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Mark

Long before I’d ever shouldered a backpack for a hike into a wilderness area, I found myself intrigued by Arizona’s Superstition Mountains. As the purported location of the Lost Dutchman’s Gold Mine, I was first exposed to the Superstitions in books about lost treasures and historical mysteries I checked out from my middle-school library. An episode of “In Search of . . .” with Leonard Nimoy that featured the legend and aired as a re-run on the History Channel further deepened my fascination. Hidden gold and lost maps, murders and disappearances, towering rock formations and an unforgiving desert landscape – all made for captivating TV to a city kid in Kentucky. Tales of lost treasure closer to home, like Swift’s lost silver mine and buried Civil War payrolls were more geographically relevant, but the Lost Dutchman’s Mine and the Superstitions had made an impression.

Backpacking in the Superstition Wilderness of Arizona

After becoming an avid backpacker, my interest in the Superstition Mountains was rekindled. The Superstition Wilderness is one of the original wilderness areas designated in the Wilderness Act of 1964, is an excellent springtime backpacking destination, and – as far as stunning desert landscapes go – is easily accessible. Despite a few half-hearted attempts to plan a trip over the years, I didn’t get a chance to hike there until recently. Having a close friend and fellow backpacker who lived nearby and was eager to fit in a backpacking trip before the imminent and awesome responsibility of fatherhood was bestowed up him later in the year provided all the motivation I needed. The unlikely yet unique possibility that I might solve a centuries-old mystery while digging a cathole may or may not have factored into my enthusiasm as well.

The plane touched down on the warm runway of the Phoenix airport at 10:17 a.m. and I filled up five liters of water from a water fountain while waiting for my checked bag to arrive. Backpacking efficiency at its best. John picked me up and, despite having not seen each other since a trip in 2015 in Montana’s Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness, we picked up right where we left off. After an anticipation-building eastbound drive, with the mountains rising ever higher from the Arizona desert and the buildings thinning out the further we traveled, we found ourselves on the trail by noon. Desert landscapes are surreal enough, but to have gone from boarding a plane six hours earlier in gray and snowy Missoula, Montana to being able to reach out and touch a Saguaro cactus (not that you’d want to) took the experience to another level.

Cactus Along the Trail in the Superstition Mountains

The mix of muted browns and dull greens made the objectively inhospitable landscape seem almost cozy as we traipsed along the trail toward a campsite located a short jaunt from a reliable water source. Temperatures in the 70s, blue sky, and a light breeze made for comfortable hiking. In the shade of a particularly large Saguaro, I paused to investigate what I thought might be a dire circumstance – a puncture in one of my two-liter bladders. As it turned out, it was merely an inordinate amount of perspiration on my lower back. More amusing and, fortunately, much less concerning. And a good reminder of the importance of consuming water in such an arid environment. 

We made good time to our campsite, climbing up to a mesa and then descending up to a pass and then down into a canyon, with some stellar views of iconic Weaver’s Needle along the way. Although there were several other backpackers out and about, we made it to the large camping area first and snagged what I believed to be a premium campsite. Secluded and with nice views of the canyon’s slopes, and plenty of elbow room before bumping into prickly, thorny, or otherwise unfriendly forms of vegetation, it was an ideal spot to set up our tents. 

Camping in the Superstition Wilderness

We relaxed for a bit before making the mile or so roundtrip to get water from the reliable spring further up the canyon, which offered suitable campsites that were predictably crowded. While it doesn’t take much to puzzle me, I was genuinely befuddled by the guys we met who earnestly intended to hammock camp in the area. Indeed, John and I had exchanged sarcastic text messages about hammock camping in the desert in the days prior to the trip, amongst other important topics such as sources of water and brands of whiskey. After stocking up on water and comic relief, we began our return to camp. Although our packs were heavy with water on the way back, the gentle downhill walk back to the campsite as the sun set and the light in the canyon changed were enchanting enough to make me forget I even had on a pack.

Back at camp, we stretched out in the twilight and started fixing our dinners. Or at least I started fixing mine while John struggled to open his bear canister, which he regretfully opted to bring to protect his food against rodents. I simply chose to bring my trusty stuff sack to hang from whatever I could find and then hope for the best. Bears are of no real concern in the Superstition Mountains and John paid an unexpected and mildly amusing price for his overkill decision in regard to food storage.

Evening Hiking Through a Desert Canyon, Superstition Wilderness

John lacked the ideal tool – a nickel – to open the bear canister and had little success improvising with other tools. A man versus bear canister battle unfolded before me as I devoured my pasta and tuna. I could contribute nothing except sympathy and stifled laughter. Frustration increased and, after about fifteen minutes, I am certain that if I had a spare nickel John would have gladly paid twenty dollars for it. As I moved on to dessert, the bear canister was finally opened in a triumphant display of determination and creative use of sharp objects. John was then able to consume a hard-won but ultimately underwhelming freeze-dried meal. After an hour or two of trading stories and sips of a whiskey while stars began to slowly punctuate the desert sky, we retired to our respective tents for a peaceful night’s slumber.

Although John had intended to hike the approximately 10-mile day hike loop from camp with me the following morning, a late-breaking and unexpected family emergency forced him to curtail his trip and hike out early. Since he would still be able to pick me up from the trailhead the next day, we parted ways that morning and I finished the rest of the planned trip solo. I would be remiss if I didn’t note my surprisingly deep disappointment at the fact that I would be companion-less for the rest of the hike. I’ve done over a hundred nights solo in my decade of backpacking and am incredibly fond of solo backpacking, but I cherish to the very center of my soul the trips I share with close friends. Missing out on the opportunity for another day of wilderness bonding with John emotionally altered my trip, but I understood the gravity of his family situation, adjusted my expectations, and proceeded onward and forward with the rest of my stroll through the Superstitions.

To say that the hiking was blissful would be an understatement. Overcast skies saturated the colors and added depth to the landscape that allowed it to shine in a different way than it had the previous day. The lack of a sun beaming down made the hiking remarkably pleasant and the scenery unfolded with a grandeur and intensity that was jaw dropping. Cacti, distant cliffs, pools of water in the creekbeds, rock formations, all occurred with a perfect mix of frequency and variety.

Hiking Through Mountain Scenery in the Desert Rain

The Superstitions are certainly not an uncrowded area and I had the good fortune to share some of the hike with three other hikers. They were kind enough to invite me on a short scramble up to an overlook for lunch, which had a great view of Weaver’s Needle. We continued on the loop together, but different pacing eventually led to us drifting apart and I returned to my walking reverie through the desert. I re-filled on water at the same spring as the previous day and returned to camp to settle into my usual solo routine of stretching, reading, writing short letters to friends on the backside of maps or a scrap paper to drop in the mail, and replenishing lost calories and fluids.

A light rain fell consistently throughout the evening and overnight, but never to the point of inconvenience. Given how rare rain is in the desert, I looked upon it as a rare treat and appreciated every drop. The beauty of a rain drop on the needle of a cactus is absolutely divine. The cool morning temperatures and light rain which defined my hike out the next morning made for a mystical landscape, as fog rolled across distant mesas and swirled around rugged formations and mountains both near and far.

I made it back to the trailhead a half-hour or so before the pick-up time that John and I had agreed upon, which allowed me to stretch, make some tea, and generally lounge around the trailhead and enjoy the desert ambience. Upon reuniting with John for the concluding chapter of our trip, which was an overnight stay at the delightfully funky El Dorado Hot Springs to ease our exaggeratedly aching bones, we picked up right where we left off. And that is perhaps as best a note to end on as any – when it comes to friends, backpacking, hiking, and life in general – there is a simple pleasure in picking up where you left off, regardless of distance or time passed, that leaves one with nothing more to desire.

Loop Trail in the Superstitions of Arizona

Information: The Superstitions are an ideal destination for the majority of most seasons other than summer. Water and heat are the primary limiters for trips here and should be given the utmost respect and consideration when planning your trip. The trailheads can be popular and crowded on weekends “in season” and camps directly adjacent to water sources can suffer from overuse. If you can commit to dry camping and plan your water sources appropriately, you greatly increase your chances for solitude. Several popular trailheads, such as Peralta and First Water, are located only an hour’s drive from Phoenix. Call the Tonto National Forest, Mesa Ranger District, for the most up-to-date information.

Books:

Hiking Arizona’s Superstition and Mazatzal Country by Bruce Grubbs

Superstition Wilderness Trails West: Hikes, Horse Rides, and History by Jack Carlson and Elizabeth Stewart

Superstition Wilderness Trails East: Hikes, Horse Rides, and History by Jack Carlson and Elizabeth Stewart

 Map:

National Geographic's Trails Illustrated Map #851, Superstition and Four Peaks Wilderness Areas (Tonto National Forest)

Aaron

With the end of winter comes the end of those hiking challenges associated with snowy and / or cold conditions, but not long after temperatures warm and any snow begins to melt a new set of challenges will need be faced and addressed on hikes and backpacking trips in many locales. Dealing with insects such as mosquitoes, black flies, and ants along with other concerns like ticks to name a few is a top priority for any spring and summer outdoor excursion. These pests can be anything from just that – a simple pest, or they can even ruin a trip in short order or even be a concern in regards to your health. In this article we’ll look at ways to keep these pesky critters at bay, and how to keep them from ruining those spring and early to mid-summer backpacking and hiking trips.

Hiking During Mosquito Season - Clothing and Repellents

Boggy areas, as you might expect are a prime mosquito habitat and made this day a memorable hike for the wrong reasons.
 

Mosquitoes and Flying Insects

An annual rite of passage here in the mountains, spring hiking may quickly have you longing for drier conditions and late summer as mosquitoes and other insects come out in force. But with the right approach, you can still maintain your sanity and hike and backpack in the thick of the flying biting insect season. To do this requires appropriate use of physical barriers – clothing while hiking and in camp, and a tent at night – mosquito season might not be the best time to experiment with ultralight, non-screened tarps and shelters. By wearing long pants with a denser weave (I like the Prana Zion hiking pants), combined with a long shirt – I like something like a zip-neck REI Co-op Tech Shirt that offers more coverage with its long sleeves and higher neck, the difficulty of the job for the mosquito is increased, and don’t be afraid to wear a pair of light gloves either. While usually too hot to hike in, donning your rain gear in camp makes for an excellent impenetrable layer.

Headnets complete the physical barrier, but I’ve had mixed results…some headnets are so cumbersome to wear and interfere so much with my view that they’re almost as frustrating to wear as the mosquitoes themselves. However, not all headnets are created equal and an ultralight headnet, almost (currently) defined by the Bens Invisinet, is so light you won’t notice it in your pack and the mesh is so thin that you get used to it easily, almost forgetting it’s there. While I very rarely will need a headnet while hiking where you can stay on the move and out hike the majority of mosquitoes, when backpacking and in camp, a headnet is essential during this time of year for cooking dinner and to at least bridge the gap between the time you arrive at camp and the time you go to sleep. Keep in mind that dark colored clothing may further attract mosquitoes, so when choosing what color of clothing to wear for this time of year a good idea to go with those lighter colored pants and shirts in the spring and early summer…when it’s warmer out anyway as these colors will also run cooler in the sun.

Backpacking and Hiking in Mosquito and Tick Season - How to and Tips

Even if you’ve covered yourself head to toe however, the occasional mosquito will still be able to bite through your clothing and even this aside, having dozens of mosquitoes on you and buzzing around your head can be downright annoying. This is where the repellant factor comes in, and this is an essential item on my gear list spring through late summer. I like to go the natural route whenever I can, and after experimenting with just about every natural repellent out there the best that I’ve used is the All Terrain Herbal Armor product. The pump spray is more economical, while the pressurized BOV style wins in convenience. Either way, this product actually works very well against mosquitoes – as good as anything else in my experience with the caveat that it will not last as long as chemical repellents like DEET products and those containing Picaridin. The latter two synthetic repellents are very effective and long lasting (especially DEET), with Picaridin thought to be the safer option in some circles. If opting for a Picardin product you will want to go with an option that has a higher concentration – 20% - for adequate effectiveness and if you go the DEET route be very careful around your plastics, as DEET can melt these items and may cause damage to other gear – Picaridin is a more gear-friendly option. Another option is to pre-treat clothing with a Permethrin product - an insecticide, and some hiking clothing like the BugsAway line from ExOfficio is pre-treated with Permethrin straight from the factory.

No matter which way you go, a combination of clothing and the repellent of your choice is the way to go, plus campsite selection. Dry camping and choosing a campsite away from water, and one that will have a nice breeze are additional steps that can help thwart biting flying insects.
 

Ticks

At least mosquitoes fly away after an attack; ticks on the other hand like to catch a ride. I’ve found that choosing a hiking locale is important during tick season – freezing temperatures at night help (ditto for mosquitoes), as well as gaining elevation and staying on trail in brushy areas. I’ve seen the most ticks in grassy prairie areas and in sagebrush ecosystems in the west, especially in any area teeming with wildlife or livestock.

Hiking Trail During Tick Season

"Trails" like this Wisconsin pathway may be best avoided during tick season, or only carefully approached.

If you find yourself in an area with ticks, many of the same physical barriers apply as we would use against mosquitoes. Ticks lay in wait on the ends of the grass or brush waiting for you to brush through an area so they can grab on, and mostly will attach at shoe, ankle, or knee height and crawl upwards. Thus, wear light colored pants again, and wear longer socks – tucking your pants into your socks. If you’re hiking through an area where you’ll be contacting grass and brush, make a habit to perform a spot check at intervals – the dark colored ticks will stand out on the light colored pants, and remove as needed before they can attach. When possible, avoid contacting grass and brush by staying on trail, or instead of brushing through these areas, it can help to use a walking technique of stepping over and on top of the grass, instead of brushing through it. Repellent can help, but is not foolproof in my experience; Permethrin however is found useful by some hikers during tick season. Regardless, if ticks are known to be present you will want to perform a full tick check at the end of the day and remove any ticks immediately. Again, a fully screened in shelter or tent will aid in a peaceful night of rest at these time of years and in these areas.

Sagebrush Trail During Tick Season Hiking


Other Concerns

While I’ve found mosquitoes and ticks are the most common nuisances to deal with on my hikes, anything from ants to chiggers can also get in the way of a good trip quite quickly. While cowboy camping in Texas I quickly learned that there’s really no way to ant-proof a sleeping bag; and I’ve unfortunately found out as well that they can even chew right through a tent. Either way defense against other insects can be obtained by using similar techniques to more common concerns, by avoiding when possible, creating physical barriers with clothing and shelter, and utilizing your repellent of choice.

With the right approach, we can enjoy the splendors of spring and summer backpacking and hiking without mosquitoes, ticks, or other concerns taking over a trip – and having learned from experience, I can highly suggest taking the necessary gear anytime they might be present on trip, as there’s always the chance they could be out earlier or later than you might expect, and nothing is worse than being totally unprepared when these types of insects or ticks are prevalent.

For a full lineup of insect repellents check out this page at REI, and they also carry a selection of headnets and even insect repellent clothing as well.

Aaron

Of all the backpacking related gear I utilize, a digital scale has to be one of the most overlooked and underrated items – a scale is something I use in a variety of ways when preparing for any backpacking trip. While a scale isn’t an item actually on our gear list or something we’ll be taking on a trip, a scale is a tool that helps to get us out there faster and lighter – by aiding with packing speed and convenience as well as helping to keep weights down before we grab our pack and head for the trail.

Digital Scales for Weighing Backpacking Gear - Best Types and Usage

If you’re currently trying to shed some weight off your pack and are working to get your gear dialed in, the scale will assist greatly by telling you exactly how much things weigh rather than going with an educated guess approach – keep a list – and help with “this, not that” decisions. For luxury items, a scale can help with weighing the decision on if such an item is actually worth the comfort. But even if your gear list is already set in stone, a backpacking scale will still help in many ways when it comes to getting ready for a trip.

For stoves, and no matter if you use a canister stove or go the alcohol route, any ultralight stove isn’t ultralight if you’re carrying too much fuel. For maximum weight savings, you can calculate how much fuel you’ll need and weigh out your fuel before heading out…down to the gram if desired…and a scale quickly and accurately allows you to weigh out that alcohol fuel to perfectly match a trip. For a canister stove user a scale is even more useful, so long as you’ve accumulated a few (or many) partial canisters, a scale will allow you to take the best canister with the right amount of fuel for a trip, while being positive there’s enough left. Jetboil now even makes a dedicated offering to weigh fuel canisters, but with any scale the math isn’t too difficult at all.

Backpacking Fuel Canisters - Utilizing a Scale to Determine How Much is Left

While we’ve already discussed the applicability of a scale for current gear, any time I buy new gear the first thing that happens upon receipt is to weigh it. On occasion gear may vary from the product spec sheet when it comes to weight, and while an ounce or two here or there isn’t that big of a deal, if you made a purchase based upon a specified weight, especially when comparing one item to another, it’s nice to know.

My most used scale is a simple digital kitchen scale that will run about $10-15, and many many other similar offerings can be found on the cheap at Amazon. With measurements to the gram, a scale like this is tailor made for weighing small items like fuel canisters and any time precision counts for smaller gear items. While very workable for weighing out food, etc. by balancing something such as a bowl or box on top first and using the tare feature, this can admittedly become tedious and you may have to work in small batches for a long trip. And there’s definitely no way you're weighing your backpacking pack with gear all at once with these types of scales.

Thus I own a second scale, the Feedback Sports Digital Alpine scale. While the Feedback Sports offering doesn’t offer the same precision, it makes up for this with convenience, especially if you have a place to hang it already. I utilize a cup screw hook driven into a wooden beam for this purpose, but you can also use it easily by hand. With a 55lb capacity this can easily weigh an entire pack to keep you honest…enough ultralight items are no longer ultralight as a whole after all. This type of scale is best for weighing many items, for example all your food for a trip when you’re using a PPPPD packing technique, or for weighing large items like an unwieldy tent that might be hard to balance on other scales. If the item you want to weigh doesn’t have a place to attach the hook, or if you’re weighing a bunch of food, etc. just attach an empty stuff sack, tare to zero to take away the weight of the stuff sack or whatever else you might be using, then fill with the contents and re-weigh. Both types of scales have their place in a packing arsenal, however.

Using a Scale to Pack Backpacking Food in Pounds a Day

To review, no matter which way you go, any scale you choose should weigh to at least the ounce, and for things like fuel canisters preferably to the gram, and the scale should have a near-ubiquitous and very convenient tare feature. What a scale does is take the guesswork out of the equation; now you know if you have enough food without overpacking and taking too much, you know how much your gear and your pack really weighs, and you know you packed just the right amount of…you name it.

I use a version of this kitchen scale found on Amazon for about $10 combined with the $60 Feedback Sports Alpine scale. A multitude of scales will work well and are available however, including this outdoor-oriented lineup from REI.

Aaron

Both a prerequisite for the enjoyment of any dayhike and critical for the success of any extended backpacking trip, our choice of a hiking shoe or boot is one of the most important gear related choices to make and dial in prior to any outdoor excursion. Not only does the best hiking boot or shoe depend on fit and our own individual preference, but the best options will also vary widely by season – although many options can also be workable across more than one season, or even with a few caveats year round.

Choosing the Best Lightweight Backpacking and Hiking Footwear by Season


Early Spring and Late Fall

Characterized by cool to temperate weather conditions with moisture being frequently encountered from many angles including precipitation, light snow, river crossings, and just overall soggy or muddy conditions (i.e. “mudseason”), feet will likely stay pretty warm on their own – as long as they’re dry. Thus a waterproof / breathable option (Gore-Tex, eVent, proprietary membrane) can be very suitable for these conditions and shoes with these technologies are offered in a wide array of styles. Water resistant trail running shoes, like the Altra Lone Peak Neoshell can be one way to go if you prefer a trail running shoe, or for conditions where you’ll be moving fast (including trail running) and only light moisture may be encountered.

Waterproof Breathable Hiking Boots for Spring and Fall Hiking

Slick conditions will frequently be encountered, and snowy conditions are par for the course in mountainous areas from remaining winter snow in the spring and new snow as winter approaches in the fall. Thus a little ankle support from a mid-height boot can offer some reassurance...which will also help further to keep snow and mud out. And admittedly on any soggy backpacking trip with a waterproof / breathable shoe, it’s always nice to hike through the mud all day and still have clean feet at the end of the day when it’s time to crawl in the sleeping bag. Some hikers who, like myself, prefer to hike in trail runners whenever possible do have success pushing trail runners into these seasons and cool to cold, wet conditions by adding a waterproof Gore-Tex sock or similar, and while this technique has worked for me in the past, at some point I simply find it more comfortable to bite the bullet and make a shoe change.


Summer

With hot and mostly dry hiking, expect perhaps for the occasional water crossing or summer rainstorm, summer is ruled by footwear of the non-waterproof and very breathable variety. Trail running shoes vs. boots is up to you and your preference for mobility and light weight vs. ankle support and protection, as well as pack weight, but in these conditions a breathable shoe will keep your feet more comfortable throughout the day, increase comfort and reduce the likelihood of blisters and hotspots, and dry faster overnight.

Trail Runners and Summer Hiking

While our shoes or boots may get wet from the occasional water crossing or rainy day…once things dry up and with warm to hot temperatures, the simple act of hiking dries the shoe as we go along during the day. In contrast a waterproof boot / shoe will hold sweat or outside moisture in, and in rather miserable fashion sometimes day after day while backpacking. Usually summer is also the time where our higher mileage backpacking trips are planned, and staying light on your feet helps greatly in this regard. Popular lightweight options include trail runners such as the Altra Lone Peak and the Brooks Cascadia, and for a boot option the non-waterproof version of the Vasque Breeze and Merrel Moab Mids can frequently be seen on the trail.


Winter

True winter hiking and backpacking are where things start to get specialized, keeping feet dry and warm is key, and keeping your feet dry doesn’t mean your feet will necessarily be warm at this stage. Here we know we’ll be encountering deep snow, and waterproof mid-height to higher winter boot options will be sufficient at keeping snow out as long they are compatible with another key piece of winter gear – your gaiter choice – and for cold conditions two things can be helpful: a vapor barrier liner and going with an insulated boot. Insulated boots are typically insulated with Thinsulate, proprietary insulation, or even space age type materials like Aerogel, and are typically rated by a temperature rating (usually quite generous), and / or an insulation weight spec such as 200 gram, 400 gram, etc., but in all regards the addition of insulation moves this option into a quite specialized category.

200 Gram Insulated Waterproof Breathable Boot for Backpacking

Preferences will vary, but generally in cold conditions the more sedentary you’ll be the more insulation you’ll need – if you are a wildlife photographer or heading in for a day of icefishing, you will probably want to the heaviest insulated boot you can get, or you may need to go with a specialized option for something like backcountry ski touring or mountaineering. For lightweight hiking, backpacking, and snowshoeing purposes however, I’ve found 200-400 gram insulated boots to be perfect for higher output hiking and snowshoeing activities , but as part of a footwear solution. This involves adding in a VBL, gaiters, and a warmer sock solution while making sure the boot is sufficiently sized to accommodate good circulation and the additional gear. Either way, in these bitter cold conditions, test your setup on day hikes first, test both on the move and not, and adjust as needed.


The Lightweight Big 3

Over time I’ve found that for the great majority of year-round backpacking and hiking purposes, having 3 types of footwear options on hand can handle almost any condition very well. A lightweight, breathable trail running shoe is my go-to option from mid to late spring through early to mid fall and for anything from the easiest day hike to the longest backpacking trip. In fact, I find I lace these up as soon as I can in spring and hold out as far as I can into the fall; the light weight combined with the breathability and quick dry times make these a comfortable option for the majority of the hiking season and for backpacking with a reasonably lightweight pack.

Summer Backpacking in Mesh Trail Running Shoes

For cooler springtime and fall conditions, stepping up to a mid-height, waterproof / breathable hiking boot adds warmth, keeps your feet dry during these times when additional moisture will be encountered and dry times are increased anyway, and the extra height provides a little ankle support on slick, uneven terrain (you can't always tell where your foot will end up in snow), and will help to keep light snow out.

For true winter conditions, a lightweight, insulated winter hiking boot will be well appreciated as temperatures fall into the teens and further to below 0 temperatures. A 200-400 gram insulated boot (depending on activity level) has worked well for me even in extreme cold, and in these true winter conditions I always utilize a VBL and gaiters, providing additional warmth and keeping the interior of the boot dry. If you’ll however, be sitting around a lot, or opt to skip the VBL on dayhikes, you will want to swing your choice towards boots of the heavier insulated variety. Keeping the rest of your body dry and warm is also critical in this type of weather (and goes a long way towards keeping your feet warm as well) – but that’s another article.


One Footwear Option to Rule Them All?

With all the previously discussed options in mind, without a doubt hiking shoes are not only a personal choice, but they are for the most part, specifically suited for individual situations. But what if you want one hiking or backpacking shoe that would work well across many, if not most seasons and conditions? While I’m a big lightweight trail running shoe fan anytime I can possibly get away with wearing them – if I had to pick only one shoe for all conditions, and as much as I might grit my teeth on summer hikes or even stay home when temps fell below 0, I would have to choose a venerable mid-height, waterproof-breathable lightweight hiking boot. My current pick is the (appropriately named for this section?) Vasque Monolith, and there are many, many options available in this category.

The mid-height waterproof / breathable boot is perfect for shoulder seasons and in light snow, and provides sufficient warmth in these cool, but not cold conditions while keep feet mostly dry. These boots are a bit too hot for me for summer hiking, but with a few changes of socks are totally workable for warm, but not too hot, mountain hiking. While an uninsulated boot will be too cold for true winter hiking, they can be used for quite cold temps combined with a liner sock, a VBL setup, and another warmer sock as long as the boot is sized appropriately. Combined with gaiters, this setup will be appropriate for many warmer winter hiking conditions.

An All Purpose Waterproof Mid Hiking Boot


Just like the usefulness and performance of an otherwise nice vehicle can be compromised by a set of cheap tires, keeping the right hiking treads on your feet will ensure you’ll be able to make the most out of any hiking and backpacking trip – and if you take care of your feet in the outdoors, they’re sure to take care of you. No matter the solution you choose to go with, fit is of course as important as design, and once you’ve dialed in your own outdoor footwear system – be it a collection of shoes and boots perfect for each season and scenario or an option or two that’s workable across many, all we have to do is lace up and hike.

For a list of hiking / backpacking shoe and boot choices, including everything from trail runners to winter boots and beyond that can be sorted and filtered by the options discussed above, check out this page at REI.

Aaron

If you’re not thinking about your tent stakes on your next backpacking trip, it’s probably a good sign that you’ve chosen the right ones. If your stakes aren’t a good match for the ground and conditions at hand however, you could be in for a difficult shelter setup process and perhaps even for a long night. With a myriad of lightweight tent stakes on the market to choose from, there’s likely a specific tent stake for every condition you’ll encounter, as well as others that will perform well across a variety of conditions without specializing in any particular one. The best backpacking tent stake may not be the same for every trip, and is one that meets our own individual approach in regards to durability, ease of use, effectiveness, weight, and price.

How to Choose Lightweight Backpacking Tent Stakes


Materials

Tent stakes can be made from a variety of materials from high grade aluminum like the popular MSR Groundhog stakes, to titanium, plastic, and carbon fiber…or a combination of these materials as you can find in the MSR Carbon Core offering. For backpacking purposes, tent stakes are a bit of a conundrum; they need to be both lightweight, and very strong. Heavier weight titanium and aluminum offerings will generally be the most durable and are the best choice if you’ll be setting up camp in heavily used compacted tent sites, where you might have to coax the stake into the ground by hammering them in. On the flipside, you’ll need to handle ultralight tent stakes of the carbon fiber variety for instance, with a little more care. Most of us end up with something of a compromise between the two extremes, like the popular tubular aluminum design that has been found in the (now antiquated) Easton Nano and more currently in the aluminum MSR Core models. Stakes made of stiffer more brittle material can fail by breaking, sometimes in rather spectacular fashion by becoming a flying projectile along with a resounding ping sound, while other stakes will bend instead of, or prior to breaking.  

Different Backpacking Tent Stake Types


Design

Other than specialized options like snow and sand stakes, design of the stake is mostly related to how well it will hold in the ground vs. ease of use. Popular varieties include the aforementioned MSR Groundhog Y-shaped stakes, needle style stakes, V-shaped stakes, and tubular stakes. Y stakes and V-stakes offer very good holding power and are usually quite strong, but with their sharp edges they can be difficult or painful to use on the hands. Additionally, while these are some of the strongest stakes out there, when they do fail, the failures I’ve observed have been breakages. This is offset a bit by the one piece design however – there’s nothing to come apart.

Tubular stakes like the Easton Nano that still remains heavily used have a two piece design, where the top is glued / epoxied onto the aluminum tube, and these stakes will bend in my experience, prior to breaking when too much force is used on hard ground. However, being a two piece design, they can also come apart (but at the right angle can still be used for the rest of a trip). Like many things, they will often fail in this manner right away or last quite a while, so it’s not a bad idea to test at home first. With all stakes, but with these 2 piece types of stakes especially, it pays to first move the stake side to side to loosen before removal from difficult ground. Ultralight shepherd’s hook stakes don’t offer as much holding power as the varieties we’ve covered so far, and can spin in place if you’re unable to get them all the way in, but they are often quite sufficient and are my favorite stakes for frozen ground, where the thin, needle like profile allows for easy insertion and removal, and in frozen ground any stake you can get into the ground will hold very well. Nail stakes would be another option here, and can also be used to first create a pilot hole for a larger stake like an Easton or Groundhog. It’s a bit of a double edged sword in this regard: thin stakes can’t be hammered into harder ground without bending, but the thin profile may keep you from having to do so.

Titatanium Ultralight Shepherd's Hook Stakes

Ultralight titanium shepherd's hook stakes weigh in the ~.2 ounce range

No matter the design of the stake you choose to go with, longer stakes will always offer more holding ability while of course being a bit heavier. The standard stake length is usually around 6 inches, and generally this is a good choice and balance of weight to holding power for most situations. Going with a longer stake like the 9” MSR core aluminum option for soft ground, or in areas of heavy forest duff in order to get into the better soil underneath can be helpful on some trips or for larger tents and shelters that place a lot of tension on the guylines.


Other Considerations

One at times overlooked aspect of a tent stake is color. From experience, I can tell you that going with a neutral colored, earth-toned tent stake will quickly lead to you having to buy more tent stakes in short order. Bright colors are the way to go here, or if needed you can attach a loop of brightly colored, or even reflective cord to an existing stake. Additionally, a great trick for those grey titanium shepherd’s hook stakes is to mold a section of heat shrink tubing in the color of your choice to the hook of the stake, although many now come partially painted for visibility.

Weight wise, no matter the stake you decide to go with or whatever design you prefer, for backpacking use we still need to keep it light. In almost all circumstances we can find a lightweight tent stake that will meet our needs and still weigh under an ounce each, with many options being right around the half ounce mark…and some lower like the MSR Carbon Core stakes or many titanium shepherd’s hook stakes. Even on the heavier end of these weights, it’s possible to pick up a full set of decent stakes that will hold your tent down, without weighing you down on the trail.

Backpacking Tent Stake Comparison - MSR Groundhog, Carbon Core, Easton, and Hook Stakes

Clockwise starting at 2 o'clock, a comparison of ultralight titanium shepherd's hook, Easton Nano, MSR Carbon Core, and MSR Groundhog stakes


My Approach

Over the years, I’ve found that there is no one tent stake to rule them all. As such, over time I’ve accumulated a small collection of stakes, and will mix it up based on the type of trip, the type of shelter I’ll be using, and the weather. Frequently, I may even mix and match different stakes for a single trip as well. For 3-season backpacking use my go to tent stake has been the MSR Carbon Core for the past several years (find our full review here). Despite its two piece design (and price), this is a great option if you like the weight of ultralight titanium shepherd’s hook stakes, but would like a better hold in less than ideal ground conditions. These ultralight stakes, at .2 ounces per stake, can weigh under 2 ounces for a set, and offer good holding power for most ground, sufficient durability with a little thought, and as a bonus the whole design and top is easy on the hands. Since these stakes are expensive however, I will often mix in some titanium shepherd’s hook stakes for a shelter that needs a lot of stakes or for those additional tie-outs, and during winter or cold conditions when I know frozen ground will be encountered, I will go a full set of shepherd’s hook stakes which are much easier to use in frozen ground with their thin profile.

If I know I’ll be encountering very soft ground, or if I’ll be using a shelter that puts a lot of tension on guylines like the Tarptent Hogback, I will then go with the larger and heavier Easton 8” stakes I have on hand all around, or will use them on select guylines where the most tension will be seen, combined with lighter stakes in other areas. The 8” Easton, like the more all-around length MSR Carbon Core, is another stake that is easy to use, while being light, but holds extremely well with the longer length. While the Eastons have been very hard to find as of late, the MSR Core (not carbon core) again is another contender is this department. I do not use any snow stakes – In these situations I will use a freestanding tent, and when needed, use snow anchors made from snowshoes or trekking poles instead.

Lightweight Backpacking Tent Stake Selection Guide


In the end, every tent stake has its own share of pros and cons, and so many different options exist precisely for this reason. In this regard – while I’m always trying to simplify and pare down my overall collection of gear to keep things simple and keep only what I really need, different tent stakes are one category where it’s always nice to have a variety of choices on hand, so that you’re able to mix and match for a customized best approach on different trips or even on the same backpacking trip when desired.

For a nice list and wide variety of currently available tent and shelter stakes to choose from, take a look here at Backcountry.com.

Aaron

Dyneema Composite Fabric, often shortened to DCF and previously referred to as Cuben Fiber, is a fabric made from Dyneema fibers that are embedded in a polyester film to form a single material or fabric. Due to the high strength to weight ratio of the Dyneema fibers and its low stretch combined with inherit waterproofness, DCF and Cuben Fiber has proven to be a popular option for lightweight and ultralight backpacking gear over the past several years, and usage continues to grow in popularity for use in tents, tarps, backpacks, stuff sacks, and other accessory items. What follows is an introduction and review of the material across the different options and applications that are available.

Dyneema Composite Fabric Backpacking Gear, Types, Comparison with Silnylon
 

DCF vs. Silnylon

Most of the time, DCF / Cuben Fiber will compete directly with waterpoof silnylon due to the similarities in weight, but the materials are very different. Typically, the silnylon utilized for shelter applications weighs around 1.1 ounces per square yard+;  DCF utilized for the same applications usually weighs between .51 ounces and .74 ounces / square yard. With the amount of material that’s utilized for something like a tent or shelter, this can offer significant weight savings. Additionally, Dyneema Composite Fabric has extremely low stretch; with a silnylon shelter you most likely need to re-tension guylines after initial setup and once the material relaxes, or when it gets wet from rain or condensation – DCF just stays taut, and in my experiences DCF shelters also simply accumulate less condensation to begin with. When it’s time to pack up in the morning, DCF holds on to less moisture after it gets wet, resulting in less of a soggy (and heavy) shelter to carry along on wet trips. However, DCF is significantly more expensive (culminating in the antiquated $1800 Sierra Designs Mojo UFO) and while it’s durable, it is not very abrasion resistant – the main caveat in the DCF durability department.

Dyneema Composite Fabric Stuff Sack and Stake Bag

Dyneema Composite Fabric Stuff Sack and Tent Stake Bag

Common DCF Variants and Types

Many variants of DCF are offered with two factors at hand: the density of the Dyneema fibers and the thickness of the polyester film. Increasing either boosts the strength and durability, while increasing weight. Very thin and light versions are made as well – getting so lightweight that durability will be a significant concern, but here we’ll look at the most popular weights that feature a good blend of durability while still saving weight.

.51 oz. DCF

Weighing about half of what typical silnylon weighs, .51 oz. / sq. yd DCF is a very lightweight material that is still quite strong. This is the material I’ve used in two different shelters (both from Zpacks) over the years, and durability has been good. Even though this material is so thin it’s slightly transparent (you can see the stars through your tent at night), it’s surprisingly strong and I’ve had shelters made from .51 hold up very well in strong winds. One of my shelters did develop a small pinhole in the canopy over time, from abrasion I would guess – which was easily and quickly sealed with a dab of Sil-Net Seam Sealer. I’ve used .51 stuff sacks as well over the years, which taking more abuse and abrasion have eventually self-destructed. However, I’ve had an equal amount of silnylon stuff sacks suffer this fate as well, and additionally have had to perform the exact same pinhole repair to a Lunar Duo silnylon tent. In my experience .51 offers similar durability to typical silnylons.

.51 oz DCF Cuben Fiber Tent Canopy and Transparency

.51 Dyneema Composite Fabric

.74 oz. DCF

This variation has the same polyester film thickness as .51 above, but features a higher density of Dyneema fibers bringing the weight up to .74 oz. / sq. yd. This additional strength and durability adds some peace of mind and as such, some manufacturers default to this weight for shelter usage, and it’s still lighter than silnylon. While still considered a bit thin for something like a backpack or for shelter floor usage, I have many nights in a shelter that utilizes a .74 DCF floor, and it’s holding up very well, albeit when used with a lightweight and cut to size window insulation film groundsheet. .74 vs. .51 DCF is a pretty common decision to make, and it’s all about application and how important saving an ounce or two is to you along with the application.

1 oz. to 1.5 oz. DCF

Of the pure DCF options (those not combined with another material) these weights, usually seen in either 1 or 1.43 oz weights are the heavy duty offerings. Featuring both a thicker film as well as a higher density of Dyneema fibers, these will be the strongest and most durable of offerings that we’ve discussed so far, and are useful for applications that may be under higher stress or subject to possible abrasion scenarios from time to time, like shelter floors, or for ultralight backpacks. We are moving into a weight range where we’re not really saving any weight over silnylon at this point however, even though this heavy weight DCF can still offer some advantages, but not in regards to price.

Hybrid Dyneema Composite Fabric - DCF - Cuben Backpack with Polyester Outer Layer

Hybrid DCF Material Showing Outer Polyester Layer

Hybrid DCF

This is a heavier DCF fabric, that has an outer laminated polyester fabric for more strength and durability, with the inner side being the exposed DCF / Cuben Fiber. This is a heavier duty fabric mostly used for backpacks and accessories – not shelters. This fabric has some appeal for high strength and extra durability with the extra polyester outer layer that offers more abrasion resistance. The fabric also absorbs very little water, and with the DCF inner layer it is very waterproof by nature (no PU coating needed here), making this a popular choice for backpacks that also comes in an array of attractive colors. I’ve found hybrid DCF / Cuben offers a good balance of weight and durability – it’s a very appropriate choice for situations where abrasion may be encountered and strength is needed, like in a backpack. It will require a little more care than (the heavier) Nylon / Dyneema Gridstop fabrics that are also used by many backpack manufacturers like ULA Equipment, while being more waterproof. As with anything, tradeoffs are to be considered and as we move into the heavier DCF and hybrid DCF weights, you’ll notice the comparison is no longer vs. silnylon, but is to be had with heavier duty and stronger fabric options like Dyneema Gridstop and X-Pac.

Hybrid Cuben Fiber - Dyneema DCF Inner Layer

The Hybrid DCF / Cuben Fiber pack lid shown above turned inside out, revealing the DCF inner layer.

Specialty DCF

Just as soon as you seem to get a handle on all the different types of DCF out there, new weights are released and new innovations hit the market, including Dyneema Composite Fabric featuring a waterproof / breathable eVent membrane that’s being used in some rain gear applications and even a tent. For shelter usage, it’s also common to see an option that adds a camoflauge outer layer to existing weights, and the camo layer gives the shelter a little more strength and more privacy. Other, more standard DCF offerings hit the market from time to time as well offering varying levels of film thickness and Dyneema density, and often it will come down to the preference of the gear manufacturer as to the options that are available. In all cases though, with a starting point to go off of all of these options can be evaluated based on weight, thickness, and Dyneema fiber density for an idea of how the field performance will pan out.

DCF - Cuben Fiber Zpacks Backpacking Tent


Whether it’s a Granite Gear Uberlight Stuff Sack, a lightweight and spacious shelter from ZPacks, or a hybrid DCF backpack offering, Dyneema Composite Fabric or Cuben Fiber is an intriguing option where high strength and waterproofness is desired at a low weight. As with any other backpacking fabric many tradeoffs are to be had, and with the advantages of DCF come some durability concerns, that can often be comparable to an existing popular fabric like silnylon, or mitigated with a little care. High price is the other tradeoff that’s always attached to DCF, and in the end it’s up to each one of us to decide if the advantages are worth the cost. One thing is for sure: DCF is here to stay and has been proven to perform very well in the outdoors and in typical lightweight backpacking scenarios.

Aaron

The Zpacks Triplex Tent is a Dyneema Composite Fabric / Cuben Fiber tent that’s marketed as a 3 person shelter solution with a 90x60” floorplan and a generous 48” peak height – it’s essentially a larger version of the Zpacks Duplex, which is designed as 2 person tent with a smaller 45” wide floor. Featured in this review however, the only slightly heavier 24 ounce Zpacks Triplex requires a minimum of 8 stakes, and additional tieouts can be used at the head and foot ends for more wind stability and / or for extra head and foot room utilizing up to 12 stakes.

ZPacks Triplex Tent Review

The Zpacks Triplex is a single wall shelter, supported by 2 trekking poles set to a suggested 48”, or by a pair of optional dedicated carbon fiber poles. 2 rainbow shaped doors and 2 vestibules offer plenty of livability, and save for the full noseeum netting that bug-proofs the living space, the rest of the tent is made from Dyneema Composite Fabric (DCF - previously known as Cuben Fiber). The canopy is made from a lighter weight material and is available in .51 oz, .74 oz, and a camo .67 oz, (weight per square yard) options. The heavier options are a bit stronger and a bit more durable, while the .51, as seen in this review will weigh the least – my Triplex weighs 24.5 ounces by itself with lines, tensioners, and interior pockets outside its stuff sack. Either way, Zpacks rates the shelter as suitable for at least one thru-hike of a major long trail (around 6 months or 2500+ miles continuous use, or depending on how often you like to head out many nights for non thru-hiking backpackers). In all options, a heavier 1.0 oz / sq. yd. DCF bathtub floor is used for more durability. The Triplex also features a unique vestibule closure; the 2 vestibule doors simply overlap each other when closed for waterproofing; and hooking each door to a lineloc attached to the main side guylines then allows you to tension each door taut and closed. Both doors can also be individually secured open for views and ventilation.

Ultralight Triplex Tent from ZPacks with Sleeping Pads

The Zpacks Triplex with one standard 20" width sleeping pad, along with a wide 25" pad.

While rated for 3, the Triplex has been my shelter option of choice for two people for the past several years, or two and a dog, and the dimensions offer a generous amount of space when used as a 2 or 2.5 person tent. I honestly wouldn’t try 3 – I often use a wide pad (Exped Synmat UL 7) anyway and the 60” width is an exact fit for 3 standard width pads. For all my shelters, I like to plan on at least a couple inches between each sleeping pad and then on either side for some breathing room, and if I was looking to pack a backpacking shelter for 3, I would just take my TarpTent Hogback at that point for the extra space. This puts the Triplex in a bit of a no man’s land width wise; for 3 adults ideally a tent just a bit larger would offer the most sanity, while for only 2 people the Triplex is a bit spacious.The Zpacks Duplex with the 45” wide floor is another option, but again we run into the same issue; if one partner has a wide pad, we are at the limit of the floor's width - 2 wide pads are a no go. In my experience the 50-54” floor width range works best for versatility and some room for two people. However since the weights are so low here, the only real drawback to using the Triplex for two or the Duplex for one is footprint and packing size.

ZPacks Triplex - Dyneema - Cuben Fiber Tent

The construction of the Triplex is such that the canopy overlaps the bathtub floor for excellent rain and splashback protection, and that’s all with no seam sealing required as Zpacks tapes all the seams for you. Speaking of the floor Zpacks makes a very good, 8” high bathtub arrangement that rises well above the ground all the way around, offering great peace of mind. The interior rainbow door allows for access to either side of the vestibule, or entering and exiting via any side if you have one storm door closed, though the mesh door will fall onto the ground when open compared to the D-shaped or L-zipper style doors found on some tents. The vestibules provide plenty of space, and while you can opt to setup the Triplex with all 4 storm doors closed (which form the vestibule), all 4 open, or anywhere in between, the tension of the storm doors affects the pitch of the rest of the tent, requiring readjustment, so I’d suggest determining the door configuration you want to go with throughout the night and initially adjusting the guylines based on that.

Triplex Lineloc 3 Adjustment and Guylines - One Storm Door Open

Adjusting ridgeline tension is made easy via the use of Lineloc 3 guyline tensioners.

Zpacks is always making subtle, on the fly changes to their products (example there is no Triplex 1.0, 2.0, etc.) so 3 different Triplex tents may have minor differences. Mine is an earlier version; newer versions feature the same design with a couple added features like integrated linelocs (I added my own tensioners), interior pockets (Zpacks offered a retrofit option that I installed), and a vestibule door toggle to prevent flapping in high winds...which can also be retrofitted but hasn’t been a problem for me, as you can also pitch the tent with the overlapping side into the prevailing wind to mitigate this (Zpacks logos located on the canopy oriented downwind). No stakes are provided, and I go with the MSR Carbon Core Stakes – find our look at these stakes and review here – to keep the Triplex secured.

Triplex Storm Doors and Original ZPacks Closure

Original storm door closure system

The closure system for the storm doors has also been updated. Original models clipped to a carabiner attached to a lineloc – effective albeit a bit cumbersome, but newer models feature custom , open-ended quick-release hooks for easier manipulation. These new hooks can be purchased and retrofitted, but I swapped out the original provided carabiner for a NiteIze SBiner that also works quite well (not shown above). Setup of the tent is fairly quick and easy, just seek out a larger tent site as the Triplex when fully guyed out will take up some space. Headroom is very good for me at 6' 2", and for a little extra room for taller hikers it can help to combine the head, and / or foot guyouts with the pole cup option from Zpacks. I do however find that the 48” suggested pole height puts too much tension on the mesh doors when they’re closed, and thus I set my poles at around 45-46” to alleviate this.

Durability of the Triplex has been good, and that goes for cuben fiber / DCF shelters in general in my experience as well. One benefit of DCF compared the silnylon is that once you get your pitch set, the material stays taut and doesn’t sag, so no more adjustments are needed. For more durability and peace of mind, you could opt for the .74 or camo .67 options. Generally, you will want to avoid abrasion, so make sure the canopy isn’t contacting any rocks or branches during or after setup. The floor is subject to more wear, hence the heavier duty DCF used by Zpacks here, and I always take a very light, cut to size window insulation film groundsheet to go under the floor as well.

ZPacks Triplex DCF Tent Packed Size

Packed size in a 8L Sea to Summit Ultra-Sil Stuff Sack.

Overall either the Triplex or Duplex are excellent 3 season shelters and can be suitable for a wide range of uses whether solo, or up to 3 people with the Triplex, just depending on how you like to use the tent and how much space you prefer. For the storm worthiness, and bug proofness that’s offered here combined with space and headroom, the weight is extremely light for what you’re getting, and when you’re using the Triplex the 2 separate, opposing doors, with each person (for groups of 2) having their own vestibule provides very ample livability on the trail. And this is all with great interior space due to the vertical side walls and headroom that all occupants can make equal use of. Of course with all these benefits, as the weight goes down the price goes up, and retailing for $700 the Triplex is quite the shelter investment indeed; if you can wait, keep an eye out for the Zpacks yearly holiday sale to help a bit in this regard. You can find more about the Triplex here at Zpacks.

Aaron

Last fall, TrailGroove contributor Mark Wetherington and a group of other concerned hikers created a website to address the concern that social media exposure can potentially have on our wild places, and over the course of the past few months, the proposed 8th Leave No Trace principle, which focuses on being mindful when sharing and posting on social media has generated some excellent discussion in the outdoor community, and recently over at the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics as well. Mark has taken an admirable initiative on the subject, and be sure the check out the 8th LNT website. Additionally, for further reading and a great perspective on these issues, be sure to give Paul Magnanti’s article Keeping Wild Spaces Wild: The Ethics of Social Media, recently published in Issue 36, a thorough read.

8th LNT

The proposed 8th Leave No Trace Principle was created as conversation starter, but a couple examples of a possible principle are provided on the 8thLNT site:

“Be mindful when posting on social media and consider the potential impacts that rapidly increased use can have on wild places”

As well as:

“Use discretion when posting on social media and consider the potential impacts of creating a ‘buzz’ about specific destinations”

Having seen firsthand the effects that media and social media can have when excessive attention to a specific spot or specific route can have on our limited wilderness areas over the years, as well as the detrimental effect that wild places can suffer without any publicity, exposure, and advocacy on different occasions as well – this is an issue I’ve thought about frequently and is an issue that colleagues and I have discussed on many occasions. The answer, for better or worse, doesn’t seem to be black and white, and it seems that it may all come down to a delicate balancing act.

Sharing Information About Wilderness on Social Media - Ethics and Principles

Protecting Wilderness

One immediate and initial concern here is of course, the very short term, limited benefits, and long term hazards that keeping a general place secret, so to speak, can have. The proposed principle however, is not about keeping secrets; in fact the very core of the principle itself is about spreading the word. It’s also about inspiring current and future generations to recreate and protect our wild places, while instilling a sense of stewardship for these very places and for the outdoors. Without knowledge of these places comes the lack of support that these wild places need. And while greater regulation and enforcement is appropriate in some scenarios, and education always appropriate, do we really want all of our backpacking trips to begin with a lottery? And sadly, no matter how much effort we put into educating (and this is by no means an excuse to limit those efforts), unfortunately there will never be a time or place where all visitors will follow all of our leave no trace principles, and some places can only support so much use while maintaining their existing wilderness character. A wilderness area, or wild location, that’s at an equilibrium between its wilderness character and its usage, is in my mind a worthy goal.

Wilderness Backpacking Ethics

Relative Impact

There are impacts to be aware of for all wild places; those close and far, those easily accessible, and those that are remote. What it comes down to is the character of each place, and the preservation of that wilderness character; each destination is unique. The character of a remote wilderness location that only sees a dozen visitors a year would be significantly changed by a dozen visitors per summer day; and likewise with hundreds of visitors seeking out an easily accessible waterfall or hot spring that’s just a mile in from the parking lot. Not only do thoughts surrounding this discussion seek to physically protect these wild places, but I think we can all agree that there’s much more to wilderness than at first meets the eye. It’s these qualities as a whole, some starkly apparent and others just a subtle whisper, that we should work to preserve. That character may be in the eye of the beholder and admittedly is a bit different for us all, but it’s up to us to preserve every aspect, for everyone and for the place itself, in these public spaces.

Getting Specific

If the newly proposed principle has any concerns to be addressed, I can only say that I feel it might be too specific in its current state of existence. There are many other forms of media that can have an equal, if not more significant impact than even the most popular Instagram account. Anything from movies, books, and websites can all be looped into this discussion and whether you’re a website owner or run an Instagram account, we all share in the responsibility of both 1) protecting our wild spaces through advocacy and 2) performing point 1 without bringing harm to those places we’re advocating for. A principle addressing social media, inclusive of social media, would cover and consolidate all bases from my standpoint. Either way however, it’s great to see the awareness and any aspect of these issues being discussed and potentially implemented.

Proposed Eighth Leave No Trace Principle

The Balance

In the end, it’s all about finding a balance. Paul Magnanti of PMags.com has dubbed this “Obscurity, not secrecy”. Mark Wetherington of 8thLNT terms it “Be mindful when posting”. I like to think of it as a focus to: “Name the place, not the spot” – for example perhaps name the land management unit or area, but consider saving those coordinates, the exact location of that amazing campsite, or maybe the name of that lake or exact canyon for yourself. Back to it being relative, each place and situation is unique. And while naming names is one thing, providing the step by step directions along with it takes things to another level – there is definitely a way to go about promoting wilderness, and specific wild areas, without specifically impacting exact locations. As a typical fisherman who often brings along a fly rod on backpacking trips for example, I’ll surely tell you that there’s big trout to be caught in that mountain range, but I’ll probably be a little more general when it comes to which lake. And there’s nothing like finding your own lake, your own favorite trail or campsite, and grabbing the map and hiking your own route to experience our wilderness areas all in our own unique way…those have been my most successful, satisfying, and memorable wilderness experiences.

As something that’s almost intangible, the difficulty of summing up a complex issue in a sentence or two on a list of principles has inherit complexity, and while I'd like to think we should all individually hold ourselves responsible for leaving no trace without a checklist, a set of guidelines accepted by the outdoor community as a whole is certainly very beneficial and a very teachable tool – and I hope these concerns will continue to generate discussion in the outdoor community.

The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics has recently addressed this movement and concern by opening up the issue for public input. If these issues are important to you, you can get in touch with them here.

Aaron

Let’s be honest; not every backpacking trip provides the time for us to prepare a nightly gourmet meal, and not all of us are ready to embrace, or perhaps we have yet to have a discussion with, our inner hidden chef. While I like to create backpacking meals from scratch at times and when I can, if you’re like me, after a long day on the trail I simply often find myself wanting a sufficient amount of calories that taste great, and I want that meal as quickly and as easily as possible with minimal cleanup afterwards.

Best Dehydrated and Freeze-Dried Backpacking Meals from Mountain House and Backpacker's Pantry

Freeze-dried and dehydrated, ready-made backpacking meals usually fit the above criteria – but if you’ve tried your share of these types of meals, you’ve surely had your share of experiences that don’t exactly hit the spot in the taste department, and not much is worse than having to force down such a meal when it's all you have in the wilderness. As such, here’s a review of the 10 best add water and eat freeze-dried / dehydrated backpacking meals that I’ve eaten over the years that do hit the spot, taste great, and are easy to prepare. These are the meals I keep stocked in the gear room, and that find a place inside the Ursack or food bag on backpacking trip after trip.

The Criteria

Meals to make this list and review are weighted on a few factors that are important to my approach and palate, including ease of preparation, great taste, calories, lack of artificial colors and flavors, and the inclusion of meat, or another protein that’s tough to carry while backpacking like eggs. While I’m by no means a carnivore on the trail, a vegetarian I also am not – and although I’ll eat a meal that is specifically aimed at other dietary considerations, I don’t abide by gluten-free, vegan, paleo, standards etc. and for the most part have a pretty standard and eclectic food bag.

Things like chicken and beef that go well in meals are tough to carry in the backcountry; and I’ve found for dinner applications, meat of the freeze dried variety works best on multi-day backpacking trips for the light weight, taste, quick rehydration, and texture. This would go for something like eggs as well – in my experience taste is definitely not a high point of powdered eggs. On the flipside, I’ve found vegetarian meals are the easiest to replicate through freezer bag cooking or one pot meals in the backcountry. For example, while a simple mac and cheese or ramen meal from many popular brands that make freeze-dried meals may taste great, it’s pretty easy to make this on your own from the grocery store either in the pot or freezer bag style, and thus meals of this variety are ones I usually just make on my own.

This top ten list of backpacking meals all meet the above criteria and considerations; and all are coincidentally from two popular brands, Backpacker’s Pantry of Boulder Colorado, and Mountain House, a division of Oregon Freeze Dry.
 

Mountain House Biscuits and Gravy
$7, 620 calories per pouch. Ready to eat in: 8 minutes. 4.9 ounce net weight.

Mountain House Biscuits and Gravy Freeze Dried Backpacking Meal Review

A meal I originally bought for breakfasts, Mountain House Biscuits and Gravy now also works its way into my dinner menus. Buttermilk biscuits were something I used to think were only to be had from a refrigerated can (yes I have taken those backpacking), or from a favorite local diner, but Mountain House has done a great job of bringing these to the freeze-dried backpacking meal world. Combined with crumbled sausage and gravy with an ample amount of pepper seasoning, when this one occupies some space in my food bag I’m always looking forward to it during the hiking day.

Like all Mountain House meals, this one is now officially rated to stay fresh for 30 years – no more expired meals hidden in the dark corners of your gear stash, and 30 years is even enough time to fall in love with a meal, get burned out on it, and then repeat the process a couple more times.


Mountain House Breakfast Skillet
$9, 800 calories per pouch. Ready to eat in: 8 minutes. 4.7 ounce net weight.

A breakfast meal from their “wraps” line, Mountain House Breakfast Skillet works equally well for breakfast or dinner in my experience, and at a solid 800 calories per package is high in the calorie department for ready to eat meals. This eclectic mix of hash browns, eggs, sausage, and peppers is definitely reminiscent of getting the works plate off your local diner’s griddle. For even more calories, bring a couple tortillas to go along with this one, and if you’re on the pro ketchup and eggs side of the fence, a packet of ketchup is an excellent addition to take along as well. Hot sauce packets of course, would also work for those looking for a bit more kick.


Mountain House Italian Style Pepper Steak with Rice
$10, 450 calories per pouch. Ready to eat in: 8 minutes. 4.6 ounce net weight.

Mountain House Italian Style Pepper Steak Dinner Review

Another newer offering, Mountain House Pepper Steak with Rice features chunks of beef with rice and peppers in a tomato base; and even though we’re talking rice and not wheat noodles in a circle here, this meal tastes very similar to a can of SpaghettiOs and meatballs. In other words; comfort food. While this meal is pretty darn good on its own, a little black pepper, and as I prefer a dash of cayenne – takes this one to a new level. While a bit of a light meal for two I’ve found, a packet of olive oil and planning for some dessert to go along with this meal is a great idea.


Backpacker's Pantry Santa Fe Chicken and Rice
$11, 760 calories per pouch. Ready to eat in: 15 minutes. 7.5 ounce net weight.

The Backpacker's Pantry Santa Fe Chicken and Rice Meal combines chicken and rice, with beans, cheese, green chili and vegetables. This is a great dinner for one or two, and adding an olive oil packet works very well for boosting the calories on this one. Although the rice is usually a little al dente in my experience following the specified directions, only slightly so and that’s fine in my book. For a burrito approach, this goes very well with tortillas, and bring a hot sauce packet or two if you’re so inclined. It’s not quite your favorite Mexican restaurant or a burrito from Chipotle, but for the backcountry it’s getting close enough to the latter.


Mountain House Spicy Southwest Breakfast Hash
$9, 500 calories per pouch. Ready to eat in: 9 minutes. 3.9 ounce net weight.

Review of Mountain House Breakfast Hash

A newer offering, Mountain House Spicy Southwest Breakfast Hash is in my opinion another that’s served up equally well for breakfast or for dinner. With a green chile and hash brown base, and oddly for freeze-dried meals actual hearty chunks of beef combined with other southwest themed vegetables and ingredients, this meal is a bit of a diamond in the freeze dried meal rough. Although this recipe did have a recall to be aware of – those with pouch code 3253174 and best by date of Dec. 2046 were affected, this is a new favorite of mine on the trail...with the right pouch code of course.


Mountain House Chicken and Dumplings with Vegetables
$8, 620 calories per pouch. Ready to eat in: 8 minutes. 4.7 ounce net weight.

If you like chicken pot pie, this is the freeze-dried meal for you. Mountain House Chicken with Dumplings features chicken, and a heavy dose of vegetables along with buttermilk biscuits and gravy at least reminding one of grandma’s secret recipe....or perhaps just your favorite microwavable chicken pot pie from your local super market’s freezer section. Either way, this one hits the spot while backpacking and especially if temperatures are a little on the chilly side. 


Mountain House Chicken Breast and Mashed Potatoes
$11, 420 calories per pouch. Ready to eat in: 4 minutes. 3.7 ounce net weight.

I know I know, we can all head to our local grocery store and grab any one of a number of mashed potato packages that are easy to cook, quick, and taste great after a long day of hiking. As such, the key with this one isn’t the potatoes, it’s the chicken – Chicken Breast with Mashed Potatoes from Mountain House,  believe it or not, comes with two whole, grilled freeze dried chicken breasts included in the pouch. The price to calorie ratio on this is a bit steep, so this is one meal where I always add an olive oil packet to boost the calories, and I keep this on hand for a splurge occasion.


Backpacker’s Pantry Pad See You
$11.50, 720 calories per pouch. Ready to eat in: 15 minutes. 6.6 ounce net weight.

Backpacker's Pantry Pad See You Review

With rice noodles and chunky broccoli in a tasty sauce with an adequate amount of chicken mixed in, Pad See You from Backpacker’s Pantry is about as close to take out as we’ll get on the trail. No need to bring along an extra olive oil packet – Backpacker’s Pantry has already included one inside the pouch for you to mix in before you add hot water – and unlike a lot of freeze-dried meals, this one actually packs some punch in the flavor department without extra doctoring. (make sure you stir this one well; the spices may be at the bottom) If you like a little extra spice like me though, don’t forget a little cayenne or a packet of Sriracha.


Mountain House Chili Mac with Beef
$9, 575 calories per pouch. Ready to eat in: 8 minutes. 4.8 ounce net weight.

A classic Mountain House meal, and just classic meal all around, Chili Mac with Beef from Mountain House takes mac and cheese to an entirely higher level with beef, beans, and spices. One memorable experience came with this meal on an especially wet, snowy, and chilly hiking day – after setting up camp tired, a bit chilled, and with darkness having fallen this meal definitely raised both sprits and warmth before hitting the sleeping bag. The calories are bit low on this one; I suggest adding a packet of olive oil and for long hiking days, shredding some beef jerky from your lunch stash (throw it in before adding hot water) is a welcome addition.


Mountain House Beef Stew
$10, 475 calories per pouch. Ready to eat in: 8 minutes. 4.3 ounce net weight.

While even the best of freeze-dried meals can usually use a bit of customizing to suit your taste or add some kick, Beef Stew from Mountain House is one of those that’s nearly reached perfection all by itself and stands on its own. A chunky, meaty mix of cubed potatoes and beef with vegetables, this one really hits the spot after a long hiking day and tastes great, especially on a chilly evening. While this one is great without any additions, this isn’t one that you’ll be boosting the calorie count with tortillas, for example (perhaps for dipping in the broth). Olive oil and a little spice if you’re so inclined both work together well for taking the calorie count, and experience here to the next level.

Mountain House Beef Stew Review

Note that all the prices above are full price; any time of the year REI offers 10% off 8+ meals here with free shipping available, and cost can also be mitigated through careful shopping, as it’s not too difficult to grab these meals 20% off from time to time and / or with free shipping if you keep an eye out for sales at retailers like REI and Backcountry.com. Although all of our palates vary and a lot of these meals seem to come and go on the manufacturer side, the above list is a great start, and are the ones that have stuck around in my food bag. One tip I can add is to always throw in a new meal or two on long trips; it helps prevent burnout on any individual meal and is a great way to find the next one you’ll go back to time and time again. I like to keep a simple spreadsheet at home for each meal, and update it after a trip any time a new meal is tried. I give each a meal a quick rating (poor, fair, and good) in my system, and also note next to this any thoughts on the taste, what might need to be added next time (example: needs black pepper and a packet of olive oil). Of all the meals I've tried the 10 listed above are the highest rated on my particular spreadsheet.

While a pre-packaged meal can be more costly than making your own meals from scratch, if you have a focus on convenience, having some of these meals on hand can make packing your food bag before a trip that much easier, and freeze-dried meals bring that same convenience to mealtime on the trail as well. Either way, whether you like to throw a couple in to take care of a meal or two on a long trip, or if you take one for dinner each night, having a few go-to freeze dried backpacking meals on hand for your next trip can go a long way towards helping out with your backcountry meal planning.

For a list of nearly every freeze dried meal made (over 100 different options) that you can sort by brand, category, meal type, etc., check out this page at REI.

Aaron

Of all the things we carry while backpacking, a tent or our backpacking shelter of choice is among the most important for a safe and enjoyable wilderness excursion. A shelter provides refuge from rain and snow, cuts down on wind exposure, and often will protect us from biting insects as well. While other shelter options are popular from hammocks to tarps to bivy sacks, the traditional backpacking tent, or perhaps some not so traditional modern offerings, remain the most popular shelter option with their balance of protection from the elements, ease of setup, and reasonable weight. Even with that reasonable weight though, any way you spin it, a tent will be one of the heaviest things we carry, and as a result many pros and cons must be…weighed, before making a choice. Here we'll look at the main categories and types of backpacking tents, and the best applications and design choices to consider.

Choosing a Lightweight Backpacking Tent - Features, Choices, and Considerations

A single wall, trekking pole supported 2 person backpacking tent.

Single Wall and Double Wall Tents

Among these pros and cons perhaps none is debated more often than single wall and double wall tent designs. Single wall tents, as you might expect, feature just one simple layer of fabric or material between you and the elements; an example can be found in our review of the Six Moon Designs Lunar Duo. This offers a substantial advantage in saving weight, while not being as warm as a double wall design, and condensation can be more of an issue. Unlike double wall tents, you are also not able to setup a mesh inner tent alone for star gazing in good weather. Double wall tents feature a similar outer weatherproof fly fabric as single wall tents, but another layer will be inside of this outer layer, usually made from bugproof mesh, lightweight fabric, or a combination of the two. If you experience condensation in a double wall tent, you will bump into the inner, dryer layer first as you move about the tent instead of directly into a wet wall. In a single wall tent you may need to be a bit more careful, or in severe conditions, periodically wipe down the interior walls with something like a multi-use packtowel or bandana.  Many well-designed, single wall tents will feature fly angles however where any condensation will simply follow those angles downwards and out of the tent if there is a mesh screen between the fly and the floor – definitely a feature to look for in single wall designs. Additionally, since single wall tents feature less fabric the shelter can either be made lighter, or larger at the same weight – it pays to make sure you’ll have enough room so that your sleeping bag will not be touching the canopy (while on top of a thick inflatable sleeping pad if applicable) at the head and foot ends, and that you can sit up and enter and exit the tent without too much contact with the fly. 

Singlewall vs. Double Backpacking Tents - Ultralight ZPacks Hexamid Twin

Dyneema Composite Fabric Tent

Choosing a good campsite is a key to avoiding condensation no matter which configuration you go with however, as both single wall and double wall designs will experience condensation. Forested campsites are often an advantage here, and chilly wet meadows would be among the worst offenders. If possible, ventilate the tent in good weather by leaving a door or vent open. If you do get condensation, you can wipe it down in the morning, and pack your tent last, then set it up first at the next campsite for maximum dry times. Single wall tents are often designed with a focus on integrated ventilation to assist, and can have less interior condensation as a result, although you may feel the breeze. With double wall tents you will be more protected from any condensation that may form, and double wall tents will be warmer on chilly nights.


Do I Need a Freestanding Tent?

Some tents are supported by a series of lines and stakes to hold them up, while others are dubbed freestanding. Note that freestanding is a loosely used term; some of these freestanding tents still require stakes to be usable, while others like the Black Diamond Firstlight, are truly freestanding. Either way, it still pays to stake these tents out to secure them in the wind. Non-freestanding tents are lighter as there are fewer poles that you have to bring along. While freestanding tents require a larger network of poles, their ability to be pitched with fewer stakes or anchors does come in handy if you need to setup in rocky areas and in winter on snow; simplifying pitching in all cases, but they are heavier and bulkier to carry. For my 3-season use, I haven’t found much of a need for a freestanding tent, although one would have been convenient in a couple situations where staking was difficult. For winter on top of snow however, I appreciate a tent with freestanding features like my Tarptent Scarp 2.

4 Season Freestanding Double Wall Tent in Snow - Tarptent Scarp 2 With Crossing Poles

A 4 season, freestanding option

Space and Capacity

Often generous with capacity listings, manufacturers almost always base capacity off a standard 20” wide sleeping pad. For solo use it’s personal; just choose a one person tent with as much space as you like, making sure that it will fit your sleeping pad of choice and your height, but it's always a space to weight game and especially as you move up in capacity. In regards to 2 person tents, while technically we only need a 40” wide floor to fit two standard pads, both people would be directly up against both side walls with no space in between. This may be too close for comfort even for the sanity of the closest of hiking partners; and if one person (not to mention both) were to bring a wide pad we’d be out of luck. I have found that the golden floor width dimensions are about 26-27” per person. This may sound like a lot, but even with 2 standard pads directly again each other that’s just about 6” on either side for wall clearance and incidentals. Larger tents, such as the Tarptent Hogback, are useful for families and larger groups that desire only 1 tent. Note that however, as the number of people increases it may become more hassle than it’s worth for all involved when it comes to getting in and out of the tent and it may just be a better call to take multiple tents.

4 Person Group or Family Backpacking Tent Tarptent Hogback

Sleeping head to toe can help create more space if one tent is shared.

Some tents feature a floorplan that tapers towards the feet to save weight, a good match if you utilize a mummy shaped sleeping pad. Interior height of the tent is all about user height. At 6’2”, I look for tents that have around a 45”+ peak height. Also important is where this peak height is found on the tent. Some tents have a canopy that slopes downward as you move towards the sides and the best height is only in the middle of the tent. Others are flat across the top, offering more generous sit up room for all occupants. Length is again, user specific. Enough room for a bit of a buffer at the head and foot end is very nice to have – 84-90” long floorplans have worked well in my case. Tents that feature a vertical wall section at the head and foot can be on the shorter side, while more length is needed with tents where the canopy slopes to the ground at the head and foot; it’s all about clearance for the foot of your sleeping bag and your head. Again however, there is a weight to space tradeoff to evaluate with these decisions. And, if you hike with a dog, you’ll need extra space somewhere. Plan accordingly. While extra space is almost always nice, keep in mind however that the larger the tent, the larger spot you’ll need to find to pitch it.


Doors, Floors, and Vestibules

Tents will either feature doors on the sides or at the front of the tent; side entry tents are generally easier to get in and out of and for two, a tent with two side entry doors will be the most livable in the field. Front entry tents can also work well, but often combine the door with the vestibule so you’ll be crawling over your gear to get in or out. Either way be sure that the pole configuration for trekking pole supported tents won’t get in your way too much, and doors that are vertical, not sloped, are preferred so that rain and snow doesn’t fall into the tent interior when you’re getting in and out. 

As we’ve detailed, a little space for some incidentals inside the tent is something I’m keen on. For our pack itself, dirty shoes, and camp gear that we want to keep out of the elements a vestibule will provide the necessary space while keeping rain splashback and snow farther away from the inside doors. While no vestibule is truly needed, at least 1, or 1 per person, is very nice to have. 

A tent floor should be made of a durable material, and should feature a “bathtub” type arrangement (where the floor raises above the ground for at least a few inches, to further waterproof the inside from running water or splashback under the fly), but in all cases you should still locate a campsite where pooling or running water will not be an issue. To protect the bottom of the tent manufacturers will frequently offer a separate, and usually heavy, groundsheet, but this is optional with care in site selection. I still like the peace of mind, so I go with a not as heavy duty, but lightweight window insulation film groundsheet on my shelters.

Singlewall Silnylon Backpacking Trekking Pole Tent - Tarptent Rainshadow 2

Larger tents are nice for the space, but sometimes there is only so much space available for the "footprint" of your tent.

Support Methods

The standard tent has collapsible poles that form a structure for setup, these poles can be made from aluminum (the most common) or carbon fiber. Carbon fiber is lighter, but will break if it fails whereas aluminum poles are more likely to bend in a failure mode. These shock-corded poles have only one purpose however, so when you’re carrying them around during the day they just weigh you down. Many lightweight focused tents on the market are designed to save weight in this regard by using your trekking poles – which you may already be carrying anyway – for setup instead of dedicated poles. Most of the time, manufacturers of these tents will also offer alterative aluminum or carbon poles for those that don’t carry trekking poles, and these usually end up being lighter than most traditional tent pole sets as well. If you go the trekking pole route, make sure your trekking poles will extend to the required length specified by the tent manufacturer.


Materials and Construction

Lightweight, silicone impregnated (silnylon), or tents that utilize a PU coated nylon like the Big Agnes Copper Spur HV, are the most popular waterproof shelter materials. Coated polyester (which has less stretch than nylon) can also be found, as seen with the MSR Elixr Series. Another fabric, Dyneema Composite Fabric / DCF – previously known as cuben fiber, is another option that’s very light, but on the pricier side. All materials should be sufficiently durable and weatherproof, although with any type of construction as we move into lighter materials some basic care will be required with your gear. Silnylon is relatively affordable in the cost department while still being quite light, and any fabric’s waterproofness will be rated by a hydrostatic head rating; or the pressure of water it can withstand from water before it leaks.

Most fabrics should be waterproof even in heavy rains, but some may for example, seep through if there’s water under the floor from the pressure of your body like a knee or elbow. Nylon’s main disadvantage is its stretch; on many nylon shelters you may need to perform an initial taut setup, and then readjust an hour later as the fabric relaxes or when it gets wet. Dyneema Composite Fabric on the other hand, has extremely low stretch and will hold its pitch from the get go. It is however more expensive (while being lighter in most cases) than silnylon, and is about as durable, save for abrasion which can usually be avoided. Some specialty tents may also make use of waterproof / breathable material like the eVent RAB Latok Summit and eVent Latok Mountain tents,  with the intention of reducing condensation. No matter which way you go, high quality fabric and materials is a good way to go with such an important item, and lighter denier, or lighter weight materials will save the most weight, while heavier options will take more abuse. Evaluate the seams as well – some tent makers do not waterproof the seams of their tents, which will require you to do so yourself at home with something like Sil-Net seam sealer.

Trekking Pole Supported Backpacking Tent - Six Moon Design Lunar Duo

Silnylon tents utilize a nylon fabric impregnated (as opposed to coated) with silicone to provide waterproofing.

3 Season and 4 Season Tents

Tents will often be rated by 3 or 4 season ratings. For most of us, 3-season tents will be adequate for most spring, summer, and fall conditions while a 4 season tent will be rated to sustain a snow load and all around form a stronger structure. If you need one tent to do it all, a 4 season tent, like the MSR Access will certainly do the job, but will generally be heavier as you carry it around on those potential ultralight summer trips. Thus a 3-season tent combined with a winter-specific option can be the best of both worlds if you backpack across all seasons in locales that experience more traditional winter conditions, or if you hike in more temperate areas a 3-season tent can do the job just fine in any season. 
 

Weight Ranges

These days, you can find a full featured tent and still keep things very light in the weight department, but usually at a price. For a solo tent, you should be able to find something very adequate under 2 pounds, and for two people under 3. There are lighter options of course, but you’ll probably have to make a sacrifice either in the space or wallet department. For group tents, keep in mind as well that you can all “pitch” in and one person can carry the tent body, another the poles and stakes, etc. if needed. But remember that if your gear is separated, members of the group have to stay together.

Doublewall 3 Season Backpacking Tent - Tarptent Hogback

At around 1lb per person, this 4lb, 4 person tent is a lightweight group or family option.

Without a doubt a wide range of pros and cons to be weighed, and selecting the backpacking tent that is ideal for your application and preference is one of the most important gear considerations that is to be had – and if you're like me, it may take more than just one tent choice to get the job done. But with an array of options from an array of manufacturers available, from cutting edge ultralight Dyneema Composite Fabric tents to mountaineering and expedition-ready classics, there is a tent out there that will suit the weight, space, packability, price, and weather protection balance for us all.

For a list of around 150 backpacking tents that you can narrow down and filter by the topics that we’ve discussed above, take a look at this page at REI.

Aaron

When it comes to backpacking stoves a key consideration is of course weight, and more importantly the weight of a system including fuel for the duration of your trip. Not only is initial weight important, but also the average weight you’ll carry each day. For 3 season, lightweight backpacking use alcohol stoves and upright canister stoves are the most used options for weight conscious backpackers, and while both are very different in application, many similarities can be found to exist in the weight department.

Alcohol Stoves vs. Canister Stoves Weight, and Which is Lighter

Alcohol stoves, whether homemade or one of the many commercially available lightweight solutions or stove systems, have a developed reputation as being ultralight, and especially for solo shorter trips, while upright canister stoves are known to be a speedier and efficient option for 3 season backpacking. (Heavier inverted canister stoves are more appropriate for winter or year-round 4 season use) As someone who maintains a presence of both options in my gear collection, when saving pack weight is the number one priority the actual choice of alcohol vs. canister stoves weight wise, and what is actually the lightest stove system, can become a bit complicated indeed.

Alcohol stoves are very light on their own, and you don’t have to carry around a relatively heavy canister: instead you pack a lightweight bottle with the fuel you need for the trip, exactly measured. However, isobutane and propane, the main components of most 3-season ready fuels like MSR’s IsoPro offering pack more punch in the BTU department, making them more efficient, and upright canister stoves can be as light as under 2 ounces like the Snow Peak LiteMax – I like a piezo igniter, so I go with a 2.4 ounce Soto WindMaster.

Backpacking Canister Stove Weight and Fuel Usage

Here we’ll take a look at a collection of my trip scenarios detailing the initial weight of each system, as well as the weight of alcohol and canister stove setups averaged at the start of each hiking day (after morning use) with fuel included in all scenarios. These are all done using my own realistic water and cooking needs / preferences, and the stats and fuel usage are taken from our reviews of the Traildesigns Ti-Tri (alcohol stove) and Soto WindMaster (canister stove) reviews. For detailed fuel usage in a variety of scenarios be sure to check out the aforementioned links to each review. Both stoves use a little less fuel in our 68 degree, 0 wind tests, and much more in our windy tests, but here we’ll just take a middle ground and go with the cold, 32 degree no wind usage. Thus calculations are made using .6 ounces of alcohol fuel to boil 2 cups of water for the alcohol stove, and 9 grams for a 2 cup boil for the canister stove. No extended cooking or simmering is included.

Actual fuel usage will vary depending on stove, water temp, ambient temp, barometric pressure, and wind. Canister weights were calculated using MSR IsoPro canisters. For water usage, I’m using my actual usage for solo and 2 person trips, and I usually like a hot drink both morning and night, and a hot dinner with a cold lunch and breakfast. Additionally, a cold front rolling in one night of my longer trips is pretty par for the course, so I’ve included the real world, luxury scenario of heating up a hot Nalgene (a 4 cup boil per person, aka a shoulder season heater) for one night of the longer 7 and 10 day trips but not the shorter hike. Thus, some hikers will use their stove less, and some more: the numbers below are accurate to my backpacking style and everyone's charts and graphs would end up a little different.
 

Here we look at 3 different solo trips, a 3 day, 7 day, and 10 day excursion:

Solo Backpacking Trip Alcohol and Canister Stove  Weight Comparions


And here’s the averaged weight of each system at the start of each hiking day (after morning use) - weight in ounces:

Canister Stove and Alcohol Stoves Average Daily Weight


Now on to using the stove for two people at the same trip lengths:

Using an Alcohol and Canister Stove for 2 People - Backpacking Weight Chart


And the averaged weight at the start of each hiking day, again for a group of 2 (weight in ounces):

Day by Day Average Weight for Two People - Alcohol vs. Canister Backpacking Stoves


Which is best? Both. The conclusion here is that it’s a pretty close race, and it all depends on how much water you are boiling / how much cooking you like to do and group size. On shorter and solo trips alcohol stoves are initially lightest and are lighter each day, while as the trip and group size increase canister stoves are often initially lighter when your pack is heaviest, with alcohol stoves catching up in the middle of the trip and lighter as the trip finishes out; you just can’t get rid of that heavy fuel canister. Perhaps the most important number however, is the average daily starting hiking day weight – in these scenarios the average daily starting weight is very close and within just a couple ounces.

Frankly, I would rule weight out of the equation entirely except for warmer short solo trips where alcohol stoves are the clear winner weight wise, and just go with a system that provides you with the right benefits in regard to convenience of use, speed, and fuel resupply considerations if applicable. The main caveat here is that for whatever fuel choice, you will have to dial in the fuel to match what you’ll need. For alcohol stoves this is easier, but once you’ve used a canister stove for a while you will inevitably collect partial canisters, and these can then be weighed using a digital scale to determine how many grams of fuel are left. Of course, you have to take a few trips with full canisters before this happens, while you can obtain this goal right off the bat with alcohol fuel. Either way, I usually take a canister a bit heavier than I need, or pour a little more alcohol than calculated; this way I don’t have to worry if it’s windy or if I decide to have a hot lunch one day.

Alcohol Stove Fuel Weight by Backpacking Trip Length

Either way, it’s best to test with your own setup, in cold, warm, still, and windy conditions so you get an idea of the exact fuel usage of your stove. At that point and with a digital scale we can now figure out exactly how much alcohol or canister fuel we’ll need - alcohol is easy, for a canister just determine how many grams of fuel you need for the trip, add that number to the empty canister weight, and then select a canister that is at least that weight plus whatever buffer you are comfortable with. (MSR kindly lists gross and net weights in both ounces and grams on the side of their canisters; subtract net from gross for empty weight) But in the end, it might just come down to which stove you like the best. For other backpacking stove considerations and more comprehensive information on stoves in general that includes other stove and fuel types with a focus beyond just the weight factor, check out this post.

Aaron

On any hiking or backpacking trip, the ability to procure safe drinking water during the hike is one of the most important logistical considerations for both pre-trip planning as well as while we’re on the trail. Finding the water is of course the first step, and having the necessary gear to properly process the water so it’s safe to drink is the second part of the equation. Here we’ll look at the main types of water filters and backcountry water treatment methods that are best suited for backpacking and hiking, and elaborate on the necessary reading between the lines that needs to be done when choosing the best water filter or treatment option for backcountry use.

Hiking and Backpacking Water Filters, Treatment Methods and Considerations


What We Need to Treat and Filter

Microorganisms and Biological Concerns:

While protozoan concerns such as giardia and cryptosporidium get the most publicity, concerns are best looked at in a categorical fashion. Starting with biological containments from smallest to largest, viruses (example: hepatitis, rotovirus, often smaller than .1 micron) are notoriously difficult to filter as they can slip through most common filter’s pore size. Luckily, viruses are mostly a concern where there are many other people – for example where you might find untreated sewage. However, it’s always important to remember the source of the water you’re filtering. Bacteria (example: e.Coli, Salmonella, average size greater than .3 microns) are a more common concern in the wilderness as they are spread by both humans and wildlife, but luckily they are larger than viruses and more easily captured by most common filters. Protozoa are a a bit larger and include cryptosporidium and giardia, and a filter that will filter to 1 micron or smaller is recommended for removal. Concerns that are larger still include tapeworm eggs and unsightly, but not necessarily dangerous, critters of various types in your water such as insect larvae. On many occasions I’ve scooped water from crystal clear mountain streams and upon close inspection, have been quite surprised at what that scoop reveals to the eye – from sticks and stones to tadpoles and worms of various types – not to mention what you can’t see. I prefer to get my calories from my food bag while backpacking, and luckily these larger organisms are of course, very easily filtered.

Backpacking Water Source and Filtration for Microorganisms, Biological, and Other Considerations


Other Treatment Considerations:

Many other components can make up the water you’re drinking in the backcountry as well. Chemicals, pesticides and herbicides, heavy metals, tannins, silt, taste and odor, as well as natural particulates of various types will need to be considered. Some of these concerns will only affect smell and taste, others could affect your health. Visible suspended matter is removed by most filters, but tannins and taste / smell can pass through – in my experience even drinking tea colored water however, has been fine. If your water source is downstream of an area that has seen prior or active agricultural or mining use for example, chemicals and other various components introduced by man could be in the water source, especially as you move further downstream in the water supply chain. To reduce these types of contaminants and concerns we can utilize a purifier or filter that contains a carbon stage, or add a carbon element or step to an existing setup to assist in reducing many of these possible impurities.


Physical Filters and Purifiers

Most water treatment products designed for backcountry use that are reasonably lightweight, will not address all of the above concerns in one fell swoop. Thus, we need to evaluate our backpacking and hiking destinations, as well as our own personal comfort level to find the best compromise. For backpacking in the mountainous wilderness areas of the United States for example, the general consensus is that viruses are usually not of a great concern, and many times our water sources are fairly pure from man-made pollution as we’re getting it close to the source. In these cases bacteria and protozoa are usually the main concerns. Other backcountry trips may find us on the banks of a river far from the source, that has passed through many towns before we consume it, perhaps on foreign soil, and the full gamut of contaminants are more of a possibility.

Water filters do just what they say; they filter the water to a certain micron level to remove bacteria and protozoa. Water purification by definition, including options like the First Need XLE will take this all a step further by also removing viruses, though not all products that are officially listed as purifiers will remove or reduce chemicals, heavy metals, tannins, debris, etc. – your water may be purified by marketing general standards, but it will not necessarily be “pure”.

Backpacking Pump Water Filters - Katadyn - PUR Hiker PRO

Classic pump operated filters work well for pulling water out of hard to reach and shallow sources.

Popular filters for backcountry water treatment should filter to an absolute pore size of .3 microns or smaller for adequate removal of bacteria, protozoa, and all things larger. Note the absolute part of the pore size equation, as filters listed with a “nominal” pore size will only on average filter to that level. Absolute is a guarantee, and is the number we’re actually interested in. If you prefer viral protection, you will need an option with a much smaller absolute pore size; as a result flow rate will likely suffer and these types of purifiers are rare. Alternatively some filters combine with other technology to treat the virus part using an iodine or ion exchange process. Some purifiers here that remove viruses physically are the MSR Guardian as well as this option from Sawyer. Other options like the Katadyn MyBottle combine a normal filter with a cartridge that contains an iodinated resin for added virus protection, while the Grayl Purifier uses an ion exchange process to achieve this goal.
 

Types of Filters

Physical filtration can be achieved utilizing various types of elements and technologies. The most popular lightweight water filter technology today, hollow fiber filters work by passing water through a multitude of small tubes; tubes that are perforated by many, many, pores so small (rated to the micron) that anything larger than this pore size cannot pass through, trapping any living organisms or non-living matter larger than the pore size. Hollow fiber filters are popular for their light weight and versatility – you can pretty much find one in any filter configuration you prefer – be that as a gravity filter, inline filter, pump, etc. and many can be used multiple ways, such as the Sawyer 3-way SP122 filter (check out our review of the Sawyer here in Issue 3). Hollow fiber filters can usually be backflushed to help restore flow rate, and flow rate will vary depending on pore size, surface area, and use. The most popular hollow fiber filters are in the .1 to .2 micron range making them sufficient for bacteria and protozoa, and this micron level is usually a good balance of protection, sufficient flow rate, and lifespan. Smaller micron, virus-rated filters also exist in this category as seen with the aforementioned Sawyer SP191, but flow rate will be slower due to the smaller pore size.

Gravity Water Filter for Backpacking - Platypus GravityWorks System

A gravity system, in this case using hollow fiber filter technology, uses the force of gravity to move water through the filter.

Hollow fiber filters cannot be allowed to freeze when wet (The MSR Guardian is an exception) or after they've been used, so on trips where it will freeze at night you’ll need to sleep with the filter in your sleeping bag or carry it in your pocket any time temperatures begin to flirt with freezing during the day – this goes for nearly all other filters using different types of elements as well.

In addition to freezing physical filters also need to be treated with some care in regards to drops and impacts, which could damage the element. Some hollow fiber filters like the Platypus GravityWorks (read our full review here in Issue 25), and the Katadyn BeFree have manufacturer supported integrity tests which are very helpful for a little peace of mind – unlike other gear, you can’t really tell if a filter is working properly or not, without this test.

Other types of physical filter media will use a ceramic element like the MSR EX filter, and the Katadyn Pocket Filter, or utilize a glass fiber element like the venerable Katadyn Hiker Pro. Ceramic filters have the ability to be repeatedly field cleaned. Some filters are entirely self-contained and will need to be thrown away when their flow rate diminishes too much to be of practical use, while others setups will have a replaceable cartridge that fits into a housing.
 

Approaches to Filtering

No matter what filter technology you end up going with, physical filters are most often utilized in an inline, gravity, squeeze, or pump configuration. The traditional pump water filter requires you to pump the water through the filter element via a hose in the water source, and is a proven setup at both getting you water and providing an ample upper body workout. Moving parts here increase the complication and weight, but these are also great for pulling water out of hard to reach places. The other methods will require you to fill some type of reservoir with dirty water first, by either submerging the dirty water container or bag in the water source or, if it’s one of those shallow or small sources you occasionally may need to use a separate vessel to fill the dirty container, like a mug (boil later to sterilize).

Inline Hiking and Backpacking Water Filter Setup - Sawyer 3-way SP122

An inline water filter connected to a hydration setup treats water as you drink.

Gravity setups like the Platypus GravityWorks and the Katadyn Base Camp Pro let gravity do the work for you, by filling a dirty reservoir with water and by elevating, hanging from a tree branch or rock if possible, water passes through the filter element into a clean container. Inline setups such as the Sawyer SP122 splice into the tubing of your hydration reservoir and your own drinking force filters the water with each sip, while with squeeze setups like the Sawyer Squeeze, you can utilize a combination of gravity and squeezing force to move the dirty water through the filter and into a clean vessel or drink directly. Other options integrate the filter into a bottle (MetaBottle) or softbottle (BeFree), where much in the same manner as an inline filter with a hydration reservoir, your drinking or a combination of drinking and squeezing is what filters the water as you go. Straw type options are also another strategy, treating water by directly inserting one end into a water source and drinking from the other side of the straw. This type of filter is limited in that you cannot process larger volumes of water and each sip takes more work, perhaps best reserved more for emergency usage.

In whatever case, seek out the cleanest water possible to prolong the life of your filter and for the best flow rate. While many filters can be backflushed or cleaned, this is usually a losing battle over time. Although filters are rated by the gallon or liter in regards to their lifespan, it’s a great idea to evaluate this when choosing a filter, but take this number with a grain of salt. Clean water is important for other treatment methods as well; in very turbid situations it’s a good idea to allow water to settle in a separate container (in for example, a Sea to Summit Bucket), then treat from the top. Luckily, this is more of the exception than the norm for most of us.


UV Treatment

Ultraviolet treatment options like those offered by Steripen, come in various forms using either normal or rechargeable batteries, and utilize, as with many municipalities, UV light from a special lamp that’s inserted into your water container to neutralize many microorganisms by disrupting their DNA. This process usually takes about a minute and you’ll most likely be treating your water a liter or so at a time. Some other UV devices have come to market that feature an integrated lamp, like the Camelback All Clear, and yet others have been designed to float from the surface of your water vessel.

UV Water Treatment for Backpacking - Steripen Adveturuer

UV water treatment uses battery powered ultraviolet light that's inserted in a container to treat many microorganisms.

On the plus side, these UV treatment options are quite effective at neutralizing the things that physical filters have the toughest time with – viruses – and the technology is proven. However, many are not comfortable relying on an electronic and potentially fragile instrument for their main or only wilderness water filtration source. Additionally, UV light on its own is not sufficient for neutralizing all living organisms that could be present in your water – tapeworm eggs for example, or larger organisms and larvae that may or may not do any harm but may not necessarily be what you want to ingest, nor will a UV product remove anything from the water or improve its composition. If the water is dirty, you’ll be drinking dirty water. Steripen offers a filter with a 40x40 micron mesh screen that can help here, which is intended to reduce organic matter or particulates. Performance may also be insufficient in murky water, requiring pre-filtration. All said, this is an excellent technology as long you’re aware of the limitations; I utilize a Steripen Adventurer Opti as a secondary treatment with a hollow fiber filter on any trip where I desire viral treatment.


Chemical Treatment

Chemical treatment usually utilizing chlorine dioxide (Aquamira) or Iodine (Polar Pure) and on occasion some other chemicals like household bleach or other chemicals that produce chlorine, like Aquatabs can be effective, but like anything this category has its share of pros and cons. In contrast to physical filters and like UV treatment, chemicals are again effective against viruses, but often take longer (hours) to work on such concerns as cryptospordium (4 hours) and these products will add a taste to your water; other products are not suitable for cryptosporidium whatsoever. To be honest, most of my thought goes into making sure my drinking water source is either free of any chemicals or how to reduce or remove them should there be any chance of them being present, so chemical treatment is a bit counter-productive from my point of view, and options like iodine are not an option for pregnant women or those with any type of a thyroid issue. Iodine and chlorine (i.e. bleach) on their own, are not effective against cryptosporidium.

However, this method is lightweight and over the years has been popular with ultralight backpackers, though decreasing in recent years with the increased availability of very light hollow fiber filters like the Sawyer Mini. In this category, other devices like the MSR Miox and current Potable Aqua Pure have seen the market over the years that create a solution with salt to create an oxidant solution that you subsequently dissolve in water; but as with other chemical treatments, with a 4 hour wait time these are not the quickest of options. Chemical treatment may also be integrated with some filters to move them into the purifier category. As with boiling, chemical treatment can be a good backup to bring as well or to utilize in conjunction with other methods.

Filtering Downstream and Muddy - Silty Water Sources While Backpacking

Hundreds of miles from the source, I took extra steps in my treatment process at this backcountry location.

Boiling

Boiling water is an excellent way to neutralize microorganisms that might be present, but it takes a while, requires a lot of fuel, and let’s be honest, on a hot summer day, who wants to drink steaming hot water when we could be drinking that crisp and cold water from a mountain stream? As such, boiling can be tough to utilize as a main water treatment method on most 3 season backpacking trips, but it’s an excellent method to keep in mind as a backup method should your filter or other method fail you. In winter however, melting snow for water may be your best and only option. Be sure to bring a big pot (my Evernew 1.3 works well solo) and a stove that will work well during continued usage in cold conditions like the MSR WindPro II – read our review in Issue 33. Opinions on how long to boil water vary widely; the CDC suggests bringing water to a rolling boil for 1 minute, or for 3 full minutes at altitudes above 6562 feet (be sure to check that 2 on the end of your altimeter!) Data suggests however that pathogens are neutralized at lower temperatures; in the end in depends on heat and time but luckily, both are achieved by bringing your water to a boil and after removal from heat.
 

Carbon Filtration

As we’ve seen, the technologies used above are all mainly designed to thwart microorganisms. If improving the taste and smell of your water, or if any agricultural and / or industrial contamination is a concern, look for a system that integrates filtration technology combined with a carbon stage that will improve and / or reduce, but not necessarily eliminate, these concerns.

Backcountry Water Filtration and Using a Carbon Element to Improve Water Quality

If desired, a carbon element can be integrated into an existing system using a modular approach.

This will increase the weight of your system, and possibly the cost of replacement elements, etc., but there is of course no free lunch. The Sawyer Select Filters, the Lifestraw Flex, and Katadyn Hiker Pro are all examples of filters with integrated carbon filtration – or if you’re like me and have settled on a treatment method that does not address this concern, but you may occasionally head out on a trip where some of these concerns would be nice to cover, you can always splice in an add-on carbon element (I use add on GravityWorks Carbon Element) for this purpose when needed.


My Approach

For a complicated issue, there are unfortunately no one size fits all solutions and in the end, when we’re concerned about not carrying extra weight, it all comes down to a compromise and what each one of us is most interested in removing from our water. Luckily there are many lightweight and effective options out there to choose from. For general backpacking we should expect to find an option that will treat what we’re concerned with for around a pound or less. About half a pound is usually doable, and lighter options of just a few ounces are very realistic to target.

Platypus GravityWorks Water Filter Element

Most of my trips are very well served by standard hollow fiber filtration technology; as with all of us most likely, my preference is to backpack into areas where the water is already fairly good. As such I’m not usually concerned about viruses or pollution, (both a Steripen and carbon filter have a spot in the gear room for such destinations to use in conjunction with a hollow fiber filter), and I like to target the removal of bacteria, protozoa, and the removal of larger critters no matter their parasitical intent or lack thereof. The hollow fiber filter also has that added benefit of giving your water a good scrub; removing particulate matter. I really like a filter that has a manufacturer supported integrity test as well, so it essentially comes down to the cartridge for me. The Platypus GravityWorks cartridge fits all of the above criteria, and it just so happens the whole setup it comes with works well and is pretty darn convenient to use both on the trail as well as in camp.

For a complete list of backcountry-ready water filters and treatment methods that you can sort and filter by all the main points we’ve discussed in this post, check out this page at REI.

Aaron

Whether you’re driving across the country to finally hike that classic mountain range that’s been on your mind for years or simply on the way to your local trailhead, perhaps nothing can get you ready for the hike like the perfect song or hiking playlist. And hey, there’s nothing else to really do in the car anyway. On the flipside, it could be argued that nothing is more annoying than getting the latest pop song – that you happened to hear on the radio right before locking the car - stuck in your head for that otherwise perfect week long backpacking trip. Listening to our own music collection is a much safer bet; tune into the radio with caution. Thus I’m sure we’ve all found a few favorite hiking tracks over the years.

Hiking and Backpacking Songs -11 Favorite TrailGroove Classics

If we took hiking out of the equation and made this a pure list with the outdoors aside, this list would without a doubt look a bit different, but hey, this is TrailGroove. Including songs of a newer generation would certainly mix up the list a bit further as well,  but this will be a “classic” list of songs that have stood the test of time  and that have been around for at least 30+ years or so. Lastly in the criteria department, they also have to be good songs, not just thrown in because they describe the act of walking. (Worthy of a separate post, however!) Thus while I doubt hiking had much to do with the writing of any of the songs on this list, I find them relatable to hiking and to the outdoors. Here’s the list and the why:
 

Sittin' On the Dock of the Bay – Otis Redding, 1967

It’s 2000 miles I’ve roamed
Just to make this dock my home
Now I'm just gonna sit at the dock of a bay
Watching the tide roll away

With very similar themes to Watching the Wheels below, Dock of the Bay, one of the most popular songs of all time on a list of any type, is to me the definition of the search and journey to a better place, returning to a simpler existence, and that finding that satisfaction with the simpler things in life; very similar themes to hiking and the wilderness. I don’t plan many hikes to many bays save for a few exceptions, but the song translates to any locale quite easily. Watching the sunrise from a convenient log on the 5th day of a wilderness backpacking trip with a hot cup of coffee in hand, I can’t help but think of this one.
 

Watching the Wheels – John Lennon, 1981

I’m just sitting here watching the wheels go round and round
I really love to watch them roll
No longer riding on the merry-go-round
I just had to let it go

Before launching TrailGroove and what now seems like long ago, I worked in a corporate job staring at a computer all day under fluorescent lights stuck in a cubicle. Other than a walk during lunch, my only respites were weekends and once a year, week or so long backpacking trips…somewhere. Vacation requests elicited a couple predictable responses: “Why would you want to walk that far?” “Can you check your email daily?” Luckily, I found the answer to the age-old question on one of those trips deep into the Wind River Range: If you’re in the middle of the mountains and a corporate emergency takes place, it turns out that no, it actually doesn’t make a noise.

Backpacking Trip Music and Classic Playlist


Stairway to Heaven – Led Zeppelin, 1971

There's a feeling a get
When I look to the West
And my spirit is crying for leaving

Taking things very literally, unless you're driving the top of Pike's Peak to start your hike, every trip into the mountains starts with a climb. This classic tune from Zeppelin starts with a contemplative tone, but steadily builds to leave you ready to tackle any mountain climb as you wonder just what Jimmy and Robert really meant with this collection of metaphorical lyrics. And it’s not uncommon for that classic and unmistakable intro to play in my mind as I start the climb to the top of one of those ominous, offtrail high mountain passes with peaks shrouded among the clouds.
 

Band on the Run – Paul McCartney and Wings, 1973

Well the night was falling as the desert world
Began to settle down
In the town they’re searching for us everywhere
But we never will be found

Band on the Run exhibits the need to escape to a simpler existence and the success of subsequently doing so, which are lyrically woven throughout the song. While I’m pretty sure Paul wasn’t talking about hiking here, when you’re stuck in a situation where you can’t hike and this song comes up, the similarities become quite apparent.
 

Learning to Fly – Pink Floyd, 1987

There's no sensation to compare with this
Suspended animation
A state of bliss

While Pink Floyd is undoubtedly one of the best bands of all time...let's be honest...many of their songs aren't exactly uplifting. But David Gilmour was always a bit more positive. Learning to Fly features an upbeat tempo and inspirational and hopeful lyrics. And no matter how long you've been hiking, there's always another journey out there and more to learn with each step. Although this could be stretching the classic prerequisite a bit, the most recent song on this list was released 30 years ago.
 

A Forest – The Cure, 1980

It’s always the same
I’m running towards nothing
Again and again and again and again

This isn’t the most easy going and comforting song out there, but that’s kind of the point. With a haunting intro and lyrics that begin to tell of a chaotic sequence of events this one always reminds me of backpacking since I watched Cookie and Paul’s CDT video, where it was featured on the soundtrack. If you’ve ever stumbled down an offtrail route after dark on a first trip in unfamiliar terrain, hoping your compass bearing was correct as you pick your way through deadfall by the light of a fading headlamp as rain begins to fall, you know the feeling.

Best Backpacking and Outdoor Songs from the 60s, 70s, and 80s


Here Comes the Sun – The Beatles, 1969

Little darling, it’s been a long cold lonely winter
Little darling, it’s feel like years since it’s been here
Here comes the sun, here comes the sun
And I say it’s all right

If you’ve ever been on a multi-day hike through cold, wet, and unrelenting weather in the mountains, sleeping bag steadily losing loft and the chill setting in just a bit further each day, I can think of no better song to hum out loud as you brew a hot cup of coffee and the sun begins to finally peek through those grey clouds for the first time in days. A song that’s upbeat, uplifting with seasonal themes, and literally could not contain more positivity can certainly hit the spot most all the time in the wilderness.
 

Take Me Home, Country Roads – John Denver, 1971

Almost Heaven, West Virginia
Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River
Life is old there, older than the trees
Younger than the mountains, blowing like a breeze

Rocky Mountain High of course is another contender from John Denver, but from my standpoint Country Roads is a more enjoyable listen. Country Roads offers up a theme of getting off the beaten path and connecting with the natural world, and of course many of us are at home, or find ourselves a second home, out on the trail. Wilderness Trail, Take me Home? Either way this is a great hiking – or driving to the trailhead – song.
 

A Horse with No Name – America, 1971

The first thing I met was a fly with a buzz
And the sky with no clouds
The heat was hot and the ground was dry
But the air was full of sound

You just have to include this one on the list. No matter where your journey may take you, if you’re on a journey this is your song. Telling a story and with a distinct beginning, middle, and end along with a tempo that matches a quick hiking pace surprisingly well, if you tend to get songs stuck in your head before a trip and are almost to the trailhead to start a multi-day trip, this is never a bad choice to listen to last.

Hiking Song Playlist and Classics


Heart of Gold - Neil Young, 1972

I've been to Hollywood
I've been to Redwood
I crossed the ocean for a heart of gold

This short and sweet song from Neil Young is sure to play throughout your head on repeat if it's the last song you play in the car before hitting the trail, but that might not be such a bad thing. Invoking themes of searching for our own intangibles, whatever those may be and with a heavy dose of searching and travel themes throughout, this song is great inspiration and a perfect mental soundtrack as you shoulder your pack and hike past that wilderness boundary sign.


Kodachrome – Paul Simon, 1973

I've got a Nikon Camera
I love to take photographs
So mamma, don't take my Kodachrome away

Hiking and photography go hand in hand, and this not so subtly rebellious and powerful, yet uplifting song continually invokes the colors of nature as they might be captured on Kodak's famous Kodachrome film, reminding a hiker of those blissful lackadaisical summer hikes where you can't seem to make any miles as you're forced to stop every few feet to capture a new quintessential summer scene. Hiking at its finest.

Wilderness Backpacking Songs


Nothing can set the tune of a trip like a great soundtrack on the way to the trailhead, or cement a recent hike in your memory on that necessitated trip to the nearest place with a hot meal and cold beverage once the trip is over. And while I don’t listen to music during a hike, I’ll likely have a song stuck in my mind, and often one of those listed above, out on the trail.

Aaron

A backpacking sleeping pad very importantly provides warmth by insulating us from the cold ground at night, and ideally a sleeping pad will also provide sufficient comfort to allow for a good night of rest. As an item that’s one of the heaviest and bulkiest core gear items you will carry on any backpacking trip, the sleeping pad requires some thought and consideration when it comes to selection and application. With a multitude of options available there's a sleeping pad to specifically suit any season and backpacking trip, as well as those that offer a wide range of versatility across many situations.

Selecting the Best Backpacking Sleeping Pad - Tips and Considerations

R-Value and Warmth

The most important function a sleeping serves is to keep you warm; although we all like to be comfortable we can’t be comfortable (or safe) if we’re cold. Thus, consider a sleeping pad’s r-value when making a choice. However, there’s no free lunch; the warmer the pad the heavier and bulkier it will be. As such we have to seek a balance just like anything else. For general 3 season use here in the Rockies where it always gets a bit chilly at night, I target a sleeping pad with an r-value around 3. Combined with an appropriate sleeping bag for the forecasted lows of course, I’ve found this to provide sufficient warmth into the higher 20’s. When it will be colder, I combine this pad with the thinnest (1/4" or less) and lightest generic foam pad I can find particularly of the Evazote foam variety that can easily be cut down to a custom size or folded over to double up if needed – such as the Evazote Exped Doublemat, or this option on Amazon, and foam pads sometimes carried by many cottage makers / vendors also work well.  Essentially, you are looking for a thin 1/8" to 1/4" foam pad that will cover you width wise (depends on your main pad width of choice), and at least offer torso length coverage or more. This system that will keep me comfortably warm to the high teens. If it will be colder than that I will combine my usual sleeping pad with a thick foam pad of nearly an equal r-value. As an example, the Exped Synmat UL7 – find our full review here – which is my choice for an inflatable pad (the current equivalent Exped Synmat UL adds a tacky surface layer) combined with the RidgeRest Solar (the warmest foam pad from Therm-a-Rest) provides a total r-value over 6 and this combo has kept me warm on winter trips well below 0. 

Carrying a CCF Backpaking Sleeping Pad on the Outside of a Backpack

On this trip with a low for the night well below 0, I packed both this Ridge Rest Solar plus an insulated inflatable.

Some inflatable pads like the Big Agnes Air Core Ultra feature no insulation at all (r-value around 1) and basically provide mostly comfort from the ground, but not cold ground. These pads are lighter and cheaper, and might be useful for a dedicated summer sleeping pad in warm locales. On the flipside some winter sleeping pads, such as the Exped Downmat 9 or the NeoAir X-Therm, are heavily insulated and would be sufficiently warm all on their own for cold winter camping and for cold sleepers. On both sides of the coin though each are on the specialized end of the spectrum; I prefer the adaptable approach of using one 3-season rated pad, and then adding in a thin, or thicker foam pad when needed for colder temperatures. For the 3 season pad I like an inflatable to provide the comfort and some baseline level of insulation, and when combined with the additional foam pad the foam pad protects the inflatable and will even serve as a fail-safe should the inflatable spring a leak. 

The Exped Synmat Inflatable Sleeping Pad Features a 3.3 R-Value

As a general starting guide an r-value of 2+ has been useful for me on summer trips in the mountains and for 3 season use in warmer locations; warm into the 30 degree range. I find an r-value of 3+ most useful all-around, providing sufficient warmth for  most 3-season trips in the mountains and down to the 20 degree range. However if you sleep colder or warmer, you can implement some respective addition or subtraction here. For winter trips I do not mess around and take a combination of pads totaling a 5-6+ r-value. Pads that feature an r-value under 2 I find useful only as part of a larger system (as a solution to boost warmth as part of an overall sleep system), but not on their own.

Sleeping Pad Size

Sleeping pads are usually offered in multiple lengths and depending on your height and use, an appropriate fit can be found. If you’re going with an ultralight approach a shorter pad can work that offers coverage for the most important part of your body - your torso and core, but your feet and legs will hang off the end. To insulate this area you can pile gear and your backpack - that might just have an insulating foam backpanel, at the bottom of the shorter sleeping pad. This will save the most weight, but still will not be as warm or as comfortable as a longer pad. My preference is to use a pad that’s at least close to my height. A few inches shorter is fine as we often sleep a bit shorter than our height with knees and back bent, etc., or longer than your height offers the most luxury. Either way, by getting your whole body on the pad you will sleep warmer. 

The standard width for most sleeping pads is 20 inches. Often a wide version (not really standardized, but usually 25”) is also offered and even up to double wide pads for two like the Exped Duo 2-person sleeping pad are offered. (Although two one-person pads can always be strapped together – Sea to Summit makes the best solution for this I’ve used) Preference will of course depend on your size and sleeping style. A 20” pad works for me, but there’s not much wiggle room and I do sleep better on a wider pad that offers more room to bend your knees for side sleepers or for toss and turners. Many tents are based around this 20” width standard, so be sure your pad will fit in your shelter of choice and combined with whatever width pad your partner may have if you’re sharing a tent.

Either way longer and wider pads offer more comfort but at the cost of an increase in weight and bulk. I’ve accumulated several sizes over the years, so on trips where I’ll be covering a lot of miles I take a standard 6’ pad; on more relaxed trips I like the comfort my Synmat LW (Long/Wide) offers. No matter the size, you will find sleeping pads available in both traditional rectangular as well is in tapering, mummy shapes that narrow towards the feet. While tapered pads offer some weight savings, a rectangular sleeping pad offers more room. 

Mummy Shaped Backpacking Sleeping Pad - Weight Savings but Not as Much Room as Rectangular

The lower section of a mummy-shaped sleeping pad. Weight is saved, but there's not as much toss and turn room.

Weight

A great target for an adequately warm and comfortable full length standard 3-season sleeping pad for most locations is around 1lb with the weight falling below that as we get into shorter and/or less warm pads, and above that as we get into longer, wider, and warmer pads. Save for a dedicated winter pad, approaching the 2lb mark is best reserved for sleeping pads in more of the super comfortable and warm, but heavy and bulky car camping variety.
 

Closed Cell Foam Pads

The simplest and cheapest option to go with is a closed cell foam sleeping pad. I’m much more comfortable on an inflatable pad, but as previously described, I still have an assortment of closed cell foam pads in my gear stash to combine with an inflatable pad for additional warmth on shoulder season and winter trips with my 3 season rated Exped Synmat UL7. However, the foam pad excels in the reliability department – it won’t leak and you don’t have to carry a patch kit. They are also usually cheaper.

Closed Cell Foam Backpacking Sleeping Pads - Pros and Cons

The downside is they pack bulky and you will probably have to carry it on the outside of your backpack. This can be a pro though, as the pad will be easily accessible to use as a sit pad on breaks and for lunch. Foam pads are usually just around an inch thick or a bit less, and then compress further when you’re on it. You will definitely feel the ground and any rocks or roots that might occupy your campsite, but if the comfort works for you the foam pad is a reliable and affordable choice. Note that you will want to avoid open cell foam pads, as they will absorb water and when they do they take a long time to dry. Reserve these for use on the futon at home.

Carrying Bulky Closed Cell Foam Backpacking Sleeping Pads on the Outside of a Backpack

Foam pads are bulky to carry, but convenient for breaks.

Most foam pads can be had for under $50. Some popular options include such venerable choices as the generic blue foam pad, the Therm-a-Rest Ridge Rest (a classic), and the more conveniently packing ZLite Pad. And in recent years, the later two classic foam pads from Therm-a-Rest have been updated with an aluminized reflective (warmer) coating in the respective RidgeRest SoLite and the ZLite Sol pad for a small boost in warmth and durability.


Inflatable Pads

Inflatable sleeping pads offer a few advantages and disadvantages compared to their closed cell foam cousins. Usually thicker than foam pads when inflated, an inflatable pad can keep you totally off the ground and the inflation level can be adjusted to suit your own comfort preference. Thinner inflatables are better for back sleepers and the thicker variety better for side sleepers. If you toss and turn, look for a design that is raised around the sides a bit to help center you on the pad and keep you from falling off in the night. Inflatable pads also pack smaller, usually around the size of a Nalgene and even a long / wide inflatable will easily fit inside a backpack. Inflatable pads usually feature baffles arranged in a horizontal, vertical, or sometimes in a pod like arrangement like the Sea to Summit Ultralight we’ve also previously reviewed. Preference varies; I like the lengthwise tubes that I find help me stay centered on the pad. Self-inflating pads usually have a flatter sleeping surface.

How to Choose an Inflatable Backpacking Sleeping Pad

The downside of inflatable pads is that they can be punctured, baffles can fail, you have to inflate it, and to be sufficiently warm inflatable pads will use insulation or special baffles that bump up the price. If you carry an inflatable, you should also bring a patch kit along just in case, and use care where you put the pad. For inflation I prefer to not use my breath, not only can this be a little difficult at high altitudes after a long day, but it introduces moisture. Many manufacturers offer a pump bag solution - like the Exped Scnhozzel I use, and battery operated pumps are even available.

Exped Inflation and Deflation Valves on an Inulsated Synmat

The standard of inflatables a couple decades ago, some are still self-inflating as well. Keeping an inflatable pad protected and inside your tent is ideal. Many people may also take a smaller foam pad to use as a dedicated sit pad in this situation. Some inflatable pads, though not all can be a bit noisy and some can also have slick surfaces that can migrate around the tent, or have you migrating on top of them at night. Some strategic dots of Sil-Net on your (especially if it’s silnylon) tent floor can help mitigate the slipping, and if you combine an inflatable with a foam pad of any type as I often do in colder weather it will mitigate this issue.

For a lightweight insulated inflatable pad, you are probably looking at something in the $100 - $200 range. Popular inflatable pads can be found in the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir series that utilize a combination of baffling and aluminized reflective features to provide warmth, the Exped Synmat series that uses microfiber insulation, and many options exist from makers like Big Agnes and Nemo Equipment.
 

My System

Selecting a backpacking sleeping pad is without a doubt, a huge balance between weight, comfort, price, reliability, and warmth - and while there’s no best sleeping pad and no free lunch, with so many options out there there’s no doubt an option that suits your style can be found. As a side sleeper who values all the above points fairly equally, I like a comfortable 3 season inflatable pad as the main cog in my sleeping pad system, and add in a thin foam pad for just a touch of additional warmth when it's needed and a thicker foam pad for winter conditions.  

For a full selection of lightweight sleeping pads that you can then narrow down by type, price, size, etc. take a look here at REI.com.

Aaron

Combining cameras with the outdoors and taking one along to document your hiking and backpacking trips introduces a few challenges that must be overcome to take your photos quickly and easily, while still being able to maintain and keep your camera safe from the elements. On the trail, a few key points are worth the most consideration and the following is the setup that has worked best for me on trips where the hiking is a higher priority than, or at least on equal ground priority-wise, with the photography objective.

How to Carry a Camera Backpacking and Hiking and Lightweight Photography Gear  Kit

How to Carry the Camera

When I first started taking my old DSLR backpacking, it was a frustrating experience. The camera was too big to carry in any pocket save buried deep in my backpack’s main compartment, and as such the camera had to stay inconveniently inside my backpack - causing many photos to be missed as it was just too much trouble. The alternative was to carry the camera around my neck hanging by the neck strap, banging around as I hiked, but this was of course uncomfortable, tiring, and the camera was completely exposed to rain, blowing sand, rocks and branches during class 2 hiking, etc. 

2 different methods to solve the issues above have worked best for me. If you’re able to find a small, compact camera (like the Canon G7X – find our review of the G7X here – or the popular Panasonic ZS series) that satisfies your requirements for image quality, using a backpack that has generous hipbelt pockets (like my ULA Circuit) is a great bet. Most of these pockets are made from water resistant – not necessarily waterproof fabrics, so back that up with a quart size Ziploc bag stored in the bottom of the pocket for rainy days or river crossings, or if you want something more durable that will last more than a trip or two many have had success with the heavier-duty Aloksak bags. In your hipbelt pocket the camera remains well protected, but is still easily deployed and stowed again all on the fly. If your compact camera has an automatically closing and opening lens cap / cover, it’s backpacking photo bliss. 

Carrying a Camera Using a ZPacks Multi-Pack While Backpacking

Carrying a Camera with the ZPacks Multi-Pack

If your photo requirements are a bit higher and you opt for a larger DSLR, mirrorless camera, or interchangeable lens camera like me, the camera will likely be too large for a hipbelt pocket. The best solution I’ve found is the ZPacks Multi-Pack. Hanging from your shoulder straps and at just a few ounces the Multi-Pack doesn’t weigh you down, but keeps your camera very accessible. The Multi-Pack is constructed from waterproof DCF fabric and features a water resistant zipper that keeps your camera dry in the rain, and offers protection from dust and sand when stowed. Since the zipper is technically water resistant, I back it up with a rolled up gallon size Ziploc freezer bag in the bottom of the Multi-Pack for wet trips and river crossings. For a lot more on the Multi-Pack be sure to check out our full review. Other choices like the Cotton Carrier harness setup are also popular where photography is a high priority. The Zpacks option isn’t padded, but the camera stays close to your chest and save for a complete face plant, the camera remains in a protected spot. The Multi-Pack would potentially have room for a small spare lens as well, but when I’m out on a backpacking trip I like to take one do it all lens instead of several. The Multi-Pack, and other carriers also have plenty of room for your photo accessories as detailed below. 

The Lightweight Accessory Kit

One of the worst feelings while on a mulitiday trip is getting your camera lens dirty, with no way to properly clean it until you get home. As such I take every precaution to keep a lens clean in the first place, but smudges and dust are inevitable. A small, lightweight, and inexpensive kit has served me very well and consists of 2 items: a small Giottos rocket blaster which is used to initially blast off as much surface dirt or dust as possible using ambient air.

Giottos Small Rocket Air Blaster for Cleaning a Lens While Backpacking

After blowing off as much dirt and dust as you can, anything that remains and stubborn smudges can be removed by following up with a Lens Pen Cleaner. (First the brush end, then the carbon felt side) These items and this method will keep your lens clear, your photos crisp, and works great on the trail while working much better than any cleaning cloth I’ve ever tried.

Cleaning a Lens on Hiking Trips with a Lens Pen

A couple other accessories are helpful. An extra battery or two is essential – when packing two I usually adopt a shoot at will strategy for the first battery and then if I exhaust that one, use the second prudently. This will of course also depend on your particular camera and how many photos you like to take, outside temperature, etc. Amazon is a great place to pick up a few spares. However, you can also opt for one of the many battery banks / solar chargers on the market if your camera will charge via USB, and if it doesn’t, I’ve had success with the PPuClip battery charger in the past. If you’ve collected a couple memory cards over the years, I also like to toss in a spare in its protective case just as a backup in the event the main memory card malfunctions, or maybe you just run out of space, and really, these days small memory cards are pretty cheap. If you carry any additional filters like a polarizing filter to help cut the glare, there are times when you’ll need to take this off and store it without fear of it getting broken, dusty, or scratched, and a lightweight filter wallet does the job nicely.

Lightweight and Trail Ready - Lens Filter Wallet and Storage

And if you’re looking to take your photos to the next level, a tripod rounds out the system. A tripod will allow you to take long exposure photos at dawn and dusk and an array of options are available depending on your needs. Unfortunately larger and heavier cameras generally need larger and heavier tripods, and as such I carry my Gitzo option on the outside of my pack. This does require me to remove my backpack to use it, but unless your trip is completely photography oriented, a tripod is most beneficial at dawn and dusk anyway – where I’m already in camp. On the trail during the day I much prefer to take photos quickly while on the move. If you have a smaller more compact camera you won’t need as stout of a tripod, and one of the various shock-corded options are great and can even be secured to your shoulder straps for use on the go without pack removal. 

Overall, while the actual best camera for hiking and backpacking use will widely vary depending on your image quality requirements and weight and size tolerance, a camera needs to be easily accessible while having a protected spot away from rain, snow, dust, and sand, and you’ll need a way to clean it when it does eventually get dirty without having to wait until the trip is over. A backup battery or two and an emergency memory card keep you going until the trip is over, and finding a system that works for you will allow you to photograph the trip, without the photography getting in the way of the trip itself. 

Aaron

When it comes to backpacking stoves, there are several routes one can take and several different main categories of stoves exist and each with an array of pros and cons. Without a doubt however, no matter which way you go about it the backpacking stove is an important part of any overnight multi-night gear ensemble. A backpacking stove provides hot meals and drinks, goes a long way towards keeping you warm on chilly mornings and evenings, and for backpacking and hiking a stove needs to be convenient, lightweight, and reasonably fast to use with readily available fuel.

Choosing the Best Backpacking Stove, Fuel and Stove Types


The Canister Stove

A canister stove uses a pressurized gas canister for its fuel source, and this fuel can be butane, isobutane, or propane and is usually a mixture of these fuels. These canisters are available in different sizes for varying trip lengths, and if you'll be using the canister in colder temperatures, you want to avoid a canister containing regular butane as its vaporization temperature is quite high in the 30 degree range. (Translation: your stove may not work / performance will suffer / it may be difficult to use in colder temperatures) However canisters containing a mixture of isobutane and propane are much more suitable as temperatures drop.

Isobutane will vaporize down to about the 10 degree mark and even lower as you gain altitude, and propane vaporizes down to the arctic-like temperature of minus 44, but there is only so much propane in your usual backpacking canister mix. Canister valves automatically open and close when you connect and disconnect the stove for ease of use and packing, and note that you can mix and match brands here – you don’t necessarily have to match the maker of your stove to your canister brand. As long as the canister has a lindal valve you are good to go. Popular blended canister fuel brands include MSR IsoPro as well as fuel canisters from JetBoil and Propane/Isobutane mixtures from Snow Peak.

Either way canister stoves offer convenience: they are easy to carry, simple to use, and the pre-packaged fuel is likely readily available at your local outfitter. While having the fuel contained and prepackaged provides that convenience, they are non-refillable and after a while you are likely to end up with a bunch of canisters that don't have enough fuel to get you through a trip, but aren't empty either. They are recyclable if empty and punctured and Jetboil makes a specific tool for that purpose. A necessary accessory for any canister stove user should be a digital kitchen scale that measures to the gram - this way you can always calculate the exact amount of fuel inside a canister before a trip. Canister stoves excel at boiling water, but you can dial the flame down and simmer…or even bake…with practice and with the right approach.
 

Upright Canister Stoves

Among canisters stoves, upright canister stoves screw directly into the top of the canister and can be quite light – with many of these stoves falling in the 2-3 ounce range. I’ve used upright canister stoves with isobutane / propane canisters on trips with lows in the high teens, but usage much below these temperatures will become difficult, especially considering that the longer you use a canister in a sitting, the colder it will become – and colder than the actual outside temperature – due to evaporative cooling. In cold or cooler temperatures it’s good to keep a few tricks in mind. In cold temperatures you can place the canister in a bit of water inside a container like a shallow bowl if needed to keep the canister’s temperature up and maintain performance, and sleeping with the canister inside your sleeping bag is never a bad idea when temps get chilly to give you a head start in the morning. 

Upright Canister Backpacking Stove - Soto WindMaster

Soto WindMaster Upright Canister Stove with MSR IsoPro 110 gram Fuel Canister

Other types of upright canister stoves feature an all in one system like many of the system offerings made by Jetboil and options like the MSR WindBurner that are designed to be particularly efficient, at the cost of upfront weight, but do save fuel and may be a good option if your primary need is boiling water. I personally prefer a more typical upright canister stove and like to choose different pots – like those from the Evernew Ultralight Series – depending on the trip. In recent years several upright canister stove options that utilize a pressure regulating valve have made it to the market often claiming to increase overall and cold weather performance. While these stoves won't replace an inverted or liquid stove for cold conditions, I have found them to have better and more predictable performance overall when compared to other options featuring a standard needle valve.

Popular upright canister stoves include my current choice the Soto WindMaster – find our full review here, and a couple classic examples can be found in the MSR Pocket Rocket 2 and the Snow Peak GigaPower. Integrated all in one systems like the Jetboil Zip are also quite popular.


Remote and Inverted Canister Stoves

Remote canister stoves keep the canister remote from the burner and feed fuel via a hose. This allows for two benefits: remote canister stoves let you really shield the burner with a large windscreen to block wind and hold in heat to save fuel while the canister remains outside the windscreen – in an upright canister stove this would make to the canister too dangerously hot. Secondly, if said remote canister stove allows you to use the fuel canister in an inverted position,  a solution to the colder weather fuel vaporization issues previously discussed is realized, as using the canister upside down feeds fuel in a liquid form where it's subsequently preheated and vaporized at the hot burner of the stove itself in cold and very cold temperatures. For a remote canister stove that allows for inverted use, I use the MSR WindPro II. Find our review on that stove in Issue 33.

Inverted Canister Stove - MSR Wind PRO II

MSR WindPro II and Remote Canister

For all types of canister stoves I like a dedicated starter if I can get it, and always look for built in piezo ignition. A separate piezo starter can be used if your stove of choice doesn’t feature one, or a bic lighter will do the job as well. Piezo igniters can fail, but they can also be replaced. Of course, always have a backup ignition source in your separate fire starting kit, but the convenience of a piezo igniter has far outweighed any small amount of hassle in my experience.
 

Liquid Gas Stoves

The bread and butter stove of cold weather camping and for mountaineers alike, liquid stoves like the venerable MSR Whisperlite are reliable options that burn white gas, or even an array of liquid fuels including gasoline for some stoves like the International version of the Whisperlite. These stoves work well in very cold weather, but are generally heavier and more cumbersome to use in regards with the need to handle liquid fuel in refillable bottles, priming the stove, complicated hardware with more moving parts and maintenance etc. However, if you’re into group or complex meals like baking on the trail, a liquid stove may be hard to beat. (Options like the MSR Dragonfly are specifically designed with simmering in mind) Liquid stoves are thus perhaps best for the cold weather backpacker, the backpacking chef, or those who desire a stove that will work across all conditions who might not mind the extra weight for 3 season use.


Alcohol Stoves

Alcohol stoves are designed to run on denatured alcohol (available at many hardware stores, etc.), or for my use I’ve always run them on the cleaner highest proof grain alcohol (Everclear). The benefits of an alcohol stove are weight and simplicity, there aren’t any complicated mechanisms or moving parts, you usually just fill and light the stove. With simplicity comes reduced weight, and the stove can even be made from tuna cans, soda cans, and the like. Alcohol stoves can be subject to fire restrictions and require some extra care with the open flame and fuel. I’ve used alcohol stoves across many conditions and my favorite offering is the Trail Designs Ti-Tri system that works well to trap the limited heat that an alcohol stove produces while blocking wind, greatly increasing efficiency. Another venerable alcohol stove option can be found in one of the several Trangia burners that are available.

Backpacking Alcohol Stove - Trail Designs 10-2 Stove

Alcohol Stove from TrailDesigns

Regardless, if you go with an alcohol stove you will definitely want a windscreen of some type. Alcohol stoves usually compete with upright canister stoves; ultimately the choice is up to you regarding which benefits you find most appealing and on longer trips the increased efficiency of a canister stove may begin to cut into an alcohol stove’s weight savings. Fuel for an alcohol stove can perhaps be easier to find, and alcohol stoves have been popular for thru-hiking and ultralight backpacking usage for some time. With an alcohol stove you can dial in the exact amount of fuel you need prior to a trip instead of having to take a full canister each time, and perhaps too much fuel and the extra weight. On the other hand with a digital scale and some partial canisters to choose from, you can get close with a canister as well.
 

Wood Burning Stoves

Wood Burning Stove for Backpacking - Trail Designs Caldera Ti-Tri

Ti-Tri Wood Burning Stove

Many wood stoves exist on the market, with of course the simplest way to cook with wood being a small campfire, which I’m most likely to use when cooking in this manner, although I’ve utilized the combo wood or alcohol burning Trail Designs Caldera Ti-Tri system for this purpose. A wood stove won’t beat a campfire in weight carried, but will beat it in convenience and efficiency. Cooking with wood of course requires you collect wood and start a fire, and would have to be ruled out in areas where fire bans are in effect. Wood also leaves residue on pots and the stove, but a wood fire is hard to beat for ambiance, and fuel is free and you don’t have to carry your fuel in your pack during the day.
 

Chemical Tablet Stoves

Stoves that burn manufactured hexamine chemical tablets like those from Esbit are quite efficient and very lightweight. Like alcohol stoves, you will want a windscreen to maximize efficiency and block any wind here. These tablets and Esbit fuel can be a bit hard to find if you’re in a pinch, but you can of course stock up from online sources. Esbit stoves leave a residue on your cookware and produce fumes, and as I prefer cleaning or more natural burning fuel alternatives, my experience with Esbit or other hexamine stoves is limited, but I can see the appeal for emergency or backup usage. Some ultralight backpackers however find Esbit fuel appealing for its simplicity and light weight. Esbit stoves, like the Esbit Titanium Stove are small, light, simple, and easily carried. 
 

Final Thoughts

As with nearly any other backpacking gear category, there may be no best backpacking stove, but hopefully the above information can assist with determining which option(s) would work best for you. While I own them all, these days my general approach is to take an upright canister stove (The Soto WindMaster) for 3 season use and only when needed in very cold weather or anytime melting snow will be needed, I will reach for an inverted canister stove for those trips. Although, that same inverted canister stove – the MSR WindPro II, would work just fine in the summer as well if the extra weight wasn’t a concern. But whether you go with a one stove to do it all approach or like to mix and match to specifically meet the needs of the excursion at hand, any backpacking stove should ideally be durable, reliable, and have the ability to heat water and cook your cuisine of choice in a reasonable amount of time, and through whatever conditions will be encountered during a trip.

Aaron

Among smartphone mapping and GPS apps, Gaia GPS is one of the most popular and one of my favorite smartphone applications for backpacking and hiking. The app is continually updated, and I’ve been using the app for the last 7 years to plan my backcountry trips at home and plan out days while on the trail.

How to Plan Hiking and Backpcking Trips Using the Gaia GPS Smarthphone App.JPG

My favorite part of the app, however, is its ability to store what would be a huge stack of USGS topos right to my phone for offline use. The app is free to download for iOS here, or find it for Android here. Much like here at TrailGroove though, to utilize the app to its full potential you really need to upgrade to their Premium / Gaia GPS Pro level to get the most out of the app, for $29.99 a year. Note that a one year Gaia Premium subscription is included with our own TrailGroove Premium Subscription – details on that here. What follows is a basic introduction and tutorial on using Gaia GPS (with a Gaia premium subscription) and a review on how I plan a hiking trip using the app, how to save maps to your phone for offline use, and tips and how to use the app while on the trail.

Using Gaia GPS Maps Offline.JPG

There are many other ways to use the app, including the importing of gpx routes, saving maps for a pre-determined route, etc., but most of my backpacking allows for much leeway in my route choice and often follows a “choose your own adventure” course as a trip develops. As a result my use is focused on a general area, not a specific route. This is how using the app has best worked for me.
 

Downloading Maps and Favorite Layers

After you’ve downloaded Gaia GPS and signed up for your premium subscription, it’s time to plan a trip and download the appropriate maps using the app for offline use. First we need to navigate to the appropriate land management area. To begin, open the app and select the “Map” tab at the bottom of your screen. Next, select the layers icon in the upper right hand corner to select your base and additional maps. (Note that you can always utilize the search function in the upper left, however I prefer the zoom on the map method which works a bit better for me) To locate a general area, for example if we’d like to hike an on and offtrail route through Utah’s Uinta Mountains, it helps to select a base map like MapBox Streets to start with. Much like driving to the trailhead (as seen in the first photo above, I prefer that state's Delorme Atlas for this purpose), a broad overview, street-based map that still offers a reasonable level of wilderness and backcountry detail is best to start with when planning a backcountry trip using Gaia GPS.

Gaia GPS Start of Trip Planning and Offline Map Download.JPG

If MapBox Streets is not already in the “Visible” list of Map Sources, scroll down to the available layers and tap the green up arrow to move it there. Then, press and hold on the 3 horizontal lines to the right of “MapBox Streets” and drag your finger to move it to the first (lowest) position among your Visible Layers. This will make it the Base Map. Now tap “Done” and pinch or zoom to your state and then on to your trip destination. (Example browse to Utah--> High Uinta Wilderness Area) Now that we’re centered and focused on the area of interest let’s download the hiking maps to our device.

For hiking I’ve found a few layers are most useful. A good topo map layer is the first essential / base map, and I prefer the USGS topos or the National Geographic Trails Illustrated Maps if one is available for the location. In this example using the Uintas, let’s go the USGS route. Now return to your map layer section (3 tiles in the upper right hand corner). Click the red “X” to the left of Map Box Streets – we can only select 5 layers and it's good to have all 5 available for more hiking related maps. The layers I’ve found most useful for hiking and backpacking over the years are USGS Topo, Shaded Relief, Slope, and Public Land.

Using and Selecting Gaia GPS Premium Layers.JPG

With these 4 layers, you’ll be able to map out nearly any hiking scenario. Add them to the "Visible" list, again by pressing the green Up Arrow for each listed under “Layers”. Make sure to set USGS Topo as your Base Map and click “Done”. I like to download maps for the entire management unit prior to a trip, just so I know I have everything covered in case the plan changes, and especially since I like to wander a bit or change up plans on the fly.

Downloading Offline Maps with Gaia GPS by Creating a Custom Area.JPG

At this point in our example, we now have the entire Uinta Mountain Range visible. Now let’s create an Area. Click the “+” icon at the top of your device and select “Create Area”. A triangle with 3 blue points will appear. Drag each blue dot to cover the entire mountain range in this example, and adjust the additional blue dots that are created with each drag as needed. Allow a bit of overlap here; better to download too many maps than not enough and if space is an issue, we can always delete these maps after a trip.

Creating a Custom Area for Offline Map Download Using Gaia GPS.JPG

Now that we’ve created the area covering the mountain range, tap “Save” in the upper right. The download size will now be calculated and you can adjust resolution here to save space if you want…but I like maps…and you can never have too much detail when you’re out there, so I always select “High” when I can. Our 4 favorite layers (or 5 if you go with a satellite option) should be pre-selected for download. At the top, give a custom name like “Uinta Trip” if desired and now click “Save”. Your download will begin. Tap the spinning wheel towards the upper left of your screen to evaluate download status, and make sure all layers successfully download before your trip. As previously hinted at, another layer that should deserve honorable mention is one of the satellite imagery layers that are available. If you have the space on your device this can be a handy layer to use as well, just for additional information to interpret on top of the more standard mapping data.

Gaia GPS USGS Topo with Slope and Shaded Relieve Layers.JPG

On the Trail

Once you get to the trail, you can now utilize all these layers and maps – even offline. From here it’s simple. Open the app and click the location icon in the very center top of the app to locate your location on the map (if you just started your phone and opened the app, give it a minute to acquire GPS signal). Now not only will our nearly exact location be shown, but we can plan out our trip on the fly in fine detail. Instead of carrying a stack of USGS topos, they’re all on your device, and by utilizing our layers we gain additional information, trip intelligence, and improve readability.

An Example of Gaia GPS Showing  Trails and Road on a USGS Topo Map with Slope and Shaded Relief Layers.JPG

To use the layers, again tap the layers icon in the upper right, since we already set USGS Topo to our Base Map, let’s adjust the opacity of the others using the sliders. Drag the round slider adjustment for each. I like to always set US Shaded Relief at around 25% to the right, and the same for Slope. Shaded Relief will give you an enhancement of visual contours, and slope details just how steep our Uinta traverse will be. Just like a weather radar map detailing a thunderstorm, more intense colors mean more intense of a slope. For general class 1 and 2 hiking, it’s generally a good idea to keep things in the yellow, possibly orange color range, or no color at all indicates the gentlest hiking slope wise. Purple is definitely getting pretty steep! When needed, use the Public Land layer to find a place to camp (useful at the start and end of trips where public land may start to be interspersed with private lands), or to make sure your hike stays on public land when you’re travelling through areas where this is a concern. When public and private lands become interspersed, the boundaries can often become very confusing and the app will help eliminate this concern and keep you on track.

At any time press and hold on the map to enter “Route Mode”. A blue dot will be created and will immediately tell you how many miles the selected location is from your current location. Press and hold again and another dot will be created with the app automatically connecting the dots and compiling the distance. Note that at home or if you have a cellular / wifi connection, you can also change the mode here to “Hiking”, and in this mode the app will automatically adjust your route to follow mapped trails if desired. Additionally while online, elevation gain and loss will be calculated. Altogether, this is very handy for pre-trip planning on or offtrail routes, when you know your desired miles per day and elevation gain / loss.

Hiking Offtrail with the Gaia GPS App.JPG


Closing Thoughts

Of course, this is just a basic introduction to the app, but this will get you started hiking with Gaia GPS. And a quick note on general mapping philosophy – I do not use Gaia GPS as my main map or primary navigation tool. Be sure to take a paper map that details the area, and frankly for primary navigation the paper map is just more convenient and keeps your mapping skills up to snuff. A somewhat detailed yet broad overview map like a Trails Illustrated map, combined with the fine detail of USGS topos saved to your phone when needed makes for a good combination. Be it a drop on a rock or a dunk in the river, or a low battery, smartphone accidents can happen.

One of the many portable power banks or solar chargers can help keep you charged (for a couple of our previous reviews on solar chargers take a look here and here), and a protective case can help protect your phone on the trail (I like a Ziploc bag for waterproofing). Regardless however, paper maps and an electronic devices both have their separate places. On average, I find that a fully charged (don’t forget this step!) phone will last on even week long trips with judicious usage. To save on battery, make sure to only operate your phone on airplane mode (the GPS will still work with the app), and turn the phone completely off when not in use. Out on the trail, you’ll now be able to pinpoint your location using Gaia GPS on a topo map, and combined with the additional layers you’ve downloaded, re-route on the move, or my favorite – just plan for the next day ahead in the tent at night.

You can find Gaia GPS here at the App Store. Check out details on their Premium Subscription here, or for the best of both worlds at least as we see it, a Gaia GPS Premium Subscription is also included for free with your TrailGroove Magazine Premium Subscription.

Mark

For some reason gaiters were one of the “accessory” pieces of backpacking gear that I delayed purchasing far longer than I should have. Trekking poles likely would have fallen into the same category, but fortunately for my knees I received a pair as a gift early in my backpacking days. It was only after I moved to Montana and began adapting my backpacking to a different landscape – the Northern Rockies is quite different from the Southern Appalachians – that I bought my first pair of gaiters. There may be no single best hiking gaiter - as since then, I’ve acquired three pairs of gaiters, all suited for different purposes, and it has been a rare backpacking trip where I don’t start out wearing a pair or have them stashed in my pack. 

How to Choose Gaiters for Backpacking and Hiking - Atlas REI and Outdoor Research

Keeping debris out of your shoes, dew-soaked vegetation from saturating your pants, or helping rainpants better do their job in a deluge –  most gaiters excel at all these tasks. For specific conditions or activities, like with all backpacking gear, there are certain types of gaiters that will be better suited than others. While you could wear the same gaiters snowshoeing as you do on a summer trail run, you’d definitely be better off using ones designed with the distinct requirements of those activities in mind.

For all-around backpacking use, the Rocky Mountain Series (which comes in high and low versions) by Outdoor Research are hard to beat in regards to price and efficiency. These water-resistant gaiters (the lower half is coated to assist with this, while the upper is uncoated to assist with breathability) are ideal for most three-season backpacking and have proved as effective at keeping out lingering snow when postholing in Montana’s Welcome Creek Wilderness as they have been at saving pantlegs from being shredded by unruly vegetation when bushwhacking in Washington’s Glacier Peak Wilderness. When paired with rainpants, they’ve been a saving grace during daylong rains in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness in Idaho and allowed boots and socks the luxury of only being wet at the end of the day and not soaked.

Outdoor Research Rocky Mountain Gaiters

While these gaiters are nothing short of excellent in most circumstances, I did have some durability issues with my first pair. The stitching on the velcro on one pair blew out after two hiking seasons of moderate use and the Velcro closure tab at the hook at the bottom of the gaiter began to separate as well. Outdoor Research replaced them at no cost and provided great customer service during the process. Granted, I had put them through some pretty serious off-trail hikes during the two seasons, but by the standards I have for other Outdoor Research gear (and backpacking gear in general) they fell a bit short in the durability department. It is worth noting that the fabric of the gaiters was still in good repair and the foot straps still had a lot of life left in them as well. Hopefully this was just a fluke with the pair I received and not a common weak spot in the product.

Once the snow piles up and I switch from hiking to cross-country skiing and snowshoeing to access the backcountry, I also switch my gaiters. Although I’ve used the OR Rocky Mountain High gaiters with minimal issues in dry, powdery snow, my go-to winter gaiters are made by Atlas Snow Shoe Company and feature a waterproof lower, waterproof-breathable upper (Marmot Membrain in the pair that I have), and microfleece lining for warmth on the upper section. I’ve found these gaiters to be a nearly perfect piece of equipment for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing, as well as hiking, in all types of winter conditions. The durability has been excellent, even when getting scraped by snowshoe edges when treading my way through dense lodgepole stands. I’ve never seen these gaiters wet-out even when in some very slushy snow conditions and the fleece adds a nice touch of insulation without seeming to contribute to cause too much head to build up when engaged in strenuous cross-country skiing. 

My only complaint with these gaiters is that I was unable to find a pair locally when looking for a pair for a friend and unfortunately it seems like Atlas does not have any available for purchase on their website for the Winter 2017-2018 season. However, there are still pairs available on Amazon and other third-party retailers. Hopefully these will be back in stock soon, because there is nothing similar I have seen on the market that covers the bases for what dedicated winter gaiters need to provide as well as these do.

REI Co-op Activator Gaiters - Low.JPG

When the conditions – both trail and weather – are on the milder side, I have a pair of REI Co-op Activator Gaiters that provide just the right amount of protection whereas the Rocky Mountain High gaiters would be overkill. These gaiters pair perfectly with trail runners and excel at keeping out the irritating sand, tiny rocks, and debris that can be hard to ignore but frustrating to have to stop and remove. I’ve used these for hiking as well as trail running and have found to be adequate but not excellent at their ability to stay in place when properly adjusted. Oddly, these have to be fitted onto the shoe and the foot inserted through the gaiter and then into the shoe (at least that’s the only way I’ve found to do it, but then again I could just be making things more difficult than they need to be, which wouldn’t exactly be a surprise), but this does allow for the coverage and positioning of the gaiters to be dialed in. During a trail run around a low-elevation lake in Montana, with some early season snow patches to run through, these gaiters did a good job of keeping the snow out and didn’t seem to wet out even when there were extended sections of melting snow to contend with. Unsurprisingly, these gaiters are the most breathable of the three reviewed and would be the ones most appropriate for those who hike mostly on open trails in areas without an abundance of precipitation.

While not having gaiters wouldn’t exactly ruin a trip in the same way that forgetting the stove or not bringing a warm enough sleeping bag would, they most certainly improve the comfort level measurably. And fortunately, there are a plethora of gaiters for distinct conditions and activities.

Gaiters for Hiking and Snowshoeing

The gaiters reviewed here represent a good sampling or the most common types and can hopefully guide you towards the type that you would want to purchase for the activities and conditions you most frequently engage in. The Rocky Mountain  high and low series of gaiters from Outdoor Research run around the $40 mark here at REI, and the Atlas gaiters go for around the same price at Amazon.com. REI’s Activator gaiters are here, and find our review of another gaiter option from Mountain Laurel Designs here.

Aaron

Western Mountaineering MegaLite Review

Western Mountaineering makes popular higher-end down sleeping bags in a wide range of temperature ratings and size configurations, and no matter the model it's likely to be at or near the top of the class when it comes to weight and packability for its corresponding temperature rating. These models from Western Mountaineering include the 20 degree Ultralight and Alpinlite we've also reviewed, as well as the Western Mountaineering MegaLite reviewed here. The MegaLite is a 30 degree rated down mummy sleeping bag that has a wider design when a bit more room and space is desired compared to most standard mummy bags and other Western Mountaineering bags like the slimmer Ultralight. 

Western Mountainering Megalite Review

Like all Western Mountaineering down bags the MegaLite uses 850+ fill power non-treated goose down for 4" of loft, and features a lightweight, DWR treated shell fabric. Horizontal baffles allow one to shift the down if needed, but I always like to shake all the down to the top of the bag after unpacking and then vent with the 2 way zipper if needed. The bag doesn't have a full draft collar, and instead has a passive down filled collar that's designed to hang down around your neck area to help prevent drafts, and a zipper draft tube also follows the side zipper down the bag. The passive collar doesn't work as well as a full cinchable collar like you'll find on the Alpinlite, but the MegaLite is all about saving space and weight for those more temperate trips. Now produced in more of a navy blue color, I've used my classic MegaLite in "Plum" for many years through the Midwest, Southwest, and in the Rockies.

Western Mountaineering Megalite Sleeping Bag

While the 20 degree bag is my all around favorite rating for the Rockies, I've found the MegaLite to work well for those trips where lows are forecasted to be more in the mid to high 30's or above. In baselayers the Megalite gets a little chilly for me at about 35 degrees and when used on a pad with an r-value in the 2.5 to 3 range or so, commonly used at these moderate temps. However as a wide bag there's definitely extra space to layer up with a down jacket like one of my favorites, the Montbell Mirage jacket if needed. With that extra space the MegaLite can also work well as a winter bag; not by itself but when combined with another bag inside - Using the MegaLite as an outer bag has helped me camp in temperatures well below 0. Fit wise the slimmer bags that Western Mountaineering makes like the Ultralite and Summerlite are just a bit to small for me to sleep in comfortably, but the MegaLite definitely takes care of this issue.

Megalite Zipper

Although a zipper guard is in place the zipper will still snag on occasion and you do have to zip with a little care. In fact - the shell fabric is light weight here to save weight - I've even had one of these zipper snags tear a small hole in the fabric of the MegaLite. This was however easily fixed with a small Tenacious Tape patch and again, as long as care is exercised here it should be fine. So without a doubt, learn from my mistake and exercise patience with the zipper. The shell fabric is otherwise sufficiently durable for normal use, and repels condensation encountered during the night adequately. Like all DWR treated fabrics it's best to both clean and re-treat after use, I like to do so on a yearly basis using Nikwax Downwash (this helps keep your loft up as well) and then with T.X. Direct specifically for the DWR.

Megalite Extremelite Shell Fabric and DWR

A drawstring hood helps seal out the cold, though the cord and Velcro securement here will on occasion hang down or scratch against your face, so careful positioning may be needed. My 6'6" version fits my 6'2" height perfectly, weighs in at 27.5 ounces, and will pack into an 8 liter Sea to Summit UltraSil stuff sack, or with ease into the 13 liter version. 

Western Mountaineering Megalite Footbox

For many parts of the country, the MegaLite is a good choice for summer backpacking or for 3 season use in warmer locales, and it's still light and roomy enough to work into a winter sleep system for versatility if needed. The extra room provides extra comfort for not so slim sleepers and / or allows for greater layering leeway without compressing the insulation of your layers or the bag. And with 850+ fill power down and all in a package from a well-respected manufacturer, the Western Mountaineering Megalite wraps it all up in a very light and compressible package. The Megalite is tough to find on sale but any bag from Western Mountaineering is definitely a sleeping bag and investment that will last you for many years to come. 

The Western Mountaineering MegaLite retails for about $450 and is available in 3 different lengths to fit your height. Find it here at Backcountry, at Amazon.com, and at CampSaver

If you're looking for a bag that's also a wide mummy and will cover colder temperatures check out the Alpinlite, or if weight and packability are paramount and it's a better fit both in application and size wise, the Ultralite with its more narrow configuration is hard to beat, and among the slimmer bags, Western Mountaineering also offers the very light 32 degree Summerlite

Aaron

In recent years the popularity and availability of wind shirts or ultralight wind jackets have both increased, and as many have found, these pieces often fit in very well with active outdoor pursuits including backpacking and hiking. These specialized jackets focus on light weight, simplicity, full or mostly single layer construction, and have a design focus on performance in a layering system and in the outdoors.

Backpacking and Hiking Wind Shirts and Jackets

A wind shirt is made from nylon fabric that has a dense weave and thus is highly wind resistant, but more breathable than waterproof breathable rain gear. On the flip side wind shirts aren’t waterproof like rain gear, but are usually treated with a DWR to repel light rain and snow. Unlike a traditional wind breaker jacket, since the garments are made from such lightweight fabric and are so simple most wind shirts weigh literally only a few ounces and take up little space in a pack when not in use.

Patagonia Houdini Packed Size in Pocket

In use, a wind shirt is a specialized piece of equipment and as such, I find them mostly useful for specialized scenarios. Where a wind shirt excels is in cool to cold weather combined with high output activities where little to no external moisture will be encountered – my Patagonia Houdini will get me through a quick shower…but not for long. Under the Houdini I like to wear any type of long sleeve synthetic hiking shirt (preferably a zip-neck in cool weather as well – I like the REI Coop Tech Shirt) with the fabric weight increasing as temperatures drop, with perhaps an additional lightweight next to skin synthetic layer if needed.

Patagonia Houdini Rain and Snow Resistance and DWR

For my personal use, I haven’t found a wind shirt useful for backpacking where I’m already carrying a real rain jacket. The rain jacket already blocks wind, and unlike the wind shirt is actually waterproof and can be worn in extended rains – a wind shirt will just add weight to my pack here. But a rain jacket isn’t as breathable. I don’t backpack at a very high pace, much preferring to hike at a moderate pace with fewer breaks to make my needed daily mileage, so this isn’t an issue for me. I also always select rain jackets that have some direct venting (pit-zips or vents) like the Marmot Essence and of course, there’s always that full length zipper in the front of a rain jacket for venting. And even though a wind shirt is pretty light, one of two ways to end up with a lighter pack is to leave things at home.

Patagonia Houdini Fabric

If you like to hike at a faster pace or sweat a lot, the wind shirt will make more sense with its ability to keep the chill off without adding bulk and weight, but still providing additional breathability. The exception would be for winter backpacking – when you’re hiking or snowshoeing through the snow with a pack no matter your pace it’s all high output, and additionally in such cold temperatures the wind shirt will easily shrug off moisture of the solidly frozen variety in such cold temperatures (teens or colder). In these conditions the wind shirt does the job of blocking the wind while allowing the additional breathability you need.

While wind shirts see very limited backpacking use in my case, I do however, use a wind shirt or jacket extensively for day activities when it’s not likely to rain in all seasons other than summer. Day hiking, running, biking, or really any type of outdoor on-the-move activity are a perfect time to break out the wind shirt as your outer upper body layer. And it’s doesn’t have to be windy (in some of the activities like biking it will be windy no matter what of course), the wind shirt will add substantial warmth in all conditions and remain breathable.

Houdini Wind Shirt Full Zip and Pocket

The Patagonia Houdini

As featured throughout this post, my preference for a wind shirt or jacket has always been the full zip Patagonia Houdini. And for a quick review: At just a few ounces, the Houdini packs into its own pocket, features a lapel pocket, adjustable hood and waist, and a full length zipper with elastic cuffs. Everything you need without anything you don’t. The Houdini has a slim fit, if you’re between sizes I’d suggest sizing up. The Houdini is offered in a full zip hooded version as shown here (I always prefer a hood in any type of jacket), or in a vest, and in the past as a pullover. And speaking of hoods, the Houdini’s hood works well when deployed (particularly useful if biking as it easily fits under a helmet to block wind), but if it’s windy and you prefer not to use the hood, you can tuck it inside the jacket to prevent flapping.

Patagonia Houdini Wind Jacket Review

The DWR of the Houdini is good, but do not mistake it for a rain jacket – you’ll likely have just enough time to get to shelter without soaking your inner layers if it begins to rain. But the Houdini is excellent at blocking wind and adding warmth in any condition; again perfect for those high activity pursuits because it doesn’t weight you down and doesn’t add bulk, a bit like gaining the benefits of a jacket without feeling like you’re wearing one when you’re on the move.

Patagonia Houdini Hood

Overall all of our activities in the outdoors vary a bit, but no matter your outdoor pursuit or method of accomplishing said activity, the wind shirt likely has a situation where it would work as well as it has for me for all of us. Many wind shirt options are out there. My choice of course is perhaps the most popular and a classic choice – the Patagonia Houdini, which retails for $100 but can be found on sale. You can find it here at REI or at Backcountry.com.

Some other wind shirt and jacket options in this category to consider include the Mountain Hardwear Ghost Lite wind shirt, Marmot DriClime, the RAB Windveil jacket, and the Marmot Trail Hoody.

Aaron

A key component of any practical backpacking kitchen setup is a cup or mug suitable for morning coffee or your hot drink of choice, and of course we need something light and packable while still working well for the purpose at hand. While the best backpacking mug choice may vary a bit from hiker to hiker, like any other piece of gear there’s a few key points worth consideration.

Choosing the Best Backpacking Mug

A multitude of materials have been employed for the purpose, from aluminum to titanium and plastic, and in addition such mugs are available in single wall and double wall insulated versions. All have their pros and cons.

The lightest mug to rule them all is no separate mug at all, by using your existing cooking vessel / pot to serve the purpose. But here we enter a conundrum; wide pots are the most efficient for cooking but the least efficient for drinking. Thus if we're looking for a pot / mug combo some compromise is in order. For solo backpacking, I do take the single vessel approach and use a titanium MLD 850 pot, and this larger mug-like shape (pots like the Snow Peak 700 are popular as well as the MSR Titan) is suitable and large enough for solo cooking and boiling water while still be serviceable for a mug.

MLD 850 Pot - Mug

If you want to cook and have hot coffee or tea at the same though you're in for a bit of a conundrum. For morning coffee this isn't an issue for me - I like a cold breakfast on the trail - and at dinner I will frequently boil water for the meal, pour that into a freezer bag or Mountain House style meal, then enjoy a hot cup of tea while the food dehydrates. 

However, for real cooking in the pot I much prefer the using a dedicated cook pot here and choose from one of two Evernew Ultralight models and take a separate dedicated coffee mug. The wide pots work better for one pot meals, use fuel more efficiently, and have enough volume to share and to cook for groups of 2, in which case each member of the group needs their own cup. 

Snow Peak 450 Titanium Backpacking Mug - Single Wall

A few stories to tell; Snow Peak 450

In these situations my choice is the 2.4 ounce Snow Peak 450 ml singe wall titanium cup. This aproximately $30 cup really keeps things light, has folding handles for easy packing and being single wall I can put it right on the stove, which becomes quite handy when your morning coffee begins to cool down just a bit. The 450 ml capacity is also perfect with 2 packets or Starbucks Via, making a potent morning cup of coffee for some trail motivation on chilly mornings. Check out the Snow Peak 600 for a little more volume.

But wouldn't double wall keep it warmer longer? Absolutely, however double wall mugs are heavier, more expensive, still lose most heat through the top (although Snow Peak for instance, does offer a separate insulated lid for their 450ml cup), and you can't put them right on the stove which can be very convenient. Pereonally, the pros of single wall work better for me, and if I'm winter camping and need an insulated beverage holder I leave the mug behind entirely and take a Klean Kanteen or Hydroflask vacuum insulated bottle, which keeps liquids hot for hours and works well for hot water, coffee, tea, etc. 

Heating Coffee in the Snow Peak 450 ml

Heating (hot!) coffee directly on a canister stove in the Snow Peak 450 Single Wall

Thus I either go with no dedicated mug at all (pot mug combo) solo, prefer an ultralight single wall cup, or go all out for winter camping with a vacuum insulated bottle. Materials are up to you: titanium can be a tad hot on the lips for some - Snow Peak offers a hot lips solution that I've tried, but it's also one more thing to keep track of. Honestly though, I've found just the straight titanium to be a non-issue with some careful sipping. Single wall titanium is also hot on the hands so make sure to pick up a mug with handles – another mug on my gear shelf, the no longer made REI TiWare mug actually has snazzy insulation on the handles as well.

Snow Peak Hot Lips on Single Wall Mug

Snow Peak Silicone Hot Lips

Aluminum is of course another metal option, and plastic choices are popular and insulate well, but you lose the ability to use it on your stove there. Metal mugs are very durable, in fact I've been using the same blue anodized single wall Snow Peak 450 for nearly 10 years and Snow Peak makes a double wall version of the same mug if that’s your preference. Size wise the 450ml to 600ml volume range, and in the 2-4 ounce weight range, is about right. And again stepping up in size and moving into pot / mug combo territory it's hard to go wrong with titanium offerings like the Snow Peak 700 and MSR Titan which are quite popular, versatile, and still quite light. 

No matter which strategy or choice you end up going with, what we can all agree on is that there's nothing quite like that first sip of coffee in the morning or a hot cup of tea on a chilly day in the wilderness. As such, in my mind the perfect backpacking mug is definitely an indispensable piece of gear.  

Aaron

Among traditional sleeping bag brands, Western Mountaineering has long been one of the most revered for producing high quality lightweight down sleeping bags popular in backpacking and climbing circles, and the 20 degree bag has proven to be one of the most popular and versatile bags one can choose for use across 3 seasons in much of the continental United States. The 20 degree rated bag is still light enough for summer backpacking in the mountains, but still adequate warmth-wise for shoulder season use and can easily be used in colder temps with a little extra layering and strategy. Among the 20 degree bags offered by Western Mountaineering the Ultralite (find our review of the Ultralite here) is perhaps the most popular, with the wider Alpinlite simply offering more space at a slight weight increase.

Western Mountaineering Alpinlite Sleeping Bag Review

While the Ultralight is Western Mountaineering’s lighter and more packable offering, for larger-bodied users, those who like a bit more space in their bag, or those that would like the ability to more effectively layer up inside their bag, the Alpinlite is a suitable choice. Available in 3 different lengths, the weight of the Alpinlite will hover around the 2lb mark; my long version weighs in at 35.4 ounces and for my 6’ 2” height, fits me very well. As an example and compared to the Ultralite, in this size the shoulder girth is 64” compared to the 60” and translates to a significant gain in space. In any length, 850+ down fill is adjusted to provide 5.5” of loft. A full length 2 way, side zipper with a draft tube allow for easy in and out and ventilation options. At around $550, the Alpinlite (or any Western Mountaineering / high quality down bag from any manufacturer for that matter) is definitely an investment, but with proper care these bags will last decades and in my view that’s an investment easily recouped.

Western Mountaineering Alpinlite Continous Baffles

Western Mountaineering has integrated a zipper guard into the bag, but careful use of the zipper is still in order as it does still tend to snag on the shell fabric on occasion – this however seems to be par for the course on just about every sleeping bag I've used. The insulated draft collar is substantial and likely my favorite feature on this bag as it definitely helps out as temps drift towards the lower 20’s. The bag isn’t EN rated, but in my experience, with base layers and on a suitable and appropriate sleeping pad (I’ve used the Alpinlite on Therm-a-Rest NeoAir pads, Ridgerests, and with the Exped Synmat UL 7) the bag is indeed comfortable into the mid 20’s and into the lower 20’s to upper teens with a down jacket and some extra clothing thrown in. With continuous horizontal baffles on the bag, be sure to shake all the down to the top of the bag when you unpack it for maximum warmth.

Zipper, Hood Closure and Draft Tube Detail

The hood will cinch up tightly, and combined with the draft collar seals the cold out effectively, although the Velcro closure and the hood cinch cord will occasionally rub or fall onto my face at night – a slight annoyance, but re-positioning everything or yourself leads to a quick fix. The fabrics of the bag, though light weight, have proven to be sufficiently durable (I have had one small tear in another bag from Western Mountaineering – the Western Mountaineering Megalite that was easily and quickly patched using Tenacious Tape). So far so good with the Alpinlite though.

Western Mountaineering Alpinelite Wide Mummy Sleeping Bag Hood

The DWR fabric treatment works well for repelling any condensation encountered during the night, although effectiveness here will gradually be reduced over time through use and as dirt and grime work their way into the bag. I usually wash my bags once a year in Nixwax Down Wash and then treat with a their TX.Direct spray, which both restores loft and water repellency, and make sure to store your bags dry and unstuffed. (A large cotton storage bag is included with Western Mountaineering bags) On the topic of water resistance, Western Mountaineering doesn't use a treated down in any of their bags, but across the board from summer trips in the Southwest, to soggy high humidity nights in the midwest, to snow camping in the Rockies, the bag has always held up well through such a variety of conditions. 

Western Mountaineering Exretelite Shell DWR Fabric

 Considering this is a wide and warm 20 degree bag it does pack a bit on the bulky side – I’ve used both a 13L Sea to Summit Ultra-Sil dry sack as well as an Exped Schnozzel for packing and to keep the bag dry, but in my ULA Circuit it’s been very doable. Space within the bag of course is a focus of the Alpinlite and it is indeed generous. Never in the Alpinlite has space been an issue, and if other mummy bags have been tight on space for you the Alpinlite is definitely worth consideration with plenty of room to move around and for additional layering if desired.

Alpinlite Sleeping Bag Footbox - Made in USA

Overall the Alpinlite offers a top notch 20 degree bag that's made in the USA and is great for those that need or prefer the extra space of a wide mummy bag, while offering top of the line Western Mountaineering quality and craftsmanship. And considering the very versatile 20 degree rating range and with the 850+ down insulation used here, it’s all of course still kept quite light and packable.

The Western Mountaineering Alpinite retails for about $550. You can find it here at Backcountry, over at CampSaver, and on Amazon.com.

Aaron

ULA Circuit Backpack Review

The Circuit from ULA Equipment has been my go-to backpacking pack choice for nearly the last decade and upon review it’s easy to see why: the pack offers both versatility and durability and all at a reasonable price and weight. Thus, the ULA Circuit (or its close cousins) have become some of the most popular backpacking packs out there for lightweight and / or long distance backpacking and thru-hiking.

ULA Equipment Circuit Backpack Review

While ULA offers an array of models, most follow the same design principle. They’re built with a versatile arrangement of both inside and outside storage options for convenience and livability on the trail, utilize durable and tough Robic and Cordura fabrics, and are offered at reasonable price points and don’t weight you down. I’ve had experience with ULA’s largest pack – the Catalyst – which is the best option if you’ll frequently be carrying heaver 35+lb loads, and I’ve also had recent experience with ULA’s new smaller model – the ULA Photon – that is great for dayhikes or summer overnights. The ULA Circuit however is the pack that hits the backpacking sweet spot for me and for my backpacking style.

ULA Circuit Exterior Center Pocket, Water Bottle and Hipbelt Pockets

Offering 4200 cubic inches of total storage across a top loading main compartment, and outside pocket on the back, hipbelt pockets, and two side pockets (about 68 liters all together) I’ve used the Circuit on up to 10 day trips, to quick overnights and for winter and summer backpacking and everything in between. I find the Circuit carries up to around 35 lbs. well – though I’ve carried up to 45lbs – and the whole design is quite comfortable.

Should Straps and Hipbelt - ULA Circuit

Light, but adequate padding is found on the hipbelt, backpanel, and shoulder straps, and the dual strap, inward pull hipbelt adjustments deserve honorable mention allowing one to perfectly adjust the hip belt and get the load resting perfectly around your hips in a custom fit manner. The Circuit utilizes a carbon and Derlin hoop type internal frame along with a single aluminum (removable) stay, and this all works together with the load lifters to get the weight on your hips.

5 Day Backpacking Trip with the ULA Circuit

The Circuit has undergone some minor changes over the years, but the basic setup has remained the same, with my experience split across one Dyneema X pack ordered from original owner Brian Frankle to a newer custom Circuit I’ve been using as of late made from hybrid cuben fiber / DCF. All accessories are now included with the pack – water bottle holders on the shoulder straps, interior hydration sleeve, interior pocket, handloops, and the aluminum stay. Altogether, the Circuit is listed at 41 ounces, but there’s about 7 ounces of easily removable weight if desired. Of everything removable, I take everything off except for the aluminum stay and exterior bungee cord across the back -- great for holding a foam pad, drying clothes and gear, etc.

Hiking with the ULA Circuit Backpack

The Circuit is available in 5 different torso sizes and 5 different hipbelt options – needless to say you’ll be able to dial in a perfect fit with some measuring time at home. 2 different shoulder strap options are available – the original and standard J-Curve design which I use, and there’s also an S-Curve option which is ergonomically designed for women, although it’s become popular all around as well. 6 colors are also available and even custom trail name embroidery; the base pack retails for $235. The pack uses a roll top closure system, and with two buckles securing down the sides of the pack aiding in compression – another top strap and two additional side straps help in this department and really secure the load and offer a great place to stash extra gear if needed.

ULA Circuit Top Strap with Ursack

My favorite thing about the pack, has to be the comfort and pocket arrangement. In the morning all sleeping gear is packed at the bottom of the pack (inside an Exped Schnozzel), my shelter of choice on top of that, then my Ursack, and finally I forgo use of the included hydration sleeve and just throw my Platypus 3L Hoser horizontally across the top (with all other incidentals filling the spaces in between the aforementioned items).

A Multi-Day Hike with the ULA Circuit Backpack

Anything I might need during the day is packed in an outside pocket of choice or at the top of the main compartment for easy access on a lunch break: For example rain gear goes well in the exterior outside pocket of the pack with a water filter, water bottles go on the sides, and snacks work well in the hipbelt pockets. Thus if a quick afternoon shower rolls through or you just want that granola bar to get you through the next pass, there’s no need to deploy the contents of your pack trailside in a yard sale manner to find what you’re looking for. And if you’re a hydration reservoir user like me, be sure to setup your pack so you can refill on the move without even opening your pack – my solution is detailed in our Platypus Gravityworks Review – and a magnetic sternum strap holder is also a favorite add-on feature. Carry a larger camera like me that won’t fit in the hipbelt pockets? Check out the ZPacks Multipack which adds even more convenience here…an overall theme with the Circuit.

ZPacks Multipack and ULA Equipment Circuit in Winter Camp

Overall the Circuit from ULA Equipment has worked so well for me that it’s tough to even consider other options on the market and for a lightweight backpacking style, ULA really has this pack at the top of the class. If you like to pack a little heavier or longer trips with more food are your forte’, the Catalyst might be worth checking out, or if you’re packing a little lighter and / or shorter trips are your focus the OHM 2.0 is worth considering as well. In between them though, the Circuit fills the niche for me perfectly on nearly any trip.

The ULA Circuit retails for $235 – Find it here at ULA Equipment.

Aaron

Although your local or online retailer likely carries an array of backpacking and camping utensils sure to satisfy even the most advanced culinary ideas, most of us that don't work as a chef for a living can attain backcountry mealtime prowess with the simplest of choices and without cluttering or weighing down our pack. Here are my thoughts on the main players in this department and what I've found has worked best over the years.

Backpacking Utensils and Cutlery

The Spoon

Perhaps utilized mostly for liquids at home, a backpacking spoon serves most mealtime purposes well on the trail where most meals are made all-in-one style in the pot, freezer bag, or as freeze dried meals and while those meals might not be soup, the consistency is almost always easily scooped and eaten with a spoon. The backpacking spoon is also great if stored inside your food bag in that you're guaranteed that it won't ruin your Opsak if you're using one like me.

Long Handled Titanium Backpacking Spoon

The Fork

While a staple off the trail, very rarely have I found myself longing for a fork on the trail. Only on those few times I've cooked something more extravagant like steak the first night out has a fork been desirable, but steak on the trail or something similar is a rare, special occasion event indeed. In fact, while I have taken the lightest fork in the kitchen drawer backpacking a couple times, I’ve never purchased a dedicated backpacking fork, and hence no photo here. However, MSR makes a very nice titanium fork and spoon set that is worth a look  if you desire a more complete backcountry cutlery set.


The Spork

If you really can't decide between a fork and a spoon and don't want to carry both, one of the many sporks on the market can be an obvious choice. However, the spork’s short tines make it less than ideal as a fork and the same tines make for tough going in soup mode. I've used several throughout the years from REI's TiWare version to a nylon spork (and spatula / knife combo) from Guyot Designs, but no matter which you choose the spork is a jack of all trades...while specializing in none. Combo spoon and fork options are also available that look to seek the best of both worlds in a single implement.

REI Titanium Spork

The Knife

You're most likely already carrying this, and thus no extra knife is needed for hiking purposes. A multifunction Swiss Army knife (I carry the Victorinox EvoGrip 16 which offers a nice blend of trail features without going overboard) does the job for tough to open packaging and for slicing up such backpacking treats as cheese and summer sausage.


Specialty Utensils

Many other specialty utensils fill those outfitter shelves in nearly every form, color, and material from spatulas to foons to whisks and more (I am still waiting on an ultralight titanium potato masher myself), but these are very rarely needed for the average backpacker and work-arounds are easy enough with standard choices making your pack that much lighter.

Backpacking and Camping Utensils

In the end I've found a spoon in the material of your choice - titanium, aluminum, and plastic are the most popular, and you should look for something in the under 1 ounce weight range here. I always go for titanium when it comes to backpacking cookware for its light weight, inertness, ability to sanitize over flame, as well as longevity and strength. Combined with a small knife of the Swiss Army variety (or whatever knife you are carrying) makes for a very versatile combo that keeps you prepared for nearly any backpacking meal.

Of spoon varieties (or even if you go for a fork or spork), long handled varieties are my favorite as they allow for getting to the bottom of freeze dried meals or freezer bags easily without getting food on your hands. Long handled varieties probably won't pack inside your cook pot though, but I just stash mine inside an Ursack and inside a Ziploc bag. I don't like folding varieties here - more nooks and crannies for food to accumulate and thwart cleaning efforts.

Long Handle and Short Handle Backpacking Utensils

The best long handled spoon I've used is the no longer produced Ti-ware polished titanium spoon from REI, but Toaks makes a nice current day alternative with just a polished bowl. (The polishing is both easier to clean and more friendly on your teeth than the rough surface of non-polished offerings).

Polished and Unpolished Titanium Spoons

And since I've lost the old REI offering somewhere along the way, I now use the Toaks long handled titanium spoon - a ~$10 investment here at Amazon, that will last forever,  along with my trusty Swiss Army knife on every trip. Thus and in conclusion, any small knife combined with a long handled spoon in your material of choice will leave you very well prepared for just about any backpacking meal.

Aaron

ULA Equipment Photon Backpack Review

For many years, I’ve been a big fan of backpacks from ULA Equipment, as they always really seem to hit the nail on the head when it comes to a balance of convenience, durability, weight, and price in a pack. For all of my backpacking trips I use the ULA Circuit - review here - and while there’s another pack or two on the market that I’d like to try at some point, the trusty Circuit always handles the job so well with no complaints from me that no other backpacking pack really gets a chance in my rotation.

ULA Photon Review

But while I’ve had my backpacking pack…with the Circuit handling anything from an overnight to 10 day trips...locked down for the past few years it’s been musical chairs when it comes to daypacks in my case, and I’ve never really been able to find the right one. Between gear and water on longer dayhikes I prefer a hipbelt, but with a long torso and most daypacks only coming in one size I’ve always faced somewhat of an imperfect fit. Using the hipbelt you can loosen shoulder straps to account for a longer torso if you have to, but it’s a bit awkward with the pack sagging so low. Additionally, I like a certain set of convenience features / design on any pack, be it a backpacking pack or a daypack: Top loading main compartment, outside pocket(s), and a hipbelt preferably with hipbelt pockets.

ULA Photon Backpack

When the ULA Photon was announced, it seemed like a framless mini Circuit, and I had my hopes up since best of all it comes in 3 different torso and belt sizes and I’ve always regretted not picking up the no longer produced ULA Amp to some extent. The pack is sized at 35 liters (including all storage), so it’s on the large side for a daypack or definitely on the small side for shorter backpacking trips. Either way it’s a definitely a pack designed to fit a niche role. The typical ULA removable features are all included: hydration sleeve, water bottle holders, inside pocket (for wallet, keys, etc.), handloops, foam pad, and the exterior shock cord (AKA the wet gear drying rack).

ULA Photon Rolltop Closure

Overall my pack comes in at 27 ounces with all removable features included, but optionally, removing your pick of the numerous add on features can get the weight down into the lower 20 ounce range. I opted for the standard roll top closure and the original J-Curve shoulder straps, but you can also order the pack with a drawstring closure, S-Curve shoulder straps that many women prefer, and in 6 different or even custom colors.

ULA J-Curve Shoulder Straps

There are lighter packs out there for sure, but for a pack of this size I’m fine with the durability tradeoff considering the very tough Dyneema Robic and Cordura fabrics ULA utilizes and the overall design and feature set. For my approach, as long as it’s reasonable, weight isn’t much of a concern to me on dayhikes or shorter hikes. While I have some daypacks and smaller packs that are closer to the 1lb mark, the extra 10 ounces of the Photon aren’t going to make much of a difference to me on a dayhike or even a summer overnighter and the feature to comfort tradeoff here is well worth it. Weight becomes much more important to me on multi-day hikes, and at that point I won’t be using the ULA Photon with its limited volume and weight carrying capacity for such trips.

ULA Photon Interior Storage and Capacity View

Other than capacity, one difference of the Photon (vs. the Circuit) is the use of stretchy side pockets and a stretch center outside pocket. The hipbelt is appropriately designed for the weight this pack will carry and features two hipbelt pockets great for quick on the go access. One great thing about the outer side pockets is that they are Nalgene compatible – something that can’t be said for every pack in this class, and with a little practice and a limber triceps muscle you can get your bottle out and back in without unbuckling or removing the pack. The backpanel is padded (removable interior foam pad)  and covered by a fabric overlay instead of the mesh on my Circuit. 

Photon Backpack from ULA - Backpanel, Hipbelt, and J-Curve Straps

I’ve found the ULA Photon fits the intended purpose I expected it to fit quite well, which is for extended dayhikes, and especially extended dayhikes during the colder times of the year when I tend to carry a bit more gear like a heavier down jacket or anytime an extra activity is involved (fishing, photography, etc.). The pack easily holds a 3L Platypus Hoser, food, 10 essentials gear and other “Pursuit Gear” like that fishing or camera gear and best of all fits comfortably on my longer torso…or with the multiple sizes available any torso for that matter. It would also work for me on a warmer season overnighter if desired, but the Circuit works just fine there as well. Size wise for a dedicated day pack and while not being overly large I’d say it could be just a bit smaller in volume but the extra space definitely adds that overnight versatility. 

ULA Photon Backpacking Showing Mesh Center and Side Pockets

Overall I think it’s a great pack in ULA’s overall lineup, and at least when it comes to ULA, you might have to decide between this and the ULA CDT if you’re looking for a frameless pack. If you’re looking at this pack to fill a dayhiking role or are wanting a smaller, but tough pack for short lightweight backpacking trips, the Photon should be a good choice – if you’re more in need of something for longer trips though, the CDT with its increased capacity or moving up to the framed OHM or Circuit with their additional gear capacity combined with additional weight carrying comfort would be a better choice. For the right role the Photon seem just right, and as always it's hard to go wrong with ULA; best of all between the Circuit and Photon I have nearly every hike covered with just 2 packs.

The Photon retails for $145 w/ free U.S. shipping - you can find it here at ULA Equipment.