Sunday, August 9, 2009

Backpacking Gear Test

After hauling my camping gear to the airport for RAGBRAI, at the magazine stand I noticed the cover of the latest issue of Backpacker: "Your Lightest Load Ever!" Intrigued, I read all about Ultralight Backpacking and the newest lightweight tech. Then I started shopping. I ended up backing off from ultralight, and now could be classified as lightweight+: 23 lbs base weight (without food, water, fuel).

Gear Weights (spreadsheet)

All listed weights measured myself with a Cuisinart kitchen scale.

I took all the listed gear to Pinnacles National Monument as a test. One night in the campground, day hikes to the Bear Gulch (2.4 miles) and Balconies (5.4 miles) caves, plus 2 miles with full pack. Impressions follow.

North Face El Lobo 65 Pack

This was the one non-"ultralight" purchase. I considered several other recommended ultralight packs, including the North Face "Flight" series Skareb 65, but wasn't able to convince myself of their durability or gear hauling ability (assuming I didn't commit to ultralight for everything else). The El Lobo has some useful features over the Skareb, including a separate sleeping bag compartment and a detachable lid converting to a padded fanny pack. I used the lid pack to carry two 0.7 L water bottles plus food and flashlight for the day hikes. According to spec the El Lobo (at 4 lb 4 oz) was only supposed to be 8 oz heavier than the Skareb (at 3 lb 12 oz). However, my scale shows the El Lobo at 5 lb 6 oz -- over a lb above spec.

In the field the pack worked fine. Held all my (new) stuff, comfortable on the trail. Built-in hydration compartment (common in new packs) is great for hiking, though an internal leak would be very messy. Katadyn water filter (tested at home, not on trip) does provide quick-connect fittings for the drinking hose so the reservoir doesn't have to be opened or removed to refill. Hopefully this will reduce the odds of mishap.

Sierra Designs Vapor Light 2 XL Tent

This tent replaces my 1990 North Face Coriolis 2-person tent (7 lbs with footprint). The Vapor Light saves over 2 lbs, while still being a 2 person tent -- so far I find one-person tents too claustrophobic (plus I like keeping my pack inside). I do expect the Vapor Light to be less durable; I would rather have the North Face in an Iowa Tornado. The stakes it came with (middle) are a joke:

So I replaced them with REI stakes (top) similar to those provided by North Face with my old tent.

I went with the REI-exclusive XL model (93" long, instead of 83" in the non-XL) so it could fit my old long sleeping bag (86"). My old tent was 90" long.

North Face Orion Sleeping Bag (20 deg, synthetic, regular length)

This bag replaces my 1990 North Face Cats Meow (20 deg, synthetic, long length) bag (3 lb 11 oz), saving 1 lb 4 oz. More importantly, the new bag fits in the sleeping bag compartment of the El Lobo pack, and leaves enough room that the hydration pack can be used without the new tent being carried outside the pack. Yes, down could have been even smaller and lighter. I don't want to worry about a wet bag. I decided to go with regular length since most ultralight one-person tents can't hold a long bag. Trying it in the store, regular bags do hold a six-foot person -- if they are sleeping on their back like a mummy.

In testing, I found this doesn't really work for side-sleepers. You get a cold draft over the shoulder, since you can't scoot down to cover unless your legs are bent. I also experimented with the head-cinch cord, which I normally never use (again too claustrophobic). My old North Face bag had a rope cord, and a normal-sized squeeze-lock. The Orion has an elastic cord, and a tiny squeeze lock which gives no feedback as to whether the tiny button is activated. As a result I broke the elastic inside the hood while trying to open it during the night. Frankly this worries me about North Face's "Flight" ultralight product line (including this Orion bag, and the Skareb pack I had considered). With almost 20 years of North Face products (discussed above, plus a ski shell and down jacket) I've never managed to break anything until now. Fortunately I don't use the head cinch anyway. Looking at other bags at REI (including the current Cats Meow) they all use larger squeeze locks and many use ropes instead of elastic. I only found the micro squeeze lock on some ultralight packs.

New Balance 1500 Rainier Hiking Boot

Replaces Vasque hiking boot. Weights are basically the same: 3 lb/pair. Benefit (over many other options) of these New Balance is that they actually come in B widths. No blisters in two days (moderate, hot) hiking.

With a fully loaded pack weight of 30 lbs I didn't want to try just using low-cut trail shoes.

Trimble Outdoors Android G1 Phone App

This was a last-minute Android Market download/purchase, as I didn't want to add 5 oz for my old Garmin GPS (which also has a horrible menu interface, and doesn't support map downloads). I haven't figured it all out yet. I got waypoints for Pinnacles High Peaks Trail onto my GPhone, but didn't download a topo map.

One hilarious part: Help requires web access. Hope you're not too lost.

Next Steps

Turns out my old steel MSR pots are now considered "expedition grade". Ultralight titanium is apparently the new hotness...