Monday, October 5, 2009

Colorado Trail - gear

Prior to updating this spring, most of my backpacking stuff was from fifteen years ago or longer. Worse, most of it was either free or bought for cost considerations (on sale) rather than for quality or other considerations. My critique of the new stuff is therefore akin to someone comparing a new 2009 pickup truck with his beat-up pickup from 1989 – certainly there are pluses and minuses to the 2009 Chevy truck versus the 2009 Toyota truck, and there are probably pluses and minuses to a new 1989 truck versus a new 2009 truck, but the review is going to be overwhelmingly positive if nothing else because the new 2009 truck is new and not beat up. This said, I have some opinions about the stuff I used to hike the Colorado Trail this summer.

The Awesome:

1. Six Moon Designs – Starlite Pack. This pack is great. It weighs less than two pounds, has aluminum stays for stability, rides well, is a good size, etc. There is nothing I would change about this pack – it’s perfect, and made backpacking generally more enjoyable. It’s actually more comfortable than my old internal frame bag, and weighs three pounds less.

2. Outer Clothing generally. I bought a Marmot Essence shell and Mont Bell Thermawrap jacket. Together they weigh a little over a pound. The Essence kept me dry during storms, and the Thermawrap was actually too warm much of the time. I used them together during the blasting snowstorm during the last section, and I stayed happy the whole time. I can’t imagine a lighter or more useful combination – and that’s good because they’re both pretty expensive. As for outerwear pants, I bought some Tyvek pants for $3 and they worked just fine.

3. REI Halo Sleeping Bag. Bought this using various sales and coupons together for $85. It kept me warm down to the rated 25 degrees, and weighs two pounds. Perfect. It’s a good deal even at the list price. I couldn’t justify paying the big bucks for the slightly-lighter bags because I’d just spill coffee/burn a hole/otherwise trash the big bucks bag on the first trip out. I especially liked the cloth they used – it breathed particularly well. Of course, I’m comparing this to my fifteen-year old Campmor bag – probably everyone now uses the good cloth.

4. Leki Hiking Poles. I’ve used these for ten years as hiking poles and ski poles, and they don’t break, the pole sections don’t slip, and the grips haven’t worn. Even better they were free – this was during the brief period when someone actually thought I would be worth sponsoring. Yes they’re heavier than what’s available now, but I have no excuse to replace them.

5. SpiderPlow hat. Sun protection. Comfy. Conversation Starter. The SpiderPlow hat! No you can’t have it.

6. Apple Shuffle AAA Battery-Pack Thingie. Defeat the Apple planned-obsolescence battery-life conspiracy with two $3 doo-dads from Amazon! How to: (1) plug the USB adapter into the Shuffle; (2) plug the battery pack into the USB adapter; (3) enjoy unlimited music no matter how cold it is. It's a beautiful thing.

The Good:

1. Six Moon Designs – Lunar Solo Tent. It weighs 1.5 pounds. It packs down to nothing. It kept me dry in storms and sheds snow well. It’s big. It’s pretty cheap. What’s not to like? Yes, there’s sometimes condensation. All tarp-tents get it. And the seam between the bug netting and the tent is right over my head. So in the morning the condensation gathers on the seam and drips on my head.

2. MSR Miniworks EX Filter. After getting giardia in the spring, I went out and bought a filter that weighs almost as much as my tent. It’s been reliable, easy to use, and works well. But it still clogs after a few days of use in clear mountain springs. It’s easy to field-clean, but really, after thirty-plus years of filters this is the best we can do? I talked to some people about the lighter weight MSR/Katadyn filters, and apparently these clog much faster.

The Okay:

1. MSR Pocket Rocket stove. After fooling around with alcohol stoves/Esbit tabs, I went out and got this thing. It’s lighter than my multifuel stove, but I didn’t like dealing with the canisters. I also didn’t like having to keep the canister in my jacket if I wanted to have a hot meal if it was below freezing. I’ll probably use it on warm-weather weekends, and go back to my old fifteen-year old stove for longer trips. Was it worth $30? I guess so.

2. Keen Wasatch Crest shoe. I got a screamin’ deal on two pairs of these. The sole on one tore off completely during the first weekend I used them. The second pair lasted the rest of the summer. The upper is indestructible and great – unlike other running shoes, it’s shaped like a foot and therefore great. The cushioning is too soft and broke down quickly. The weird offset lacing pattern doesn’t do anything for me. Apparently Keen doesn’t make these anymore, so perhaps new models have addressed both the quality control and cushioning issues.

The Bad:

1. Hiking Pants. I used to have a pair of hiking pants from Sierra Trading post – Ex Officio brand I think – that lasted for years, moved well, breathed well, etc. They finally fell apart and I haven’t found anything like them since. I now have two pairs of junk hiking pants, one from North Face and one from Mountain Hardware. The North Face tore on the first use, have a useless elastic belt thing, and suck. The Mountain Hardware ones are cut too narrow (even more my spindle-legs), don’t breathe, and also suck. I used to wear Umbros – remember those? Now I wear surf shorts. Same concept. I haven’t found anything better yet.

2. Big Agnes Fly Creek UL and Seedhouse SL1. Before becoming a tarp-tent convert, I tried both of these. The Seedhouse was remarkably heavy for what it is – I weighed it at over three pounds and immediately returned it. The Fly Creek is somewhat lighter, but is a bad design. First, it’s small. I mean really small. I hardly fit inside, and forget about gear. Second, the sides lift off the ground in an odd way. Third, the door is angled over the floor. When it rains, you open the door and water both rolls in off the fly and falls in from the sky. Yes this happened on the first night out. Yes I returned the tent. Tarp-tents weigh half as much and work twice as well, but this thing won an award from Backpacker Magazine? Whatever.

3. The Colorado Trail Foundation Guidebook. No topos! I was planning to really bash this book, but it turns out I was using an old edition. The current edition cures some of the really awful elements – misleading/incorrect elevation profiles, exceedingly purple prose, etc. – but it’s still written only for north-to-south hikes, includes a large number of irrelevant glossy photos, and has no topos. Without the CTF, the trail wouldn’t exist. The CTF maintains the trail against the depredations of OHVs, etc. But the guidebook is bad. The Map Book is better.

The Ugly:

1. Alcohol Stoves/Esbit tabs. I built a few alcohol stoves. Catherine stood over the best one as it burned and said, “You’re going to cook on that?” No, I’m not. I want hot food, not tinkering around with soda cans. The Esbit is maybe suitable for emergencies only. Again, I like hot food. I like hot coffee. I don’t like these things. The weight savings is too small to justify either of them.

2. Water treatment drops that shall remain nameless. I tried a new kind of water treatment drops in May. I immediately got giardia. I don’t use those water treatment drops anymore. From what I read, it may not have been the fault of the drops, but rather my misunderstanding of what kills giardia and what doesn’t. In any case, I went back to filtering water.

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