Backpacking Gear Thoughts

I have been backpacking since the late 1900's.  Ok 1995 to be exact.  I do not consider myself a guru of backpacking but a few thoughts about what I like and why, may be helpful to some.

General Gear List

Over time I have found and made a list of the items I like to carry and refer to it while packing, to avoid forgetting something.  Listing it here might be a good place for a beginner to get an idea of what to carry.  This is not intended to be an all inclusive list or a list of the best items to carry.  The list shows what I carry (you will come up with your own list).  The list of what I carry and how I like to arrange it, continually changes as I try and learn new things.

Link to General Gear List Click here to see the list.
If you decide to save a copy of this list for yourself, right click the link and select save target as.

Arrangement

Most packs have a pocket on the very top of the pack.  I like to keep the gadget stuff here so it is easy access.  The other stuff that is good to keep in this pocket is a portion of your toilet paper (incase you get an unstoppable urge) and a portion of your snacks for easy access on breaks.

In the main compartment of the pack goes sleeping bag, tent (if you decide to keep it inside), clothing, extra water storage, water filter, stove and food.

In some of the other pockets of the pack keep things like a water bottle, hat, gloves, a small flash light etc for easy access without the need to dig through the main compartment looking for them.  The tent poles will also be strapped to the outside.

Opinions, Comparisons and Ideas

Packs

Sleeping Bag

A sleeping bag that is stored in a stuff sack is much easier to use and more compact than those than need to be rolled up.  When you are ready to pack it simply start cramming it into the stuff sack.

Some prefer a down sleeping bag while others prefer synthetic.  The down will be slightly lighter then its synthetic counterpart rated at a similar temperature.  It is said that a synthetic bag will provide more warmth than a down bag if they are wet.  While this may be true I tend to believe a wet sleeping bag is miserable no matter what kind it is!  Rather than try to pick the one that will be warmer when wet, I prefer to focus on not getting it wet in the first place.  Keep in mind that some moisture will accumulate in it when you sleep, since your body will be giving off moisture all night.  So spreading it out in the morning to dry in the sun for a while is a good idea regardless.

When storing a bag do not keep it in the stuff sack.  Keep it loose.  If you store it in the stuff sack the bag will loose some of its loft when it is taken out.  Everything will be pressed together from being stored that way.  Having less loft will not allow the bag to trap as much air.  Trapped air is what helps keep you warm.

I like the Big Agnes style bags.  There is no insulation on the bottom portion of the bag.  Instead there is a sleeve for a sleeping pad.  The theory is most of the insulation value of the bottom portion of the bag is lost when you are laying on it.  Since it is compressed it can not trap air and can not insulate well.  Big Agnes puts a sleeve for the sleeping pad there instead.  A sleeping pad does not fully compress so the air is still trapped.  So why carry insulation in the bag that will not provide insulation.  The sleeping pad will provide the insulation instead.  So there is an over al weight savings.  The other nice feature of this is, you can not roll or slide off of the sleeping pad.  It is held in the sleeve of the bag so no mater what you do it stays with you.  That works great for people like me that change positions a lot when I sleep.

Cleaning a sleeping bag is not difficult but does require a little more thought than throwing it in the washer and dryer.  The washer should be a front loader style (might have to go to a laundry mat for this).  The front loader style is gentler on the bag and is less likely to rip it, and provides better agitation for better cleaning.  Wash it on a gentle cycle in cold water with diluted detergent or down wash.  After it is washed do a few more rinse cycles.  I like to re-wash it a couple times with no detergents at all.  The extra rinse is to be extra sure you get all the detergent rinsed out from deep in the bag.  If detergent is left behind it can stick fibers together and cause the bag to loose warmth.  Dry the bag in a front loading dryer as well.  To help fluff the bag place 2 or 3 tennis balls in the dryer with the bag.  The balls will beat the bag to assist with fluffing it.  Dry on a low heat and do not use fabric softeners.

Sleeping Pad

I prefer the all air style sleeping pads as opposed to the self inflating foam style.  The all air pads are lighter, more compact and have performed well for me (except when sleeping on snow).  If the all air style isn't quite warm enough for you there are versions that have a small amount of fill in them to add more warmth and still be light and compact.

Tents

I prefer a free standing tent so I can set it up anywhere, even a large wide open flat rock area.  Not only do free standing tents set up anywhere, they can be moved after you have set them up.  If you use a dome style free standing tent and it is small enough it helps with your housekeeping as well.  When you want to sweep it out, simply take all your stuff out, lift it up with the door facing down and shake everything out.  Poof a clean swept tent.

The tent also needs to be light.  There really isn't much to say about that except to remind yourself that every ounce counts when you have to haul EVERYTHING on your back.

After trying some more expensive tents I keep going back to a very inexpensive tent.  I use the 2 man Junior tent from Walmart.  The tent is light, fast to set up, freestanding and fits me (6 foot) and my gear.  This tent holds up incredibly well in heavy winds.  Another plus is the tent costs less than $20.  So if you happen to be rough on your tent and trash it, another is not going to set you back much.

With that said there are a couple draw backs to the tent as well.  I am a fair weather camper for the most part.  If it is going to be raining a lot, I tend to not go.  The tent works good in the rain except the door arrangement.  The entry has no awning and the door is situated so rain drops in with the door open.  Not desirable if you are going to spend a lot of time in the rain.  Since I am 6 foot, I sleep in the tent from corner to corner and take up the full length of the tent from corner to corner.  So if it is raining a lot I need to be careful not to touch the sides of the tent so the water does not wick through.  If you are shorter tan 6 foot this should not be a problem.  For the occasional downpour that the tent works fine.  The only other draw back is ventilation.  It has plenty of ventilation for cool and cold nights.  But if you want to feel the breeze blow on you when it is 90°F outside at night you are out of luck unless you leave the door open. If you do not camp at times or in areas where the nights are that hot then there is no problem.

Food

Freeze dried meals are used a lot for my trips.  They taste pretty good (depending on the brand) and pack light and small.  Most of the brands sell packages that are made to serve 2 people.  Sometimes (if I'm real hungry) these are just enough for me but most times they are too much.  Below is the method I use for my freeze dried meals.

First I unpack the meals at home and divide each one in half (be sure you get equal parts of the spices etc in each half).  I place the individual half's in separate zip lock bags.  Then using a marker, label each bag with what the meal is and how much water is needed.  Now I have single serving meals instead of 2 serving meals.  The bulk of the store packaging is also thrown out so the food packs even smaller in the pack.

For cooking the meals, use a 16oz. Nalgene Bottle.  Carefully pour the contents of a bag into the Nalgene Bottle and add the prescribed amount of boiling water.  It helps if you have an insulated sleeve placed over the bottle.  Shake the bottle (a lot) to be sure things get mixed with the water well.  Wait for about 10 minutes.  If it is cold out place the bottle in your jacket while you wait, this will keep the food from cooling off as fast and will help keep you warm while you wait for your meal to cook.

When it's time to eat pour the contents out onto a plate or bowl or whatever.  I use a Frisbee for a plate (doubles as a toy).  Enjoy.  If I find one is not enough I just make another.

For clean up pour water (just a little) into the bottle, close the lid and shake vigorously.  Open the bottle and drink what comes out.  Drinking it keeps the food waste from being spread all over the landside.  Repeat 2 or 3 times or until the bottle is sufficiently clean.  I find it best to do the bottle clean up before I actually start eating.  When I am hungry the water tastes pretty good since it has some food in it.  If I do it after I eat and I am full the water is less appetizing so it is more tempting to pour the water out on the ground.  pouring it on the ground may seem un offensive but doesn't work well with the leave no trace practice.  If a lot of people did this in popular areas things might not smell so nice.

Making only the amount of food you are going to eat is helpful with trash too.  If you make a large meal ad can not eat it all you have more trash.  I find it unacceptable to throw out and feel it needs to be packed out.  Packing it out means my trash is going to be heavier and will start stinking soon.  Not fun.

More elaborate meals can be planned as well.  I have friends that do pretty well for backcountry cooking.  I am not that skilled in the area so I can't give any worth while tips.

Snacks are important.  You need fuel through the day and if all your food is in meals you are less likely to eat as much as you need.  Fruit is heavy but is so enjoyable I personally love to bring some along.  Apples seem to fair best but with the right packing any fruit is good.  For some reason a piece of fruit can be Extremely satisfying.  Granola bars, nuts, protein bars, jerky, canned meats like clams or tuna, cookies or any other snack food is great.  Salty foods are good to help keep your electrolyte levels up.

Electrolyte replacement is a good idea.  Mixing Gatorade or any other electrolyte replacement (I like EmergenC) in a bottle of water is recommended.  Another approach is to be sure your snacks contain sodium and or potassium.

Stove

Presently I carry a Jet Boil stove.  It is fairly compact, boils water fast and is very simple to use.  The down side is you can not cook food in the pot.  The heat is so intense on the bottom food will burn even if you are stirring it quickly.  If you like to cook meals on the stove this is not the stove for you.  If you like to boil water quickly for freeze dried meals or tea then this stove is great.

I used to carry a denatured alcohol stove that I made myself.  The design was light, compact and worked quite well.  It was an adaptation of the Pepsi can stove, but was smaller as it used Red Bull cans instead.  I had it all fit with windscreen, pot supports, silverware and fuel in a small pot.  When the Jet Boil came on the scene I tried it out and put my BluuBull Stove aside.  If you want to check out how it was made and how it worked check out my page on making a BluuBull Stove.

Making Water Safe

It is a common misconception that water in the great outdoors is safe.  I prefer to use the First Need water purifier by General Ecology.  You may prefer something different.  If you wish to read more about the water treatment issue please check out my Water Treatment Thoughts page.  I think it should prove informative regardless of what you choose to make your water safe.

Clothing

Clothing should be synthetic, no cotton.  Cotton retains moisture and can make you cold and damp.  Synthetic materials tend to wick moisture from the body, get it to the surface and allow it to evaporate quickly.  Shirts and pants should be fairly light and breathable to aid in cooling.  If you need more warmth, that's what the other layers are for.

As far as shoes are concerned I prefer a running type of shoe.  I have never been able to get comfortable in a hiking boot.  Hiking boots can give more support and provide some water protection but are also heavier.  Some swear by a good hiking boot while others prefer the light easy feeling of a running style shoe.

Raingear needs to be breathable.  Gore-Tex is one material that provides protection from rain and breaths at the same time.  There are other fabrics out there but I have not taken the time to research those so you're on your own there.  A breathable material will let your perspiration out instead of trapping it inside.  If you do not use a breathable fabric you will feel like you are in a sauna soon after you put it on.  You want to keep yourself dry and getting drenched in your own sweat is not helpful.  Even with breathable material you will accumulate moisture inside your raingear depending on activity level.  To help with this look for raingear that has plenty of vents.  Pit zips are a wonderful thing.  It is also helpful to have full zip sides on the pants.  This allows them to be put on quickly with out the struggle of getting them over boots.  When shopping for raingear, keep in mind you do not want it to fit snug.  If it is cold out you will want to be able to get it on over your other layers like other jackets etc.

Thermal tops and bottoms serve 2 purposes.  First the obvious, they provide warmth.  But even in warm temperatures they are good for sleeping in.  When it get warm it is tempting to sleep naked in your bag.  Wearing the thermals helps your body get rid of perspiration as you sleep so you don't feel like you are sticking to the inside of your sleeping bag.  They also help keep the sleeping bag clean longer so you don't have to try to wash it as often.

Gadgets

My gadgets / miscellaneous section covers the stuff that doesn't ft in the other categories. Gadgets is a very personalized thing and some people may not like to carry too many extras.  The essentials in the list are maps, Knife, headlight and possibly a trash container. 

The other items on the list I find useful and in some cases like the GPS, Camera and pen and paper I can't live without them.

First Aid / Survival

Toiletries

Toilet paper is a must!  I like to keep some handy at all times incase an overwhelming urge hits!

The practice of shitting in the woods varies from place to place.  In some areas the general rule is to bury everything including the toilet paper.  Some areas want you to haul out your toilet paper (which is why I carry extra zip lock bags).  Some areas require you to haul everything out, including your own waste.  I have been involved in discussions on this topic with a wide variety of beliefs.  If you are at all curious about how to handle it, ask the authorities in the area you plan to visit.  They have rules set up as a result of impact studies for the area.  The people that did these studies are a lot more informed about what is needed in that area than the average person (it's their profession).  So best thing is to ask and follow the rules.

In general try to get at least 200 feet from a water source or camp area, dig a hole 6 to 8 inches in depth, do your business and burry it.  Burying it not deep enough can leave parts exposed where flies etc can get to it which can help spread disease.  Your shit may not stink but it can still be a health hazard.  Burying it too deep will put it out of reach of the natural bacteria in the dirt that helps break things down.