BACKPACKING GEAR GUIDE

5/25/18

PURPOSE
The second Bird Dog-led overnight ruck is coming up on Friday, July 20th.   It appears that we will have a larger hiking party this time around, maybe 15-20 PAX, and possibly even some prospective F3 men.   Recently, I’ve had several guys ask me questions about backpacking gear in preparation for this second ruck into the Sipsey Wilderness of Northern Alabama. I’m a bit of a gear hound, and I have some backpacking experience. This post is my attempt to be helpful to the PAX in this domain.

I’m going to list a bunch of cool/recommended backpacking gear below.  Let me be clear: you do not need any of this gear to complete a summertime overnight ruck.   You do need: some sort of shelter (tent), some sort of pack, a sleeping bag (although a light blanket might suffice in July), and a few other mostly obvious items (flashlight or headlamp, containers for water, food, etc.).  If you want to join this ruck and don’t have everything that you need, borrow gear if you can.  I’ve got some extra gear, and I’m willing to bet that a few others do as well.  If there is a piece of essential gear that you do not have, a tent for example, and you want to purchase for use this summer and in the future, then this guide may be of some help to you.

BACKGROUND
I can claim some backpacking experience.  However, the standard disclaimer applies: I am not a professional, read on at your own risk, and modify as needed.  My backpacking experience includes many single overnights on the Appalachian Trail in Western Maryland, a 5-nighter in the Shenandoah region of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, a few overnights in the Catskill Mountains of New York, in addition to back country overnights in the Grand Tetons, Yellowstone, Utah’s Canyonlands, South Dakota’s Badlands, Aspen, Colorado, and for me most memorably, 4 nights in Glacier National Park, Montana.  I’m no expert, but I do have enough experience on trails, and under load, to be moderately useful here.

Photo: Bird Dog’s 2017 summit of Mt. Whitney – the highest peak in the lower 48

Photo Aug 28, 8 30 24 AM

THE BIG THREE FOUR
I had a more lengthy post in mind, but I’m going to break this up into a couple of posts. For now, let’s dive into the primary components, what they call the “big three” of backpacking gear:

  • BACKPACK
  • SHELTER
  • SLEEPING SYSTEM (sleeping bag and sleeping pad).

Before pressing further, I’ll mention the natural phenomenon that weighs quite heavily in backpacking gear discussions: gravityWeight is important to backpackers, and the further you go, the faster you go, or the more often you go, the more weight matters.  Whether you are out in the wilderness for a night, or for two weeks, to some degree the weight of your gear will make a difference to you.  I would loosely carve backpacking gear into the following categories based on weight #1 regular old backpacking gear, #2 “lightweight” gear, #3 “ultralight” gear, and #4 “hyperlight” gear.  For this discussion, let’s completely ignore ultralight gear and hyperlight gear.  First, any gear with “ultralight” or “hyperlight” apt to be relatively expensive.  Those items (tents, packs, etc.) are for hard core “gram counters” and are generally a lot less durable than other classes of gear.  Regular old backpacking gear we could use to label anything a novice can put his hands on such as a small tent, any old backpack, etc.  “Lightweight” gear is the next step.  This is where you decide that you do not want to carry a 15 lb 4-man camping tent on your back, through the mountains, in addition to all of the other gear you need to survive and be comfortable.  We’ll focus on lightweight gear.

****SALE****  One reason I wanted to get this gear guide out now is that REI is having their biggest annual sale for the next couple of days (ends May 28th).  Why does this matter?  Right now, backpacking gear is discounted 25-30% at every online store, in order to compete with REI.  Moosejaw and Amazon have to follow suit and lower the price (by the same amount) on most tents, packs, etc. during this sale.  If you need a piece of gear for this ruck, or just for a future adventures, save some real money by purchasing NOW, during this sale.  

THE PACK
F3 Birmingham’s next planned trip is a single nighter. For an overnight trip into the wilderness on which you need only carry your own load (not your kid’s or your lady’s gear), nearly any pack will suffice. Any good size “book bag” or “day pack” type backpack, of which most people have, or can put their hands on, will get you in and out of the Sipsey Wilderness for a night.

On Sipsey One, I used a GoRuck GR1 – GoRuck’s primary rucksack product.  These things are 26 liters in volume, 3.2 lbs, beloved by the F3 Nation, bombproof, useful for all sorts of endeavors all year long, and at $295 (except when on sale) — crazy expensive. I can only recommend one of these packs to you if you plan to do GoRuck events in the future, or will find a lot of other use for it throughout the year, and can pick it up on sale. It is not really a backpacking backpack. However, it performed surprisingly well for me on Sipsey One – comfortable the entire time. I had the thing overloaded (a bit over 40 lbs) with too much water, a .40 cal pistol & ammo (for hogs), tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, food, and everything else.  My GR1 was very comfortable, even without utilizing the optional waist belt, which I had attached, but did not need on that ruck.  I lashed items to the outside, and it all worked so well, I hesitate to bring anything else on the next overnight. I really love this pack (can you tell?). The bottom line is: if you have one already, and some of you do, you can use it, though you may need to lash tent and/or sleeping back to the exterior.  I believe Rabbit used his too on that ruck.  You can do the same with really any other similarly sized pack.

Photo: under there somewhere is a GR1, a workhorse of a pack

Photo Apr 08, 3 56 33 PM.jpg

Next, let’s move on to top rated backpacking packs.  There are loads of these on the market.  If you think you are going to do some backpacking in the future and really want to invest in a 65 liter pack, two of the best on the market – both of which have offer tons of features and comfort, are the Gregory Baltoro and the Osprey Atmos AG 65.  These packs can carry days worth of gear for extended hikes.  However, if you plan to ever backpack with family and expect to need to carry more than your share of the load, the volume and comfort offered by these types of packs will be very useful.

REI has on sale for 50% off (probably not for more than a couple more days) a really nice looking full-featured 65 liter pack, the Co-Op Flash 65.  This pack looks to be an excellent value at $99 and the reviews are good.

Here’s another option to consider.  Owing no doubt to low cost overseas manufacturing, there are loads of sub-$50 packs on Amazon that look very appealing.  These are “no name” type brands, probably not too durable, loaded with features, and very well priced.  Take a look at a couple of these and you will see what looks like a perfectly good, very low-cost option for a backpacking pack

VBIGER 60L Hiking Backpack

Teton Sports Summit 1500

Scandinavian Gear 65L

Photo: a $39 60-L pack on Amazon

electon 60

TENTS
You need a tent.  If you want to be a bad ass and sleep on the ground in an Alabama forest in the summertime, acting like a juice bar for thirsty mosquitoes, in the rain, etc., then…. well, I’ll actually be a bit impressed.  Everyone else should utilize a tent.  hammocks and tarp combos are an option too, though certainly less popular than tents.

If you have a reasonably light weight camping-type tent (under 10 lbs, I hope), that will do.  If you do not, here are some things to consider.  Several of the guys, YHC included, used 1-person tents on Sipsey One.  I did not have a suitable tent for the 14 mile overnight ruck, and had always been a bit fascinated by 1-person tents.  Before that hike, I did some research and picked up an ALPS Mountaineering Lynx 1-person tent.  It worked very well.  This thing is $84 on Amazon (I’ve seen it a bit lower too, and I think I paid less), and it is highly rated.  You can buy more expensive 1-person tents, but as far as I can tell, those are not much better than the Lynx.  I’ve only spent one night in it, but my kids have spent several nights in it (inside the house).  I can strongly recommend this item, if you want a 1-person tent…and you will fit in it.  If you are 3PO tall, check the dimensions before buying.

Photo: the Lynx with the rain fly off – a very cool little tent.Photo Apr 08, 8 52 53 AM

But here’s the rub.  This tent is a great buy and it appears to be well constructed.  However, at 3 lbs 15 oz it is not that light for a 1-person tent.  Here is why that matters.  Although the Lynx has a decent size exterior vestibule to keep gear in, there is definitely not room inside for a grown man AND gear.  Your gear sleeps outside with tents like this.  This drawback may seem trivial, but to me it is much easier to pack up in the rain, etc. when your pack is IN your tent with you.  For not much more money, not much more weight (maybe 1 more pound), and a bit more  packed size, you can sleep in a small 2-person tent, and likely be more comfortable, and with better convenience.  Bonus: you can use a 2-person tent to bring your kid or your M on an overnight trip with you sometime.  I took my 9 year old boy recently on an overnight into Oak Mountain Park’s back country.  We would certainly not both fit in the Lynx, so we brought a heavy/large camping tent, which was not ideal.

So unless you really like the idea of the 1-person tent, here are some recommendations on a 2-person tent.

REI Co-op Passage Tent
On sale now for $99 (a co-worker in NY who backpacks AT quite a lot, just bought this on sale at REI.com). It’s roomy, a great buy, and at 4 lbs 13 oz, it doesn’t weight that much more than the Lynx 1-man tent

REI Half Dome 2 Plus
This is a top rated tent. I just bought one on sale for $159 so that I can take my boy (maybe the girl too) out into the wilderness sometime. This tent weights about the same as the Passage (neither are particularly light by backpacking tent standards), but it is larger – quite roomy actually. It has two large vestibules for gear and a door on each side of the tent. After lots of research, this is what I went with.  I’m loaning out my 1-man Lynx to one of the PAX for the overnight ruck.

Photo: REI Half Dome 2 Plushalf dome

If you want the top of the line 2-person backpacking tent, the single highest rated tent, might just be the Big Agnes Copper Spur HV UL 2. This is a $450 tent (ouch), but it is on sale this week for $335. If you have the dough (I’m looking at you dentists), and want a great tent, you’ll probably love this one. One thing though about a large 2-person tent that only weighs 2.12 oz — it’s made of very light weight material and it is not going to be as durable as a tent like the Half Dome 2.

Worth a mention: the Sierra Clip Designs Flash Light Tent. Highly rated, and on sale this week for $150.  However, the front egress on this tent is not for everyone.

SLEEP SYSTEM
Your sleep system is a sleeping bag plus a sleeping pad.  I’ve not made much of a study of the latest in sleeping bags, but I would like to do some cold weather backpacking later in the year.  For Alabama summer backpacking, a light fleece blanket might suffice.  I took a sub-$10 rectangle camping sleeping bag from Academy on Sipsey One and into Oak Mountain.  It was big (even when compressed in stuff sack, heavy, and way too hot.  I found a low cost solution for the upcoming Sipsey trip.  You can spend A LOT of money on lightweight backpacking sleeping bags.  However, for under $30 you can purchase a summer weight, very small, low-cost bag from Amazon.  I picked up an ECOPRO Warm Weather Sleeping Bag.  At $26.99 (less in some colors), it isn’t high quality, but it will do the trick.  There are many manufacturers on Amazon selling lightweight bags like this, and some may even be at a lower price.  This thing packs down very small and weighs only 1.7 lbs.  If you don’t have a sleeping bag and need one, I recommend one of these.

Photo May 23, 9 05 22 PM Photo May 16, 9 03 04 PM

You can sleep on the ground without a sleeping pad, but don’t. Your sleep is important. Be comfortable. Like bags, pads can get very expensive for uber-ultralight gear, and gear with a higher R value for cold weather. There two primary types of pads in use today: closed cell foam and inflatable. Closed cell foam is durable, doesn’t risk getting a hole and deflating on you, and often warmer (R value) for cold weather. Closed cell foam pads that fold up like an accordion, like the Thermarest Z Lite ($39) seem to be the most popular. This is a very good choice for a pad. You can also use it as a seat at camp, or to block the wind when cooking on a camp stove. However, these closed cell pads are generally not considered to be as comfortable as inflatables.

z lite

Without breaking the bank, you can still get a good inflatable sleeping pad. Unless you want a $200 version that will keep you warm in very cold weather, I recommend the Outdoorsman Lab Ultralight Sleeping Pad. I have this pad, it is comfortable, and seems relatively durable. These things come in all shapes sizes and costs, so look around Amazon a bit if you are in need on one.

outdoors

TREKKING POLES

For me, the “big three” of backpacking gear is now the “big four”. I never hiked with trekking poles until we recently went to Sipsey. Like all of the rest of this stuff, you can spend a lot of trekking poles. However, I have a set purchased from Amazon, BAFX Anti Shock Trekking Poles, that seem to be an excellent value at $22. I cannot recommend trekking poles strongly enough. In Sipsey there is rugged terrain, it was wet, and I felt sure footed the whole time. I felt like I moved faster and surer with these in hand.  Using poles also turned out to be a great upper body workout (I was not expecting that). Since that trip, I’ve done some research and trekking poles seem to be widely considered to have a major impact on saving your knees, as they shift weight and stabilize your gate on uneven terrain. Hook yourself up with a pair of $22 trekking poles. Seriously.

quick lock

These BAFX poles are not the most durable due to the friction lock joints, though I think they will last quite some time. If you are convinced about the use of trekking poles, you can spend a lot on super light weight high end poles. My research indicates that the best low-cost poles with very high end features (cork grips, quick locks), are these Cascade Mountain Tec Carbon Fiber Quick Lock Poles.

If this is determined to be helpful, I could dive deeper in a following issue and get into hydration/water purification, cooking, food, lights, footwear (spoiler alert: just wear running shoes), and a few odds and ends.

See you in the gloom,

– Barney Fife

PS – if you have questions on this type of thing, hit me up on Slack anytime

Photos: a couple more shots from Sipsey.  None of the photos that I brought back do this place justice.

Photo Apr 14, 8 12 24 AM.jpg

Photo Apr 13, 6 01 30 PM.jpg

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