This was bound to be the typical trip gear review article until something unexpected happened: I lost nearly all my gear on the flight into Newfoundland. I couldn’t do gear review articles without gear so I set out, got a whole new kit on the spot and I went hiking with it. Then, this otherwise typical review article got somewhat wicked and probably a lot more interesting.
A new kit
After having my checked-in luggage lost, I was left with what I was wearing plus some electronics (smartphone, camera), cash, cards and documentation. I needed to replace everything else based on a small town in Newfoundland. The whole process made for a nice, shabby survival story.
The tale now resumes at the moment I set foot on the trail. I found myself equipped with mostly old-school, heavyweight gear, ready to get out there and see how it worked. Who would have imagined it’s still possible to hike without Cuben or Silnylon.
Woods Expedition 2
A tent is among the most sensitive gear items in a backpacking kit. It’s meant to protect you when you feel most vulnerable. It takes some practice to fine-tune a shelter system that’s lightweight, dependable and that you feel comfortable with in a potentially harsh environment.
Tents are my favorite gear item. I own lots, I’ve written about them, I’ve sewn a few simple ones myself. I was feeling somewhat excited by having the perfect excuse to buy a new one and maybe, just maybe, go wild and get a fully framed tent. It was the first item I went looking for in every store I tried.
I didn’t find anything that would meet my excitement. I went with pretty much the only model that I met that would work for me: a rather classic design, 2P dome with two crossing poles in a rectangular plan, double wall, inner first pitch, double side entrance. The only variation over the basic concept being a third, hanging half-pole set up across the short side to hold the outer fly further out and provide for a vestibule on each side. Nice, light green color.
The tent belongs to the Woods brand, apparently a rather local establishment, whatever that means in a place as big as Canada. I had never heard of it before. It was ubiquitous in the Canadian Tire store where I did most of my shopping and it provided me with several key items.
This tent did its job. It offered adequate shelter and a very welcome haven at the end of each day. It was very comfortable, both physical and psychologically.
On the physical side, there were considerations about both size and design. The size was obviously gonna be fine, being a 2 person tent, it had loads of room for me and all my gear. Tall people would probably rub the end walls of the inner. I had no such problem with my M body size.
The design was also fine: I could sit down parallel to the side entrance and do stuff in the vestibule, which was big enough for cooking comfortably and safely. More so, it would work the same for two people concurrently.
The tent also provided psychological shelter. I felt safe and at home inside. When I was tired or the weather outside was harsh, I new I could crash inside and everything would be fine. This is invaluable when backpacking. You all know.
Fabrics are non-exciting but fine. Fly is likely PU-coated nylon, inner is no-see-um mesh on the side walls, solid nylon or polyester on the end walls. Water would not impregnate the fly so there was definitely some waterproofing applied on the outside. The bathtub floor was solid nylon, most likely PU-coated inside. The frame, a nice grade of aluminium, a good compromise between robustness and weight.
On the other hand, this tent suffered from pretty much all the design pitfalls framed tents are capable of, namely:
- At 2.7 kg it’s heavy even for 2. Some savings are possible on its own packing but not really anywhere else. Fabrics are not particularly heavy, neither the frame or the stakes, it’s just the whole bunch that adds up.
- Putting up / taking down the tent is laborious. It requires about 10 minutes and some hard work. It uses 12 stakes of which 6 are mandatory, 4 more nearly so. The floating, crossing half pole is such a tight fit that it requires plenty of strength to insert.
- Inner first pitch is such a lacking design that I can’t understand why it even exists at all. Keeping both walls together while putting up or taking down might be possible but it wouldn’t be easy and I didn’t even try.
- The inner clips to the frame via stiff plastic clips that appear to be the first thing that’ll break in this tent.
I didn’t go through heavy winds. The tent looked solid enough when properly tensioned and anchored. It didn’t have a particularly vulnerable side. My impression is that it would stand to some wind with no problem and not much deflection in any panel.
I didn’t go through heavy rain either. I did go through sustained, moderate rain and the tent coped with this with no problem.
Overall this tent reminded me of many of the arguments why I stopped using traditional tents long ago. It still met the basic requirement of keeping me safe and comfortable.
Lightweight vs Traditional assessment
Given the relatively mild camping conditions along the trip, I would have stayed just as comfortable with the TrailStar as planned in my original kit for a fraction of the weight and a much easier setup. The Woods tent was clearly better only in the insect protection, being a fully enclosed shelter.
Weight difference vs original kit was 282% (2700 vs 956 gr)
Outbound Canyon 75
The name will probably mean nothing to you. No idea myself about brand or model but it still needs a name. I chose this pack based on its size, it was just the biggest pack I could find, one out of about three available choices in the whole town that would have been suitable for backpacking provided that my load was gonna be big, both in weight and volume.
It was sold as a 75 L pack. I’ve had 50 L packs that were just as big but this is no surprise, pack volume measurement seems to be a very random thing. I guess there’s no standard criteria to define what counts as usable volume.
This pack would get away from the lightweight principles in a few aspects. It had:
- A lid
- Zippered side pockets
- Bottom access with partition wall
I really had to swallow these. The bottom access + partition wall must be one of the dumbest features I’ve seen in packs, I still can’t find any clever use for it and I see the drawbacks clear: it adds weight and it makes it more difficult to accommodate big/long items inside and to use pack space efficiently. At least, the partition wall was zippered and could be left open so it only meant extra, useless weight.
The lid is another common feature that rules packs out for me, particularly when it’s overbuilt with inside and outside zippered pockets, as it was in this case. This lid was detachable at the price of needing some extra webbing and buckles. Sparing the lid saves 130 gr. The lid-less pack can still be closed with cord & locks, one around the upper edge of the pack body, a second one around the edge of the extension collar, which is a separate piece, sewn to the pack body. Very typical, less than optimal traditional pack construction. It’s a rather short, 15 cm extension collar.
The zippered side pockets were the less interfering of the unwanted features, they were streamlined and it was as if they weren’t there if left empty. I didn’t use them.
I could imagine that being a traditional, feature rich pack I wouldn’t miss any major gadget commonly found in lightweight models but I still did: the Outbound Canyon had no hipbelt pockets. I missed them greatly. They could be added but I obviously didn’t have any with me at the time.
The one thing usually present in lightweight packs, most often absent in traditional packs is the front pocket1. I had no front pocket here. I’m no particular fan so I didn’t really miss this.
I do like lower side pockets and I was glad this pack had them. They were too basic though: small and non-elastic, nor the pocket fabric neither the edge strip. They had an adjustable strap on top and across that could be used to secure contents but I didn’t find these pockets good for any serious packing. I could stick water bottles in there, which is what I usually do with side pockets so I was fine. I secured the taller bottle with the pack’s mid side strap.
The pack came equipped with a pack cover weighing 100 gr. It was stored and buckled inside the lid’s outer pocket, working in a top-down fashion. It wouldn’t fly away in a wind gust but the top-down deployment is not ideal, it’s better to use it bottom-up so in case you need to open the pack you only need to uncover the very top. Such arrangement was still possible because the cover could be unbuckled, detached from the lid top pocket and stored anywhere else.
The pack wasn’t seriously overbuilt. The base fabric was a tight wave of nylon/polyester (don’t know which), not space-age neither ultralight but it wasn’t unnecessarily high denier either. Webbing and buckles were in the same line, a bit heftier than I’m used to but nothing outrageous. The number of webbing stripes and buckles was some bigger than it usually is in lightweight packs though.
The frame was a pretty standard, internal couple of flat aluminium bars. They were detachable and a bit beefier than similar frames found on some lightweight packs.
The Outbound Canyon 75 has load lifters, which I like. I prefer my long distance, lightweight packs with load lifters too.
The torso length is adjustable. I’d certainly prefer to have different pack sizes in a fixed harness arrangement as pretty much all specialized, lightweight packs offer.
The back panel2 is padded in key areas, leaving the spine free for airflow. This is a very standard feature I long ago learnt to go without, I don’t think it helps much with the sweat. The back panel is comfortable enough anyway.
Lightweight vs Traditional assessment
The main issue overall with this pack was weight, roughly twice the load of what I’d consider acceptable. Functionally it was quite fine. It carried reasonably well and I could adapt to use it as I would have used one of my stock, lightweight packs.
Weight difference vs original kit was 207% (1925 vs 930 gr)
I was ready to sleep on anything, yet I struggled to find a usable bag. All stores were selling monster sized synthetic bags unsuitable for backpacking. Eventually the Woods brand (same as the tent) came to the rescue with the Expedition model (same as the tent), the only down bag I found. Actually a down/synthetic hybrid with a thin synthetic filling across the bottom and down anywhere else. It was rated to 0ºC/32ºF.
The bag was all classic: mummy shape, full length side zip with insulated sleeve, sturdy shell and all the details a sleeping bag can have: cord lock on the hood perimeter, velcro tab closing at the top of the zip and some minor details that lightweight hikers would usually despise but often catch the eye of the general public like a small pocket in the chest area for keeping stuff in. The baffles were rectangular, most likely continuous all the way to the lower side on each side. It was sold together with a compression sack weighing 100 gr. The bag was sold stuffed inside the sack.
This bag is thickly packed with down. There was no data about the down quality or a breakdown of weight between fillings and shell. I didn’t find night temperatures near its rating of 0ºC but my impression is that it was quite accurate.
The compression sack was a very tight fit. It was very laborious, hard work to stuff the bag inside, it would take several minutes every morning.
Lightweight vs Traditional assessment
I prefer the adaptability and the freedom of movement of a quilt but I can sleep perfectly well in a mummy bag and I did in this one. The only problem was that the Woods bag was too warm for the temperatures I found. I hardly ever slept fully enclosed.
The bag was very heavy for my standards, about 3 times the weight of my summer quilt, a consequence of design, fabrics and rating. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a bag rated for the expected temperatures.
Weight difference vs original kit was 290% (1250 vs 430 gr)
I sleep well on foam and I thought it’d be easy to find a cheap, reliable foam mat but it turned out it wasn’t. I actually found several inflatables before I did find one single CCF, is this a sign of the times?
At some point I was ready to get a yoga mat, they were widely available as well as awfully heavy. Eventually I found one Closed Cell Foam, rather low end, not very robust but it only needed to last this one trip. It had a flat, smooth, sticky surface, about 3/4″ thick, size just right for a full body experience. I’ll never know its weight as I donated it before leaving Newfoundland.
Lightweight vs Traditional assessment
It was certainly enough insulation for the conditions. I slept very well.
Packing this mat was more difficult than my original CCF. I used the cylinder technique to keep it inside the pack. The sticky surface made it difficult to slide stuff in. My usual mat has the typical dotted/grooved surface and it’s slicker.
Weight difference vs original kit was an estimated 82% (200 vs 243 gr)
My strategy for rain gear was to go cheap and basic. I didn’t want to spend lots on some fancy and boring pseudo-breathable stuff. Non-breathable, old school waterproofs felt much more exciting at the time.
I was lucky it didn’t rain much because the strategy didn’t work. Nothing wrong with the idea but the actual items were not up to the task.
First: a poncho was an obvious emergency choice but I didn’t feel fine about it on rugged, off-trail terrain. I only found flimsy plastic ones anyway.
Second: I was really tempted by a long coat, an idea I’ve been exploring for some time. I found one that was really heavy but it was the lack of freedom of movement in rugged terrain that eventually put me off it.
Third: someone took care of stuffing a rain jacket in a case depicting rain pants. It did such a good job that it looked factory packed. I only realized too late that I had bought two jackets.
Fourth: my intended jacket looked great but performed horribly bad. It got wet and stayed wet for ever. The thickness of the fabric didn’t make it any comfortable when wet, it only made it heavier than it already was.
I wore the second jacket as a skirt. It was better than nothing but certainly not ideal while hopping over wet boulders. I went through my rainiest day of the trip while day-hiking before my available slot on the Gros Morne permit system. After that experience and once back on the multi-day bussiness, I waited out a rainy day in my tent.
Lightweight vs Traditional assessment
I don’t expect to stay dry while hiking under sustained rain in my main waterproofs. I’d expect from them to keep me comfortably damp as well as not weighing me down much while not in use. The new gear was clearly worse in both accounts and the only good news is that I didn’t need to use it much.
Weight difference vs original kit was 263% (881 vs 334 gr)
In this era of sub-1 oz gas burners, it was odd to carry this monster:
It was the only portable gas stove I could find. I could have gone alcohol with a burner made out of a beer can but I already had the gas canister and I preferred the cleanliness and reliability of gas more than ever in this trip with so many uncertainties.
The monster burner was not only big, it wasn’t foldable in any way. A very cheap design but it did the job faultlessly. I don’t even know how much it weighted, I donated it before leaving Newfoundland.
Woods3 came again to the rescue, this time in the cooking department. The Cypress Kettle was anodized aluminium and distinctively backpacking-looking.
This thing is about twice the weight of my usual pot (a most typical, titanium 850 ml), it’s quite bigger and it’s trickier to eat out of. On the other hand, the kettle shape is supposed to be very efficient at heating. I haven’t tested this and I’m afraid the difference will be too small to notice.
I loved my kettle and I still do. It’s just a beautiful item. It recalls nice things. It makes for great camp photos.
Weight difference vs original kit for stove and pot was 317% (365 vs 115 gr)
I loved this part.
In my rush for building a new kit from scratch, I had it clear that it wouldn’t be perfect, that I couldn’t devote enough time to make it as good as possible and that I had to compromise.
When I stepped off the big store where I got most of my new gear with a full cart, I made a quick packing round so I could literally become a backpacker again. I hadn’t found any specific stuff sacks so I made do with what I had: extra packaging, often just discarded, was happily reused as impromptu packing means: a big, sturdy plastic bag that held the tent became my day clothing bag. A plastic case from the rain jacket was used as extra clothing bag. Another plastic case from the rain pants became my map case, it even had a strip with buttonholes that I could use to thread some line through.
My new sleeping layers each came in nice fabric bags that I used for (1) all the electronics and (2) all the accessories –knife, toiletries, compass, flashlight… It was even classy.
I completed my trip successfully with such improvised packing means.
Weight difference vs original kit was 141% (164 vs 116 gr)
This was possibly the highlight of my new kit, the only item that might be on par with my main gear, maybe even better. It’s once again a Woods item named Vega. It’s a small headlamp, good only for camp chores and little else. I doubt it’s enough light for night hiking but I haven’t tried that yet. It’s got a elastic strap and the housing can tilt to a few fixed positions. It uses one single led whose specs I don’t know. It uses 1 CR2032 button battery and its trail weight is 30 gr.
Operation is old-fashion simple, one single switch to go from off to full light, low light and strobe, then off again in successive pushes. The switch is easy to access and it appears safe from self-activation.
It’s very similar in specs/performance to my old Black Diamond Ion (old, discontinued model) that I had brought to this very trip or the better known Petzl e+LITE. I still need to evaluate lighting capacity and power efficiency.
It was a pleasure to use and it probably is the only item that might stay in my regular kit.
Weight difference vs original kit was 94% (30 vs 32 gr)
I’m a Platypus fan, the simple bottles are a perfect compromise of low weight, low volume, good durability and faultless, clean performance but if I went through any Platypus bottles during my shopping, I didn’t notice them. This wouldn’t surprise me: they were not on my radar.
I had too many things to care for and it was important to make the purchasing task as simple as possible. I decided to compromise here and there and the water containers were one of those items. I didn’t even look for fancy outdoor bottles. I went supermarket-cheap: one 1.5 L water bottle and one 1 L flavored-drink bottle. The tall water bottle would work as collapsible, at least I collapsed it. The small one was more rigid and it was better to scoop out of shallow streams. It’s great that you can choose your bottles out of such a wide offer as a supermarket shelf.
I discarded the bottles at trip end. I can only estimate their weight.
Weight difference vs original kit was an estimated 156% (150 vs 96 gr)
Why devoting a whole section to such a minor item, you may wonder… It’s because I got a funny one and I wanted to show you:
Oddly enough, I wasn’t able to find any backpacking specific spoon, neither any decent plastic or aluminium one. I didn’t try too hard though: I’d go away with anything that would work at the expense of saving time to concentrate on other items and I stopped searching when I found a set of plastic measuring spoons. I left all behind except the biggest one that was barely good enough to eat out of. At least, it had a handle.
Weight difference vs original kit was 150% (15 vs 10 gr)
I needed to replace the battery pack, charger and micro-USB cables. This was among the easiest gear to find, it is far more widely available than the backpacking stuff.
Since I’d have no proper paper maps, I’d use the smartphone for navigation so keeping it charged became critical. I didn’t lose my photo camera neither its battery but I did lose the extra battery I had in my luggage. For both reasons, I got a battery pack bigger than my original one. In the end, I never needed it to power up the smartphone but I did need a small amount of juice for the photo camera.
The one thing that stood out from my new set of electronics was the charger. I had made a huge effort to find a native north american plug charger from home. It’s easy to find adaptable chargers but it’s surprisingly difficult to find native ones when you shop from a different region! Eventually I found one that was sold as adaptable but whose base plug was north american, it took some effort! It’s certainly much easier to buy a NA charger in NA. In such a small place as Port aux Basques town, I found a great charger, small, compact, dual port (fast & slow) that worked very well: it was quick and it wouldn’t even get hot. It’s useless in Europe but it sits now in my desk reminding me I need to go back to North America :)
Put them both in perspective against their cousins in my original plan:
Weight difference vs original kit was 110% (281 vs 255 gr)
Toiletries & First Aid
I was about to go without most of the items in this category but that was during the despair times. On hiking day 1, with all the stress already behind, I made a final visit to the mall and got most of the basics.
The problem with toiletries as well as some of the first aid stuff is not finding them in the store but packing the right amount, for which I take a dedicated set of containers of the right size, sadly missing. I managed to find small sizes for everything in the store, still way bigger than I’d need but not too bad. Weight of toiletries tripled, first aid kit actually got lighter as I only packed wound care but no pills.
Weight difference vs original kit was 320% (160 vs 50 gr) toiletries only
Weight difference vs original kit was 76% (65 vs 85 gr) first aid only
The rest of the new clothing is hardly worth commenting. I got a soft shell jacket for some additional top insulation in place of the puffy I couldn’t find. Eventually I used it for dressing up in town, it wasn’t cold enough to justify it while backpacking, not even in camp. It actually worked very well for town wear, I felt far less shabby than I usually do.
The sleeping clothes (shirt and tights) were fine, just heavier than my original ones for exactly the same performance. The shirt particularly had this distinctive smell of hardware store that kept reminding me where I had got it from.
I got a beanie hat that I only used for sleeping and to avoid getting the sleeping bag dirty. I got a pair of mittens that I didn’t use at all. They’re actually very nice, interesting mittens in a wool/nylon blend that I expect to keep and use in the future.
Surviving old kit
There were a few items out of my original kit that stayed with me because they were not checked in for the flight. It’s mostly tried and tested kit whose performance is out of the question but there’s still details worth commenting in the context of this particular trip.
My base layer wool top was at its upper end of temperature comfort for me. I like wool but I find it uncomfortably warm when temps are high. In Newfoundland I was hiking in the mid to high twenties at times. In such temps, I was sweating buckets and praying for some breeze. Still wool sweat management is very good. All in all, I was glad I used the wool top and I’d probably use it again.
I was using a new smartphone, an outdoors specific model, the Trekker M1 Core by Crosscall. Its relevance got augmented by becoming my main means of navigation, having lost all my paper maps.
The device worked very well. As for its claims regarding outdoor use, I can say I dropped it once and it came out unharmed. The drop was on hard rock but not dramatic. I wasn’t impressed by its performance in wet conditions though: water didn’t get in but the touchscreen was difficult to use without frequent wiping.
Battery life was just as good as expected from previous tests in urban environments. My longest section in between town stops was 5 days and I didn’t need to recharge the device at all.
Navigating on digital mapping was certainly different from doing it on paper and I’ll definitely be writing about it separately.
So far it was about the gear I adopted and used in my Newfoundland trip. It’s also interesting to comment on what was missing and remained missing…
Things I did without
I’m a big proponent of hiking poles, yet when I was faced with the need for an emergency kit I chose to not bother and go without.
I like using poles for the rhythm they provide to my hiking, it’s a way of engaging my whole body in the task. This works best in wide trails. They may be a big help at the end of a hard day when my legs are tired and they’re definitely an asset when fording rivers. I consider poles as non-essential but I always carry them.
I wouldn’t go through many wide trails in Newfoundland and actually most of the terrain would be quite unfriendly to pole use, boulder fields and thick woods galore. Putting a new kit together was stressful and expensive enough so I tried to simplify. If I’d have happened along a cheap pair I’d have probably got them but I only found some rather expensive, specialized outdoor store ones. I didn’t give it a second thought.
It was interesting to do a long hike with no poles. I was so focused on the task that I didn’t think much about it, I hardly ever felt like something was missing. I felt comfortable.
I needed to ford some sizable rivers but they were all low in water and they were easy.
Back at the time I finally got hold of a PLB, I argued that hiking would never be the same again. In Newfoundland I had the chance to be back on a connection-less world and it’s difficult to say if anything actually changed back. It probably did, if only in a subtle, subconscious way. I was hiking solo, over rugged ground on remote country with difficult access and I had no means to call for help. This probably had an influence in my hiking, making me more aware of my place in the world.
Putting it the other way around, carrying the PLB would somehow relax my awareness? I’d say not consciously but who knows what the mind does on its own when you’re not looking.
Oddly enough, I got to borrow a PLB from the Gros Morne rangers for the final leg of my trip as part of the standard backcountry scheme in the National Park and I got the same model I own.
I hardly ever treat my water but I always carry some means for doing so, it’s a safety net that takes very little weight or volume, a paradigm no-brainer. It became a burden when I had so limited time to put all my kit together. As with the case for the poles above, the water treatment fell out of the deal.
I wouldn’t have done that anywhere but I would in a place like Newfoundland where water is plentiful and pristine. I drank worry free from rivers, streams or lakes. I drank clear water and sometimes breakfast-tea looking tannin-stained water which was actually rather tasty.
I had reservations with the highland marsh pond water that I chose to drink once. My alternative was to be thirsty for a while until I found better water. This is water that’s as far from pollution as it can be but it’s also been stagnant for some time in small ponds bound to eventually dry out. The water was heavily stained but otherwise fine.
I had big reservations about the water from a lake besides my very last campsite of the trip, an established site, heavily used for Newfoundland backcountry standards. There were National Park board messages advising against drinking it untreated and I’d have probably boiled it this time but I managed to find a tiny spring nearby that I could trust.
Wilderness water is usually fine to drink.
This is another item I pretty much always carry and use very little, I just don’t like glasses. I could consider going without if I counted on no significant snow and that was the case in the Newfoundland summer so I didn’t even bother shopping for a pair, even though this would have probably been an easy hunt.
This was such an interesting exercise that I could have done it on purpose and put it a fancy title such as “Back to basics, backpacking with traditional gear” or “Sod off UL, I want my 3 kg tent”, hunt for editors and aim for best-seller. This was for real though. At my very small scale, I took the situation as an opportunity to do things differently, step off my self-imposed framework and don’t feel guilty about it. And see what happened.
I changed the gear but not the idea about simplicity and gear teamwork. It could be called lightweight hiking with heavyweight gear. It’s very similar to how I used to do things when I (pretty much we all) started backpacking: lower end gear and the same focus on hiking efficiently, this time with some knowledge accumulated through the years and a point for comparison I didn’t have back then.
The best conclusion I met is that the trip is way beyond the gear. I hiked, I camped and I had a beautiful time in a magnificent place. While all this was going on, I didn’t think much of what I had in my back.
The trip was tough. It is debatable how much the heavy gear was accountable for this but it surely had some influence on both my comfort level and how far I could go everyday. I even suffered some muscle injury, something that had never happened to me before while hiking. I can’t say it was due to the additional carried weight but it probably played a part.
I loved going out there with whatever gear I could find. It made me feel free, in a way. I like gear, I like to play with it and think of how to make it better for me but what I truly love is being out there, travel on my own means, see the world, feel the place I’m going through. As long as I can do that, I’m happy.
References: Gear Lists
As a background, these are the complete gear lists at play: the original, intended list and the one that shows the gear as it was eventually used.
|Final List||Original List|