I recently finished a hike in the Mt Roger’s/Grayson Highlands area in VA with my good buddy Benny Braden (Plug It In on the AT). But, this hike was a bit different from my previous hikes from the get-go… While this backpacking adventure did follow the Appalachian Trail for most of it, this hike wasn’t necessarily about the Appalachian Trail, as many of my other hikes have been. This hike was simply about spending some time in this particular area of the world. And it wasn’t about the miles either… Over the 3 days we spent here we only hiked around 22-ish miles, total. This trip was meant to be more of a camping adventure, with some exploring, and that is pretty much what it ended up being!
As many know, the middle of October is when nature really goes all out. The leaves begin changing colors, and as they go through this change, the leaves of many color will fall from the trees and flutter through the air, and eventually cover the ground… This results in a very beautiful and serene environment, especially in the early morning or late afternoon, when the sun is low and shines through them.
Saying all of that, I will admit, I was hoping the temperatures would have been slightly cooler than what we experienced, but I definitely cannot complain. From the night that we camped at Black Balsam Knob, to the afternoon that we finished our hike, we had beautiful blue skies, blotted with huge, white, puffy clouds. Friday night we had a small amount of rain while at Black Balsam Knob, but we were camped beneath thick pines, so we hardly even knew. There was no other rain for the rest of the trip . The temperatures were somewhere in the mid 40’s (F) on Friday night, and in the low 50’s (F) the rest of the nights, and the high’s during the days were only in the 70’s (F). So, not bad conditions at all!
And as I mentioned, since this was more of a camping trip than a hiking trip, when it came to gear, I decided to carry a few luxuries, as well as my good ole’ tried and true’s! I opted to carry my real camera, with extra batteries and an SD card (although, it has been so long since I used it I don’t think I had all the setting’s right… which resulted in some really grainy video’s… err, sorry) and a battery charger for my phone (I intended to watch movies each night, but turned out, I forgot to download those beforehand, but I did spend time each night going through my photo’s!) I again carried a canister stove, which I didn’t use but just a couple of times… And while I didn’t carry all of my cold weather gear, I did opt to carry along my ZPacks 20 F sleeping bag for the first time (note that mine is now the previous version), some Patagonia Capilene 2 long bottoms, my Montbell Ex Light Anorak and my Black Rock Gear Down Beanie. When it was all said and done, my BPW came in at 11.2 lbs, and my total weight was somewhere around 18 lbs (I actually didn’t weigh my food bag… it was a guesstimate.) For a look at my complete gear list for this hike, click HERE.
However, as in my other “Post Hike Gear Talk” post’s, I wanted to again take some time to briefly touch on many of the pieces of gear I carried with me, and share my thoughts on them after using them, either again, or for the first time. (Photo’s of item precede the written summary.)
ZPacks Arc Blast. It’s actually time I do another separate post focusing on just this pack, so this will be brief. First off, this is an older version than what is on the site now. It has the flat carbon fiber stays, no removable hip belt, and the frame doesn’t attach to the pack the same way as the current model. Because of this, my pack actually has less of a listed pack load/weight limit than the current models. Also worth noting, mine is 60L’s, but being an older, less beefed-up pack, the weight of mine is less than the current models.
I have used this pack for almost 3 years now, although, because I can’t get out as often as I would like (how many of us can though…?), I only have a little over 300 miles or so on it. But, I have used it almost exclusively since purchasing it because I love it so much. It’s very comfortable, fits all of my gear (actually, about 70% of the time, it’s a bit too much volume) and it just works for me. The airflow through the pack, against my back, is awesome. True, if there is no wind blowing it doesn’t do as much, but even with the slightest breeze, it does help. My back is consistently much less sweaty than when using a pack which rests directly against my back. I love this pack… but more on it in a following post!
ZPacks Hexamid Solo+ Tarp & Hexanet. Again, the tarp is the older version, which features the beak, as opposed to the doors on the current models. As well, the Hexanet is the last model that ZPacks sold, but with a couple extra additions I personally added. (Worth noting is that the Hexanet’s are no longer available for purchase from ZPacks… sadly.) I personally prefer this modular set-up over the single wall shelters (as much as I do like the idea of the Duplex) for the simple reason that I have more options with this set-up. I can set up the inner alone, the tarp alone, or both together. But, truth be told, more times than not, I set up both pieces together. Personally, I really do like the “double-wall” set-up. Each time I set this “tent” up though, I seem to somehow enjoy using it even more than the last time. I really enjoy carrying this shelter (for solo use), and I have no intentions of moving to something else (unless it’s the updated version of the tarp).
The fact that this shelter is a modular set-up is one of the biggest reasons I have enjoyed this tent for the last few years, but there are other, smaller reasons too. It is easy to set-up, it packs down small and I can store the pieces separate. I like to store the tarp in an outer side pack pocket so I can immediately grab it and set it up before touching anything else on my pack. The Hexanet is usually stored inside my pack, at the top, next to my food bag. I like that the tarp is only 0.51 oz/sqyd cuben fiber, and I love that it is white (the one thing that is keeping me from buying an update version over on BPL this minute – it’s blue). I also like to keep it simple (and lighter) by not using LineLoc’s at the guyouts. Since owning the tent version, and now this tarp version for the last few years, the precut lengths of cord with a loop at the end has worked just fine. Saying that, I did cut a longer length of cord for the front apex guy out… I just feel a little longer length than suggested gives me a better pitch, and I feel like it provides a slightly better angle for a stake to hold better. (My opinion.)
Speaking of stakes, I carry 2 different types of stakes to stake out my shelter. The Hexamid tarp requires 6 stakes (minimum) and the inner net “requires” 4 stakes. I carry 2 MSR Carbon Core stakes, which I use at the front apex and at the rear center of the tarp, and then finish the corners out with Lawson Kline’s (older) ti shepherd hook stakes. I carry a total of 8 of the shepherd hooks. I have used these stakes in all sorts of ground, hard packed dirt, soft pine needles, rock fields, and typical AT ground filled with rocks and roots. I have never had one of these fail in any way that caused any concern. In fact, I can’t even recall any pulling out, or need re-stuck. The Carbon Core stakes slightly larger diameter provides good holds for the more stressed/tensioned/weight-bearing guy-outs, and the shepherd hooks have done a great job at both, maneuvering through the rock and root filled ground, and at holding when placed. Sometimes in looser ground I do lay rocks over the heads, just to make sure. These are my go-to stakes for this shelter though!
Therm-A-Rest NeoAir XLite. I don’t think I have done any reviews on this particular pad actually… I previously owned the original NeoAir, but it sprung a leak and I went with the XLite to replace it. However, since the XLite’s are mummy cut (grr…), I went with the large size to better accommodate myself due to the (stupid) mummy cut design. However, this pad has been the warmest pad I have used (on its own) and the most comfortable. As well, I like that the XLite uses horizontal baffles as oppose to the vertical baffles for 2 reasons: 1. It creates a more comfortable sleeping surface for my liking, and 2. it holds my pillow in place much better than the vertical baffles. I love this pad!
Pillow. This is actually a 2 part piece: A GooseFeet Gear Down Pillow Case Stuff Sack with a large Exped UL Air Pillow inside. I have been using this pillow set-up for the last couple of years, and it has been the best set-up I have found, although, I’ll admit, not the least expensive. The large-size Exped pillow gives me more head room than other pillow’s I’ve tried, and the material that the GooseFeet Down Pillowcase is made from provides a much better next to skin feel than the Exped pillow. Plus, the down gives it more of a cushy feel, as opposed to a hard air-filled pillow, and the single piece of shock cord on the pillow does a good job at keeping the pillow in place, especially when using it on the XLite pad (due to the horizontal baffles).
In short, this pillow set-up has worked the best for me. I generally begin the night out lying on my back, but when it’s time for me to start dozing off, I roll to one of my sides. The air pillow provides enough height for me to be comfortable on my side without my head feeling all jacked up, or cranked down to low, and the GooseFeet Gear down pillowcase does a great job at making the air-filled pillow a bit more comfortable. One of the best features though, is the simple piece of elastic cord that holds the pillow in place under me while sleeping, because nothing sucks more than trying to keep up with a squirting pillow all over the tent, all night long!
ZPacks 20 F Sleeping Bag. (Note that I also have the previous version of their sleeping bag… within the last couple of weeks they have come out with the new design with the vertical baffles.) I have not done any sort of write up on this sleeping bag/quilt just yet, but I will try to get around to doing so sometime soon in the future now that I have actually used it a few times. While the temps on this trip didn’t come close to what this sleeping bag is rated at, I can say that the few nights I did use it, it was very comfortable, and it’s “features” or lack thereof, worked rather well for me. I am really looking forward to using this bag in cooler weather to see what it’s warmth limits are.
So far though, I can say that the zipper was not an issue, I didn’t even notice I was laying on it when it was zipped up beneath me, which was an initial concern of mine. As well, the plastic buckle at the top was not an issue either (while lying in the bag at home, in minimal clothing, it was noticeable). And I gotta say, I actually enjoy using it while zipped up. I have even found that getting in and out of a hood-less bag while zipped up is easier than I anticipated, and I actually find it rather convenient.
The first night when temps dipped into the mid 40’s, I slept with it zipped up, but left the top opened. I wore a cotton t-shirt and some boxers only, and was actually a bit warm. On the nights when the temps were near 50 F (inside my Hexanet) I had to unzip it. It was just too hot. My feet particularly would sweat, which would cause them to stick to the bag. And speaking of the foot box, I also found the simple envelope shaped design of the foot box to be great, at least so far. Since I am only 5’10” but opted for the long version (for users up to 6’1″) there seems to be enough room in the bag for my feet in the foot box, without compressing the walls of the bag.
Thus far, I really have to say that the ZPacks sleeping bag seems to offer a lot, especially considering how little it actually is. That’s the beauty of it!
Cook kit. I have a number of different cook kits, and I will be the first to say that not any one of them is perfect, at least not for every situation, or even “many” situations. For this trip, including the last couple of trips I have taken, I have been carrying a Snow Peak LiteMax stove with the (ECA252) 0.9L Evernew Ti “UL” cook pot. On the past few hikes, I enjoyed this set-up because conditions were ideal, meaning I experienced only a little wind when using it. When I needed to use it on this trip though, there was quite a bit of wind, so this time it wasn’t necessarily the best option.
That’s not to mean that I am saying it’s bad set-up, but that it just wasn’t necessarily the “most ideal” for this particular hike. Saying that, I only needed to use it a couple of times to boil water for coffee (seen above, I actually just boiled the water right in the MLD 450 ml ti mug), so I didn’t necessarily have to rely on it for all that much… so it turned out ok after all. In the end, this stove is fine, in ideal situations, however, the Evernew cook pot and the MLD mug have proved their worth in a number of different situations. I love that the cook pot is shallow and wide (easy to cook and eat out of, and even clean up afterwards) and that I can actually boil water right in the mug, and then use it to drink from.
Black Rock Gear Down Beanie. This one is quite simple, I have really enjoyed using this beanie since it showed up at my door. It’s lightweight, breathes well, which allows it to be used in a wide range of temperatures, and it fits well. I will say, when looking at another (newer) beanie while at the campout, I realized mine looks a bit flatter, which likely means I need to give it a good wash… which I will do so soon! When the temps begin to drop though, this is always in my pack! If I have to say anything “bad” about it, it is that when it is pulled over my ears, it does muffle things a bit. It can be tough to hear others when wearing it, but this is expected with any beanie that covers my ears. And actually, at night, it is a welcome feature as it somewhat muffles noises and makes it a little easier to sleep!
Montbell Ex Light Anorak Down Jacket. I picked this up as soon as it was released to the market, in late 2014. Prior to purchasing this piece, I have owned the UL Down Inner Jacket, the UL Down Inner Parka, an Ex Light, and even an Alpine Light Parka (not used for backpacking), all from Montbell. So, I would say it is safe to say, I was/am happy with the Montbell products.
When I noticed that they were releasing an Ex Light, but in an Anorak-style, I knew I had to have it. For these light weight down “sweaters” I have never really care for them as a full-zip jacket; I would rather have a half-zip and a kangaroo pocket, such as the Anorak. Less zipper is less weight (not to mention, likely adds even a hair more warmth), and the kangaroo pocket is great since I can wrap my hands together inside the pocket, which I also find is warmer than individual hand pockets.
Since owning the Ex Light Anorak, it has been my favorite down “sweater” but I will admit, it still has a few down falls. The hood is not adjustable at all, and the inside of the kangaroo pocket is not insulated, so cold air can sneak in both these area’s, especially if the wind is blowing. As well, the higher 900 power down fill somewhat worries me as the super high down fills are more susceptible to failing (at least to some degree) in humid environments, however, the shell on the Anorak has proved to be quite water-resistant, which gives me some faith in the material choices put into making this jacket. Also worth noting, I have found the material is much more resistant to down leakage than both the UL Down Inner pieces were… in fact, I can’t recall seeing any down leaking from this jacket so far!
ZPacks Rain Kilt. This was actually my first cuben fiber purchase, as well as my first ZPacks purchase (I received it just a couple of day’s into January, 2011). It has been in my pack since the day I received it, and has been mentioned in a number of other PHGT posts, so I think that says enough!
This is a very multiuse piece of kit for me. First off, and most obvious, it works great as a rain kilt. It keeps my lower legs dry when I need it too. But, where it really shines, it also work’s great as a groundsheet for lying around camp, or sitting on the side of the trail to have a snack or some lunch, or even as a ground sheet under my tent, or under my pad in a shelter! It even works great as a porch to use in front of my tent.
Worth noting about my particular rain kilt though is that this is a first generation rain kilt from ZPacks. This means it is made from 1.26 oz/sqyd cuben fiber (which I don’t believe is even an option any longer), and is a bit more durable than the current models made from 1 oz/sqyd cuben fiber (IIRC). Also, this one has a simple rectangular cut, as opposed to the more conical cut of the current models. Also worth noting, mine does not use a zipper like the current models. But, I actually prefer these features on my older model over the newer version. As I mentioned, mine is more durable, has a more useable shape for me, and I prefer no zipper since I fear it could get mucked up quite easily being that I use this as a ground sheet so often.
Sawyer Mini Water Filter. (Seen in photo above.) This filter was actually sent to me for free directly from Sawyer in late 2013 just before their official release, and I am still using the exact same one! Not only that, it is still working just as good as the day I received it.
Before using the Mini water filter, I actually used the bigger brother to the Mini, the Squeeze for a bout 1.5 years. I was more than happy with the Squeeze, but the lighter weight (and lesser cost) of the Mini intrigued me, so I was willing to give it a shot. To date, both the Squeeze and the Mini that I have personally used have both worked excellent. I would also like to say that the Mini produces almost the same outflow as the Squeeze (note the size of the output stream in the photo above).
Saying that, I must also say that I have personally witnessed other hikers with failures from both new and used, Squeeze filters and Mini filters. For this reason, I do try to be mindful of my filter’s use and maintenance. I do this by always trying to get the cleanest water when possible, always back flushing my filter sometime soon after I arrive home from a hike, and checking the filter before leaving for a hike. I also recommend others to do the same (with this filter, or any other for that matter). I feel like filter’s can be somewhat hit or miss, but in my personal experience, the Sawyer’s have all happened to be hits for me. I love this filter!
Smartwater Bottle. No, I do not use these to drink from while hiking. Instead, as can be seen in a photo above, I have cut one down, and then use it for scooping water from small puddles to fill my soft bladders. This has been a life saver, at least when trying to fill soft bladders from tiny puddles. I have settled on the Smartwater bottles because they are rigid enough to stand strong for a long while. I have tried softer, thinner water bottles, but they just don’t stand up very well over time. They spring leaks easily, and for me, just aren’t worth my time. (Also, as a bonus, the thread pitch on the Smartwater bottles do match perfectly with the thread pitch on the Sawyer’s. This is something that the infamous Platypus bladders do not do.)
Inov-8 Roclite 243 trail runners. Looking at the Inov-8 site now, it looks like this particular model is no longer an option to buy, (although, there appears to be some still at random site’s online). I purchased this pair a couple of years ago and have put around 250 miles on them since. They are still holding up fine, however, on the last 2 trips I have worn them I have suffered from bruised toenails on both of my big toes… first on one hike, my right foot, and on this hike, my left foot. I don’t know if I just need to readjust the lacing, trim my nails even shorter, or what, but until the previous 2 hikes, this has never been an issue with these shoes. Until this time, I have really enjoyed hiking in these trail runners in warmer weather. They are comfortable, light, have great traction, dry fast, the shoe strings stay tied throughout the day, and according to Hendrik Morkel from Hiking in Finland, since they are red they make me go faster! Now that the seasons will be turning cooler though, these will get shelved until things warm up, however, now, I may be looking for an alternative staring next year… I may give them one more try.
Mountain Laurel Designs Light Snow Gaiters. I have only had these for about a year and a half now, but wow, they have been a game changer for me! I prefer to hike in long pants, even in the summer, however, in warmer months, now I can hike in shorts since these will cover most of my lower legs! As well, in the colder months, these gaiters are easy enough to simply wear over my pants legs, and by doing so will also provide a little extra warmth too. They’re light weight, and being that my legs don’t tend to overheat much, the breathability is not an issue (although, being that they are eVENT, they do breathe pretty good anyway).
I have replaced the shock cord that runs under the foot with a cord lock and some Vectrawire that Lawson Kline has sent me, and it has worked great! I have around 150 miles on the same pieces of cord, and they are still holding up great. They are obviously wearing, but still look great, and I have no concern that they won’t hold up for at least another 150 miles. Plus, due to the design of the tread on my RocLite’s, the cord is actually stepped on with every step since it cannot hide between the lugs on the soles. If the soles of my shoes would allow the cord to hide between some of the lugs, I have no doubt I would never need to change the cord out. I hope this is some line that Lawson brings back for applications such as this!
These are the major items I wanted to speak to, although there are some other smaller items I could mention, such as my Anker 6400 mAh battery charger that weighs 5.1 oz with a USB to lightening/micro USB cord and I can get about 3 charges on my iPhone 6S. Or my ZPacks Trucker hat that I wear everyday (not just while backpacking), or even my GoLite Chrome Dome umbrella that works great in rain, or shine (although, it looks like some of the plastic tips that hold the spines in place at the edges are starting to break apart… may have to revisit that later). Then there is my ZPacks Roll-Top Blast food bag, the “odor barrier bags” I have from LiteTrail that I use as both pack liner, and as a food bag liner, and even my beloved Patagonia Capilene 2 long sleeve crew shirt.
So, as you may can guess, these are most of the items that I actually carry with me on most, if not all of my hikes. What is nice is that over the years many of these items, or at least different versions of them, have become a mainstay in my pack… I have found items that work for me, and offer features that I prefer, and is basically the “best” items I have found for me. As you also may can tell, the items above are not all “perfect”, but I don’t expect anything to be perfect, at least not for all situations… although, some items, including the ones I have listed above, have worked so well for me in some situations that I couldn’t even imagine anything working better… So, there’s that…
If you have any further questions or comments about any of the items listed above, or in the gear list, feel free to post them below. And thanks for stopping by!
Disclaimer: Unless specifically noted in the text above, I paid for all items with my own money. I have no affiliation with any of the above mentioned companies, nor do I earn anything, in any form, from producing this article. This post reflects my personal thoughts on each item, which I formed after using them myself. These thoughts are my own.
Worth noting: I do not know what you need. I cannot know what makes you happy. I also do not know what situations you are headed into, what area of the world you are headed into, or what your goals are. For these reasons, please understand the information above is simply my thoughts on how these items have worked for me. They are a reflection of how they aided me in my journeys, and is in no way any indication of how they will perform for you in yours. This information is shared with you to present you with some food for thought, which hopefully you can use to help answer some of your own questions, but in and of itself, is not meant to be the sole answer for anything you may be wondering. If you would like to discuss anything further, please feel free to contact me and I will be more than happy to talk with you about things more though… I love a good gear/skill-set talk! 🙂