressurized gas. Sure the alcohol burners are lighter but that’s only half of the picture.
I don’t want to make this yet another discussion on butane/propane vs. alcohol. I can go with either and I acknowledge alcohol is lighter overall when ressuplying every 10 days or less (quite a bit of math and my own fuel needs put into that calculation) but I love the cleanliness and ease of use of butane/propane. It’s like cooking at home. When I arrive late at camp and I’m tired I surely appreciate both as much as I loathe the fuzz factor with alcohol. I’m aware this is a very personal thing.
While ressuply may seem the big dissadvantage of butane/propane canisters over alcohol, it may be right the other way around on the PCT: by using fuel saving techniques (a good windscreen, low fire, cooking in bag with a cozy…) I made it the whole way with just three 8 oz. canisters. Yes, 3 canisters for the whole PCT. This means I just had to ressuply twice on the whole trip! which basically means you can forget about ressuply most of the time. Sure alcohol is supposed to be easy to find mostly everywhere but I could cut one thing down from most of my shopping lists.
As for the stove itself, it’s another tried and tested item that gave no suprises and worked just as expected. Canister stoves are very simple and reliable, I’ve never had one failing. This one has a small design flaw (corrected in a new version already available) in that plastic piece that’s too close to the warmest areas but I already knew about this from previous trips. Stove weight: 77 gr. / 2.7 oz.
It’s very important to know how far can you go with a given amount of gas in a canister and carefully control and monitor your expenditure to avoid having to carry an extra canister when you don’t actually need it (which would be a big weight penalty). Only practice will tell you. If you get this right, the weight penalty over using alcohol is minimal, only a few grams. It can be reduced to almost nothing by using small size (4 oz) canisters but then ressuply starts being an issue. I prefer to take advantage of the huge autonomy of the 8 oz canisters.
MSR Titan Kettle
I only used it for heating water and as a breakfast cup. It’s bigger than extrictly needed but the smaller size mugs of a similar design that I know of are less efficient on the stove because of a smaller diameter for only a few grams less weight. I didn’t take the lid and used a foil cut instead. Kettle with no lid: 90 gr / 3.1 oz, foil lid: negligible, 3 gr.
Whenever somebody tells you you can’t use a windscreen with a canister stove, tell them politely to stop the crap and take a look here. Absolutely necessary item for efficient fuel use. weight: negligible, 3 gr.
Despite the apparent fragility, the screen made it the whole way. Actually it’s still in use as of early 07.
Cooking bag & cozy
I re-pack all my food to get rid of all the excess packaging and use ziplocks for everything. Regular ziplocks stand boiling water so I used to pour directly onto them but then you need them to be puncture free or you make a mess. I wouldn’t be throwing away ziplocks after one use as that’d mean a whole lot of waste along a thru-hike so I’d reuse them after properly washing them in town but then I’d still need them to be free of holes, which is difficult. To avoid wasting ziplocks, I took a heavier grade plastic bag used just for cooking, as a bowl. Thus I found a new use for an otherwise useless Platypus that failed around the opening. I cut the top off and used the lower 3/4 part as a cooking bag / eating bowl. I made the cozy so it’d fit over the cut Platypus. The cut Platypus became then extra weight that would allow me to not throw the ziplocks away after one or two uses, which is a good enough reason for the extra weight. Bag: 20 gr. / 0.7 oz; cozy, 15 gr. / 0.5 oz.
Snow gear / Seasonal gear
An absolute must in the high Sierra in the conditions found in 06. I wouldn’t probably set out in any kind of snow without an ice axe. The axe is your primary tool in snowy terrain. Take nothing but this but take this one. And remember hiking poles are no substitute for an ice axe.
Fortunately, the axe can be a pretty lightweight tool. You’re not bound to face ice or very steep terrain. You’ll find hard packed snow in the mornings that will usually soften by mid morning and the steepest slope will not go over 40º. In these conditions, an aluminum axe is ok and those are very light. I used the one I already had and had used extensively in similar conditions in the past, the Camp XLA 210, aluminum head and shaft, only 268 gr. / 9.4 oz. in a 60 cm. version. I worked ok, as usual. I never had to self arrest.
A very convenient tool in snowy terrain. Probably not strictly necessary in the spring conditions in the Sierra but well worth the weight, in my opinion. They greatly extend the range of conditions in which you can keep hiking and also give an extra margin of security. As with the axe, lightweight aluminum crampons should be ok for the spring conditions.
For this item, I didn’t follow the premise of taking gear I had already used and trusted. I already had a pair of lightweight aluminum, full lenght, 12 point crampons I had tried with flexible boots with success but I had never tried them with running shoes. That and the attractive weight reduction in a 6 point model made me purchase a pair of these and take them for this trip. And I didn’t like them.
I used Camp 6 Punte Light crampons. I liked the light weight (just 230 gr. / 8.1 oz.) but never got a good fit. They can be adjusted in width in two points to suit different shoe widths but no matter how hard I tried (and I tried very hard) they would always move under my shoes after a lateral pull. I tried them on the instep and found then a much better fit under the front of the shoes but still they’d eventually move. The only thing I could do to help keep them in place was avoiding lateral pulls so I had to avoid traversing slopes in a diagonal. I would climb straight ahead which was usually a good enough option in the slopes found on the PCT whith the right snow conditions.
If I had to do it again, I think I wouldn’t take this crampons. They were still useful and better than nothing but I think I’d take the heavier 12 point ones.
This is an unsual item on the PCT. I decided to include them in the box I sent to Kennedy Meadows after the late season storms that brought huge amounts of snow to the Sierras. I know 06 was an unseasonally high snow year and snow shoes are usually not worth the bother in most years but since I took and used them I think they deserve a comment here.
In similar conditions, I think I’d take them again. Not many hikers did in 06. As far as I know, only one other. There might be some more I didn’t hear of. I was travelling with two other hikers through the High Sierra, two of us were carrying the snow shoes and I think we did better enough in the long snowy stretches to justify the extra weight.
This is a tricky issue though because the weight is not any light this time: 1.5 kg. / 3.3 lbs. for the pair. I was using Atlas snow shoes, I couldn’t identify the model. It’s the ones I had at home. Is is worth all that weight on your back?
From Whitney to Tuolumne Meadows we were in the snow for more than 50% of the length. Timewise, that was probably more than 60%. Then, not all the snowy terrain was suitable for snow shoes. Actually, only relatively short stretches were. But then the two of us with the snow shoes were doing somewhat better than the one without. Most of the time we wouldn’t be hiking considerably faster, if at all, but surely we were more confortable and wasting less energy. I think I’d take them again in similar conditions.
Furthermore, it kind of feels right to have the right tool for the task at any given moment: crampons in the early morning, snow shoes in the afternoon for those long level or not too steep stretches down from the passes.
I must also say the snow shoes are not that good in the suncups… but nothing is. Walking in big suncups sucks whatever the means. It’s probalby better done in the early morning when the snow is frozen (and without snow shoes) but it sucks anyway.
Another problem for the snow shoes is that in the spring and in the lower parts of the snowy terrain it’s quite common to find a mix of snow and rock/dirt. You can cross the occasional few yards with no snow in your snow shoes but when this starts becoming the norm it’s probably better to take the snow shoes off… while you still have to cross big snowfields and sink in them.
Too many words for something that’s probably not an issue most years. I would take the snow shoes if I already had them and in such a high snow year as 2006. They also looked great in my pack, it makes for more dramatic pictures.
I choose to wear synthetic for my main torso insulation for the whole trip but also took a down pullover for the High Sierra and I was so glad I did. The High Sierra was colder and far more energy consuming so the extra insulation was so welcome. I didn’t wear any of my insulating tops during the hiking time but they were key in camp and during the night, to supplement my minimalist sleeping bag/quilt/whatever. Furthermore, this down pullover was considerably thicker than my Primaloft One. It felt great to wear it as soon as I stopped for the night and it felt great to sleep in it and wake up with it on in the freezing mornings.
I used a Nunatak Down Skaha pullover. This thing is amazing: only 270 gr. / 9 oz. for a thick and warm garment I can’t speak highly enough of. It felt awful to send it back home after the High Sierra but I still think a down top is not the best idea for versatility and to face any kind of conditions.
No emergency gloves for this stretch. I took real mittens, windstopper fleece ones, and I used them regularly in the cold mornings and evenings. Mittens are warmer than gloves but allow no dexterity, you have to take them off for most operations.
I meant to be ready for fool conditions too so I took this standard winter gear piece. They have no insulation and are meant to go over the insulating layer in wet conditions. I almost didn’t use them. The weather was almost always good through the High Sierra and the temperatures were warm enough during the day to eventually dry any wet stuff, no problem getting my insulating layer slightly wet. The waterproof mittens were pretty much 88 gr. / 3.1oz. of dead weight in my pack but I think I would take them again; they’d be invaluable in fool weather.
I had never been in the snow for so long but long enough to know how bad humidity and how difficult it may be to get anything dry once it gets wet. The extremities are a very tricky part because they’re very difficult to warm up and frostbite is a potential problem that may become serious. Trying to avoid this scenario I decided to take a pair of waterproof, vapor barrier socks. They allow to keep any external moisture off your insulating socks so they can still insulate adequately. Combined with another vapor barrier under the insulating socks (I meant to use plastic bags for this) you can face long lasting cold and wet and go through with no problems.
I never used them. As I said above, the weather was good enough. I spent two weeks+ with almost permanently wet feet but it was just uncomfortable. It became so common and I so used to it that it almost didn’t feel uncomfortable anymore. It became just another fact of trail life. The vapor barrier socks could have been useful in harsher, colder weather. They weighted my pack down by only 72 gr. / 2.5 oz.
Many hikers use short, dust proof gaiters for most or the whole of the trip. I didn’t but that’s not the kind of gaiters I’m talking about here. I took a pair of full length, waterproof gaiters for the High Sierra. The idea was to keep my lower legs as dry as possible and help keeping the feet somewhat drier too.
I used them during the first days on serious snow but then I saw that at least while the weather was good it wasn’t a problem to let your lower legs get wet in the snow. They’d get wet anyway later on the day on the stream crossings in the valleys. This time, I’m not so sure I’d take them again even though I’m aware they could be so welcome in worse weather conditions. The weigth penalty for taking them in the pack was higher this time: 295 gr. / 10.4 oz.