About the Author: Laurie Freeman is a naturalist, environmentalist and soon-to-be retiree. She earned a BE in mechanical engineering and a MA in biology (ecology, evolution and behavior). Laurie spent the majority of her career as a professor of biology and environmental science at a small upstate NY community college. She and her husband Jim built their home (and homestead) using local material and human powered tools, and she continues to practice self-reliance by gardening and beekeeping. Laurie teaches yoga and runs a small herbal medicinal practice in her community. How she finds time to hike is a mystery. You can follow her AT thru hike on trailjournals, Instagram @lauriefreeman and Twitter @LaurieJFreeman.
My base weight might be 16 pounds. It could be 15 pounds. It could also be 17 pounds. Decisions… decisions. For those of you new to the backpacking lingo, base weight is the weight of all the items you are carrying (not wearing) minus food and water. It’s an important number because the less weight you carry, the easier it is on your body. Carrying a pound 2200 miles is like carrying 2200 pounds 1 mile. It adds up. It’s worth getting that number down… but at what expense? Light gear is expensive. Heavy gear could end a hike due to injury.
The conventional jingle is that we ‘pack our fears’. Delving into a gear list reveals a lot about a person. The items in a pack are those that a hiker deems essential for a modicum of comfort over the course of months on the trail. What does my gear list say about me? What does it indicate about my fears? Over the course of the next couple of blog posts I’ll delve into the gear I’m taking on my upcoming Appalachian Trail thru hike and why I’m taking it. This post will cover the ‘big 3’: my backpack, tent and sleeping system.
What I like to think has driven my decision-making is the fear of failure. What do I need to make the physical, mental and emotional challenges of this trip possible?
2 possible backpacks: Osprey Aura 65 (left) and Granite Gear Blaze 60 (right)
BackpackThis essential gear item is where all the items I need for my day to day life will reside for the duration of my hike. It must be big enough to fit everything I’m taking with me but small enough that I can pick it up and wear it as I climb up and over some substantial mountains. It must be comfortable enough to wear for 8-10 hours a day and for 5-6 months. And it must be able to withstand the weather, abrasion from trees and rocks along the path, and the abuse of hoisting it on and off multiple times a day.
For the last few years I’ve used an Osprey Aura 65. If I take the brain (that top compartment/flap) off, it weighs 3.38 pounds. I know from experience this pack is super comfortable and distributes a load well. I can carry 25-30 pounds all day without any shoulder or hip pain. One downside is that it’s bigger than I need; I have never filled this pack to capacity. My gear could probably fit in a 50 liter pack but the Osprey is so comfortable that I was committed to bringing it even if I could save weight by switching to a smaller pack.
Recently my friends Tree Trunk and Manula gave me a Granite Gear Blaze 60 (that just happened to by my size). They had obtained the pack from the company as a free replacement for an identical damaged pack. They had each used a Blaze 60 on their thru hike and had nothing but good things to say about it. I let them give me the pack all the while thinking there was no way I was abandoning the Osprey. At best, maybe I could find the pack a good home.
After a couple of days of the Blaze sitting in the living room, I started to soften my prejudice against it. I did a little research and found that it is as popular as the Osprey on the AT. Still, I was skeptical that any pack could be as comfortable as my Osprey. I looked at the tags on the Blaze. It only weighs 2.69 pounds; an 11 oz savings compared to my pack. That savings is equivalent to unloading 1500 pounds over the course of the trail. I decided it was worth consideration. I tried it on. It felt weird. I put it back on the couch.
A few days later my prejudice softened a bit more and I went online to learn how to adjust it. After fiddling around with the shoulder harness, the sternum strap and the hip belt, the Blaze started to feel pretty good; not like the Osprey, but pretty darned good. So good that it was worth trialing on a shakedown hike. So I lined it with a trash compactor bag, loaded it up with about 18 pounds of gear and wore it to climb Moxham Mountain in the Adirondacks (about a 5.5 mile round trip).
Before I give away the results, I will say that the reason I even gave this pack a chance is the weight savings. Though hale and hearty, I am concerned that I won’t have the physical wherewithal to actually walk 2192 miles. It’s a long way. I worry (read fear) that I can’t do it physically. I want to give myself the best possible chance of success. Weight matters.
I also fear extended discomfort. Six months is a long time to wear something that is uncomfortable. I fear that a pack will not only be uncomfortable but will cause chafing on my shoulders or hips from wearing it for hours on end. Could that kind of injury end a hike? Physically, probably not. Psychologically, maybe.
The result of the Blaze test is that the pack is nearly as comfortable as the Osprey; enough so that I’ve decided to take the Blaze on my thru hike. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that this is the right decision at the same time harboring a niggling fear that it might not be.
Left: Tarp and net tent constructed from a RayWay kit. Right: Zpacks Duplex tent.
Over the course of my life I’ve slept in myriad tents. For this thru hike, I’ve opted for the Zpacks Duplex. This is a switch from my most recent tarp and net tent that I constructed from a RayWay kit. I fashioned that tent in order to reduce my pack weight. It weighs 39.25 oz which I thought was super, until I found out about Zpacks. The Duplex is only 19 oz; less than half the weight of my tarp tent. The savings comes from the material: Dyneema Carbon Fabric. This stuff is entirely hydrophobic; not only does it shed water, it never even gets wet. The best part: it’s feather light. The compromise is that the duplex is a single wall tent. That means condensation inside the tent is likely.
Which brings me to another fear: being wet in my tent. I’m not concerned about hiking in the rain or getting wet during the day. I will be miserable if I’m wet at night. Miserable can end a hike. So what about that condensation then? I’m willing to leave the vestibule doors open for ventilation. If condensation occurs, it will be on the surface of the fabric, not absorbed by it. I don’t mind mopping up the inside tent walls in the morning in exchange for the weight savings. It’s not like water will be pouring into the tent… or at least I hope not!
So if I’m concerned about weight, why not go with the Zpacks Plexamid, a single person tent which is 4.2 oz lighter? I settled on the duplex because I want room for my pack inside the tent. One-person tents are claustrophobically small. I want room to spread my gear out. If I take a zero day (a day of no hiking) in my tent, I want to comfortably be able to read or write without banging into the sides of the tent.
Because this particular tent is new to me, I wanted it to have a proven track record. Reviews of the Duplex by long distance hikers are consistently excellent. I know it’s pricey ($599) but if I use it for 150 nights it amounts to about $4/night. I figure that’s pretty inexpensive; worth it to allay my fears.
In case you were wondering, I did consider a hammock system. Honestly, I’m afraid of the unknown when it comes to hammocks. I’ve never used one. The few I looked at were a bit heavier than my tent set up. That alone kept me from putting them on the list of possibilities.
Enlightened Equipment quilt (left) and L.L.Bean mummy bag (right), both have a 20 degree rating.
For a sleeping ‘bag’ I’ve chosen the Enlightened Equipment Revelation 20 quilt. Recently I’ve been using an L.L.Bean 20 degree mummy style sleeping bag that weighs 41 oz. As I chose my options for the Revelation I kept in mind that I don’t like mummy style bags (including my current one). I’ve had a few of them in my life and all of them have been less than comfortable. Because of their narrowness, I can’t tuck my knees up to my chest inside one. Usually I open the bag and use it more like a quilt. In order to get it to cover me, I have to position the side seam (opposite the zipper side) over the middle of my body which results in half the mummy hood covering my head. It’s awkward.
I’ve never used a backpacking quilt but I like the concept. They also get rave reviews. I opted to purchase a 20 degree quilt because I think it will cover the temperature range I’m likely to experience. I came close to opting for the 30 degree quilt but…here comes another fear…I don’t want to be cold at night. Being cold is almost as miserable as being wet. Cold is a kind of uncomfortable that I want to avoid. I’d rather throw the quilt off if I’m too hot than shiver all night. When ordering the quilt, I chose the wide model. This means I’m carrying a couple of extra ounces but, again, I like to tuck my legs up at night and I want a quilt that covers my body in that configuration. Overall, this new quilt weighs in at only 23.1 oz.
The quilt was another pricey item ($315). Going back to my cost-per-day calculations, this adds about $2/night, bringing my total to $6/night. Still a bargain for a good night’s sleep.
My pillow is a Sea to Summit Aeros Ultralight. For years my pillow has been some clothes stuffed into my sleeping bag stuff sack. This has always been uncomfortable. To consistently get a good night’s sleep I’ve opted for a pillow as a ‘luxury item’. For 2.1 oz, I think it’s worth it.
My sleeping pad is a Thermarest Women’s NeoAir XLite. I had been using an Exped DownMat Lite 5 which weighs in at 31.2 oz (with the storage sack and pump). The NeoAir is only 12 oz, a significant weight savings.
I decided to pack a Sea to Summit cotton/silk sleeping bag liner which adds 5.2 oz to my pack. I haven’t actually tried that liner yet. I don’t like that it is akin to a big sock (much like a mummy bag). I thought I might open a side seam a bit but the fabric is super thin and likely to unravel unless I bind it with more fabric. I’m not willing to fuss with that. I might try to use the liner to cover the NeoAir (rather than my body) so I’m lying on something more comfortable than the plastic of the pad. Worst case scenario, the liner might just end up in a hiker box.
The Big Three
Adding 8 MSR titanium groundhog tent stakes, my big 3 total weight adds up to 6.93 pounds. If I had used all the heavier equipment mentioned above it would be 11.3 pounds. So I’ve saved 4.37 pounds! Despite the weight savings (or because of it), I’m confident my Big 3 will allay my fears of being wet, cold and uncomfortable.
You can see my ever changing gear list at Lighter Gear. I’ll be reviewing my decision-making regarding the rest of my gear in a future blog post.
I’d love to know how you made your gear selections or your critique of mine. You can do that by leaving a comment below.