Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Lightweight Gear Tips

There are many blogs, websites, and other resources which offer advice on lightweight backpacking. Some have worthwhile content while others merely cover common sense. As I write topics for my blog, I typically ask myself which category I fall under with the hope that my ramblings aren’t met with rolling eyes. For this reason, and because it is fresh in my mind as I plan for my Appalachian Trail section hike, I wanted to cover some tips and information on going lightweight that I haven’t seen covered anywhere else (at least not with any great attention).

First, I think most experienced backpackers know where they can cut weight. They know that SilNylon packs weighs less than a nylon pack and that Cuben Fiber packs weigh less than SylNylon. They know that a tarp weighs less than a tent and that “nothing” weighs less than a tarp. They know a ground cloth can be a simple tarp, but lighter options exist in Tyvek, Spinnaker fabric, and Polycryo with “nothing” again being the lightest. Experienced backpackers know that a quilt is lighter than a sleeping bag and is also more versatile. Experienced backpackers know that synthetics pack larger, but do better when wet, and that nothing packs smaller and offers better warmth to weight ratio than goose down. Course, with each of these concessions the user must pay attention to cost and durability. For me, these two items are relevant as I am neither wealthy nor can I afford to be less than responsible for my gear considering that I can’t easily replace it.

So there you go, fairly well known advice covered in many sources which should help any backpacker refine their gear, go lighter, and hopefully have more fun. But what about the “other” stuff. What about things other than a shelter, pack, and sleep system?

Well, as I’m going through my gear I wanted to offer some thoughts on gear that I find to be useful and lightweight which I haven’t seen elsewhere. For many of these items I took pictures of them to show that they really do exist. I should mention none are groundbreaking, but each has made a slight difference to my overall pack load, comfort, and functionality.

CUBEN FIBER STUFF SACKS – Simply put, a trash bag pack liner may be a smarter, cheaper, and lighter option if you’re looking to keep your stuff dry. If you want to use stuff sacks for organizational reasons, try Cuben Fiber. Cuben Fiber is stronger and is actually more waterproof than SilNylon. It is also lighter, but you'll find the downside is in the price.

WHISTLE/COMPASS – To me, a whistle is a necessity as it has the function of helping save my butt if lost or injured and it also can scare away unwanted wildlife or help locate friends. Some would argue that any item which isn’t used nearly daily isn’t worth it. This is one piece of gear which falls outside of those lines to me as I can’t yell enough or make any noise as loud as a whistle. For me, an ACR whistle is the loudest, one of the lightest, and one of the most affordable. It is pretty much weatherproof and being pea-less means it won’t freeze up. I glued a button compass to mine and wear it around my neck. Having both the whistle and compass at my immediate disposal has been invaluable and I’ve used both more times than I can count. I should mention that I hike in areas which are fairly well marked. If you hiked in more difficult to navigate areas, get a higher grade compass or a GPS. I also carry a Sunnto Core watch with a digital compass as I like knowing what time and day it is, it helps me determine weather conditions, I like seeing how far I’ve climbed up or down, and I like timing myself. Even though I have a compass on my watch, I’d never use it only as my single orienteering device as machines fail. In fact, this watch was already replaced by Sunnto after a glitch in its mechanics caused the compass to point in the wrong direction. I figured this out before the manufacturer issued a recall after a trip where it conflicted with my free floating compass. It’s times like these when I’m glad a simple button compass weighs nearly nothing and I was smart enough to bring one. (Note: If you have a Suunto Core purchased within the last two years, you may have one of the damaged models. Suunto will replace it for free if you do.)

BANDANA WITH EMERGENCY COMMENTS – Many people carry a bandana, but few use it to its fullest extent. I took some waterproof acrylic paint and wrote words that can be flashed to a passing motorist. In a pinch, it could be the difference of getting medical help or a ride…and at no additional weight. Although mine is green because I like most of my stuff green (i.e. Jolly GREEN Giant), the blaze orange color would help notify folks from quite a distance if it was frantically waved around.

WATER / CAMP SHOES – Ultralight hikers know they can leave two things at home – water shoes and camp shoes. Why? Because they are already wearing running shoes and they figure the extra shoes aren’t worth the weight when breathable running shoes can take the brunt of nearly any condition. Although this is true for the most part, I hate wet shoes even if they do dry quickly. Typically, I alsoo can’t stand waiting for them to dry. Wet shoes are often uncomfortable, they stink, and often they encourage blisters. Instead of packing a pair of clown shoes (Crocs) to deal with water crossing and camp activities, I decided to make a pair out of Tyvek. I put heavy-grade felt on the bottom for traction and a piece of my foam sleeping pad for comfort. They can go over my shoes or just on my feet. They won’t win any fashion awards and they won’t last forever, but they will get me across a stream and give me something else to wear at camp if I choose to wear them. The best part is that they weigh and cost nearly nothing and I leave them at home if I don’t have any streams on my map.

LATEX GLOVES – Yes, the kind doctors use. They can do triple duty as an insulating glove (especially during the rain), as protection from pathogens during a medical emergency, and can help keep your hands clean when using the bathroom. They can also be inverted after grabbing a handful of bathroom waste to serve as a baggie (just tie the end off). And let’s face it, they weigh nearly nothing.

PETROLEUM JELLY – Petroleum jelly is great for sun damaged skin, chaffing, burns, etc. It also is great when attempting to start a fire. Keeping some petroleum jelly on cotton balls goes a long way for medical and fire needs.

BUTT PAD / COZY – For some reason people seem to work very hard to be miserable. I find misery comes easy enough. When I stop or when I’m at camp, I really have no urge to sit on the cold, damp, or dirty ground just to soil the clothing that I’ll need to keep clean and functional for the rest of the trip. With that, I’ve made a butt pad out of my sleeping pad and I put some Velcro on it so I can fold it up around a freezer bag. It then acts as a cozy to help keep my meals warm or keeps my butt happy. When I really want to keep my food warm, I use another homemade cozy which I made of insulation commonly used in the heating/air-conditioning business which I found at my local hardware store. Add a little Velcro and literally it keeps things extremely warm. I had made one for my Titanium cup, but after it required me to nurse a cup of hot chocolate for about 45 minutes because it remained too hot, I decided it wasn’t necessary for most of my trips. The insulation cozy can also fit inside my butt pad cozy if I want to help protect the more fragile insulation or if the insulation gets a little too warm or flimsy. In a pinch, both offer great protection to cameras or other fragile things too and can also help keep fresh fruit from getting damaged while you aren’t using them for cooking.

LIGHTWEIGHT COOKING – Newsflash – You can cook with a fire created by natural resources and not carry even the lightest stove. If this isn’t allowed in your neck of the woods, the next lightest is Esbit. Sure, we all enjoy the quiet flickering burn of alcohol or the efficiency and controllability of gas, but Esbit is genuinely the lightest – by far. Give it a shot if you want to cut weight. It isn’t terribly nostalgic, but it works, it’s cheap, and it’s light. Another consideration other than the type of fuel is the efficiency of your system. Simply put, I have found no other lightweight system as efficient and fully functional as the Ti-Tri Caldera Cone system offered by Trail Designs and sold by Titanium Goat. The cone serves as a pot stand and windscreen which makes it as efficient as it can be. And one other major thing that few other stove systems can claim, because it is made of titanium, it works with Esbit, alcohol, or natural resources. So when you’re trying to figure out what kind of stove you want and how much fuel you’ll need, consider that the Ti-Tri system will still work when you run out of the fuel you packed as you can simply pick up some twigs and eat a warm meal. How many systems can say that?

WATER TREATMENT – I covered this topic fairly recently so I won’t invest a lot of time here, but the bottom line is that the lightest water treatment option which is also highly effective is Micropur Katadyn tablets. Simply, it does what the others do, just for a lot less weight. Worried about gunk that can be trapped with a filter? Get a porous nylon bag from Walmart like those used for wedding table settings to hold candy. It will stop the gunk, hold your stuff, and the collective system weighs nearly nothing.

CAT HOLES TOOLS – Unfortunately MANY people are irresponsible about human waste in the wilderness. This past January I came across a pile of used toilet paper and human excrement while backpacking. I honestly felt quite dejected and terribly sad that people who share the same joy for the outdoors as I do would be so willing to ruin it for others. Other folks are more responsible, but in my opinion, not responsible enough. Yes you can dig a hole with a stick or put a rock over your waste, but this really isn’t responsible either. Truthfully, you should pack it out. Now don’t get me wrong, it is very unlikely that you’ll find me toting my colon contents in one of my fancy Cuben sacks, but when I’m required, I pack it out. When I don’t have to, I dig a 6-8” deep hole, do my thing, stir it, and add Earth back to the hole. Unless I want to take all day trying to dig a responsible hole, I need a responsible tool to dig it. Many people claim a responsible hole can be dug with a stick or the heel of their boot. To me, that's laughable. Others claim a hole can be dug with a heavy duty tent stake such as the MSR Groundhog (pictured in red). Yes, it does the job....barely....and it is messy and not terribly efficient. I don’t know about you, but I don’t enjoy the pucker-factor of waiting to dig a time consuming hole while waiting to handle my business. The Sea-to-Summit IPOOD is essentially a shovel and does the job extremely well, but it is a bit cumbersome and too heavy. A typical ultralight tent stake is simply too small and a stick is usually just a pain and may not be immediately available. So what’s left? Let me suggest the Montbell’s Handy Scoop which seems to be right in the middle of a decent lightweight piece of gear that does the job effectively. Consider it and consider the extent you’re willing to be responsible for yourself to ensure the great wilderness we all love will remain in a condition we want to share with our children.

MONTBELL U.L. DOWN INNER JACKET – This is a very specific warming garment for me and I think most people would easily dismiss a “jacket” for three season backpacking as many generally use a merino wool layer or capilene as their insulation on a cold evening. I absolutely love merino wool and capilene, but when I really looked hard at weights and function, I was absolutely surprised to learn that this “down jacket” actually weighed LESS than my merino wool top. It was only 33 grams less, but hey, “less is less”. The bigger kicker isn’t the weight in this case; it’s the fact that the jacket is scientifically more than twice as warm. So ask yourself this, for essentially the same weight, would you rather have something that will keep you warmer? To me, this was a no brainer and one of the few garments I found which is lighter and warmer than what most people use. It also does better in the wind too. What is the downside, well, you may need to bring an undershirt being that the jacket isn't really a next-to-skin item. If you need another shirt, you will actually have a heavier system than a simple merino/capilene top...but you'll be warmer :)

There are a lot of other random things here and there worth discussion and many other homemade choices I think make a lot of sense. With that, there is always time and content for another blog so I’ll quit while I’m ahead. Thanks for stopping by and happy backpacking.


samh said...

Although I find your blog posts are redundant to what I know once in awhile I still appreciate the thoroughness of what you do cover. Keep up the good work, JGG.

Jolly Green Giant said...

Thanks Sam. Don't think for a second that your blog, travels, and continued good will on our favorite site ( didn't inspire me. There are a handful of folks in this industry who I follow and who honestly have taught me most that I know - and you are one of them. What you see is, in part, what I learned from you and the others. My intent is to compile these thoughts and share them with the masses so they hopefully don't need to pull their hair out trying to see the big picture as I did. The benefit which others gain is not from my efforts, but from your continued inspiration. Thanks.

Philip Werner said...

I like your analysis of the Montbell jacket. Never thought of it that way. They are very warm - almost too warm sometimes.

Anonymous said...

Instead of carrying petroleum jelly, I use a product called "3 in 1 Ointment".

It's PJ but with added anti-bacterials. Burns well for fire starting, gives better medical uses.