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Aaron

Performing a few simple yet vital tasks, our choice of a backpacking pot is one item that the rest of our cooking gear will frequently revolve around, especially if you like to pack your entire cooking kit inside your pot. A backpacking pot serves as a vessel in which we can prepare our backcountry meals and heat or even sanitize water if needed – and despite being such a simple item it is not one easily replaced. In fact, if one were only allowed to take a few items of gear into the backcountry a good pot would be near the top of one’s list. This article will cover basics on backpacking cookware selection while focusing on the main player in this department – the backpacking pot – as we’ve already covered mug selection and backpacking utensils at the aforementioned links.

Selecting the Best Backpacking Pot and Cookware Options

Capacity

With options out there in nearly every shape and size, the first step in narrowing down our cookware selection process is choosing the right capacity. In this regard we want to go with the smallest pot that will adequately cover our cooking needs, since weight increases with capacity. For solo use, pots or mug / pot combos in the range of 600-900ml are usually ideal for weight conscious backpackers. Sizes on the low end of this range will serve one well when it comes to boiling water for freeze dried meals or freezer bag style cooking, but if you like to cook simple meals in your pot, larger options are suggested. In these sizes many options will be of the mug / pot combo variety, like the Toaks 750 or the MLD 850. These choices, while often being on the large side for a mug and on the small side for a pot, can save some weight and keep your camp kitchen simple by having only one vessel, whether it’s needed for morning coffee or meal preparation. For more involved meals it may pay to go with a larger, dedicated cookpot however along with a smaller dedicated mug.

A Solo Size Mug and Backpacking Pot Combo from Toaks

For groups of 2 or more however it will be time to move to a dedicated mug for each person, but a single pot can still be shared if desired. Here it pays to increase capacity as we’ll be boiling more water at once and having a pot that can handle this capacity will increase efficiency. Generally, unless appetites are limited and you plan to split single meals, moving into the 1000ml / 1liter + capacity range is needed, and it’s nice to have a little buffer to lessen the chance of spilling or boiling over. For 2 person trips the Evernew 1.3 liter pot has been about right for me, not only for basic meal preparation but this 1.25-1.5 liter range works very well for a wider range of cooking needs, from boiling water for 2 freeze dried meals, to cooking up a pasta dish right in the pot, or for comfortably heating water for an entire Nalgene.

For larger groups you will simply increase the capacity from here, although you can use your normal 2 person pot with multiple boils for the occasional group trip if needed. This won’t be convenient for meals that are made in your pot, but can work for boiling water to go around for meals that just need hot water. At some point however it may pay to take separate cooking gear for speed, convenience, and for requiring less group coordination – and large pots are difficult to pack. Additionally, larger pots may also be too unstable, or too heavy when filled, to work with your stove of choice – suggested maximum pot sizes can often be found in your stove user manual. Solo or in a group, one situation where you will want to step up in capacity is if you’ll be going winter backpacking and melting snow for water – with low water content in snow it can take a lot of snow melting to get those water bottles filled.

Backpacking Pot (Evernew) with Insulated and Folding Handles

Features

Once you’ve decided upon the right capacity, there are a few other features to look for in the cookware department. One of the most important is shape. If you’re going solo and choose a pot / mug combo option, your pot will probably end up looking like a large mug. However, when choosing a dedicated pot something shallower and wider is desirable over a skinny and tall form factor and the wider pot will be able to use more heat from your stove and increase your fuel efficiency on the trail. A nice tight fitting lid is essential for further fuel efficiency, as are ways to “handle” your pot. Look for collapsible handles, and if the handles feature an outer insulating material (often for lifting the lid as well) this can be helpful while adding minimal weight. However, ultralight cookware will often omit this feature to save weight, and in this case you can still handle the pot with a pot holder (bandanna, etc.) and / or by always making sure to configure your handles upwind.

If you’ll be cooking more complex meals in your pot quite often a non-stick coating can be helpful, but may have health considerations or concerns for some, will add weight, and can scratch if the proper utensils or cleaning methods are not used. The ability to perform cooking tasks such as dry baking would also be limited. Additional features to look for include measurement marks stamped right on the pot to make meal preparation easier, and a built in pour spout is a nice to have for spill reduction when you’ll be transferring hot water to another vessel. This could be the case when heating up water for a Nalgene bottle to make a shoulder season heater for example.

Pour Spout on Evernew 900

Materials

While exceptions exist, most of the time for backpacking purposes we’ll be deciding between two materials – aluminum and titanium. Titanium will be the most expensive option, but is very light and strong, allowing pots constructed of this material to be of a very thin gauge. And while debatable, if aluminum cookware poses a health concern / consideration to you, titanium would be the way to go. For actual cooking, with its thin gauge construction and tendency to develop hotspots, titanium can be challenging, but not impossible to use if you’ll be performing more complex trail cooking tasks in the pot like trying to bake a trail pizza, simmering, or when cooking less watery meals where burning is more likely to occur than with aluminum pots. Aluminum pots conduct heat across the pot surface more evenly and distribute the heat better, while still being pretty light, and cheaper. In the end the best material to choose comes down to budget and personal preference / style.

Optional Items

Once you’ve settled on a pot, a mug (or pot that can also be used in this regard), and your utensil of choice about the only thing left to consider might be a plate or bowl of some type. If you’re making freeze dried meals no plate will be needed as you’ll be eating right out of the bag, and if you’re solo eating out of the pot or eating freezer bag style will certainly save you the weight and extra cleanup of bringing a dedicated solution here. Lids of larger pots can be used, and mugs can perform double duty, but if a dedicated plate or bowl is still needed various solutions like the popular Fozzils Bowls are worth a look, and other options include this Snow Peak titanium option. This category is a bit of a luxury however, so it pays to go as light as you can or accomplish this task with your other cookware if possible and if weight is a concern.

Backpacking Cookware - Larger Size Mug Pot Combo

Whether you end up with an ultralight titanium mug / pot combo for the lightest trail weight or an anodized aluminum all around cookpot sure to be great the next time you need to sauté a side dish in camp, much like a good down sleeping bag camp cookware is one area where it does makes sense to invest. Of all the things I pack on backpacking trips and while a lot of gear changes over time, I still often pack the same titanium pot and mug that I’ve been using for over a decade.

For a list of backpacking cookware that you can sort and filter by many of the options we’ve discussed above, take a look at this page at REI.

Mark

Depending on what time of year you’re hiking and your latitude, a headlamp likely alternates between something you might barely use (summer in Alaska) or something you’re using when cooking dinner, breakfast, and for the many hours in between (winter in most of the northern hemisphere). Not to give a particular piece of equipment too much credit, but in a certain sense a headlamp is an almost biblically miraculous piece of gear – where there is darkness, it provides light. Whether that’s for illuminating the trail as you crank out post-sunset miles or reading in the tent, a headlamp doesn’t just make tasks easier. It makes them possible.

Petzl Actik Core 350 Lumen Rechargeable Headlamp Review

Like most headlamps, at its most basic the Petzl Actik Core is a piece of plastic (lights like the Zebralight H53w would be an exception) housing an energy source that uses bulbs and electrical wizardry to project light and attaches to your head with an adjustable elastic strap. The most notable feature of this headlamp is its energy source(s). The standard power source is a rechargeable battery and AAA batteries can be used as well. For longer trips, this allows one to easily bring back-up power without having to use an adapter or bring a spare battery specific to the Actik. I’ve found the standard battery charges fully in just over two hours (via the included USB cable) after extended use and much quicker when just “topping it off” in between trips where it didn’t see too much use. The convenience of not having to have as many batteries on hand to swap in prior to trips – not to mention avoiding the frustration of wasting batteries with a quarter-charge or so remaining – is huge. If your car has a USB outlet (if it doesn’t, 12 volt USB car adapters are inexpensive), then the convenience of recharging your headlamp on the drive to the trailhead will be much appreciated. Just don’t get distracted and leave your headlamp in the car before you hit the trail!

Petzl Core Battery System

The light has three different brightness settings that draw down the battery at speeds proportional to the brightness. The 350 lumen mode – super bright – will burn through the battery in a mere two hours, whereas the standard 100 lumen mode lasts for seven hours. The minimal five lumens (enough to read in the tent or other tasks not requiring a large field of illumination) will last 160 hours. On the low mode, only the diffused beam LED is activated, with medium and high modes utilizing both white LEDs for a mixed, spot and flood combined beam effect.

Depending on how much daylight there is any how much time you spend in camp, bouncing around between these settings should last most hikers for up to a weeklong trip. If you’re going to be doing a lot of hiking at night and using the brightest setting (although for on trail night hiking I’ve found the 100 lumens to be reasonable) then you could easily burn through the battery on an overnight. The brightness doesn’t fade as battery life diminishes, but instead quickly decreases towards the end its capacity. A red light option (including strobe function) is also available and keeps you from interrupting your “night vision” after becoming acclimated to the dark and allows you to be considerate of others around camp and not blind them with the white light.

Petzl Actik Core Headlamp

Most of my use has been on either the medium setting (chores around camp in the dark) or the low setting (reading in the tent). The maximum setting is extremely bright and offers plenty of illumination for hiking at night, even cross-country. For night hiking on trail, I found that even the 100 lumen setting was adequate for distinct trails.

The headband fits comfortably and is easily adjustable. After getting damp, I’ve found it to dry more quickly and seemingly absorb less water than the straps from other headlamps I’ve owned. Although not fully waterproof, the Actik is listed as “weather resistant” by Petzl (IPX4). I’ve had limited use in extended downpours, but light drizzles have had no effect on performance. While its primary function is providing light when you need it, this headlamp also has a few safety features worth noting. The lettering on the strap is reflective, which is a nice touch, and a cleverly designed whistle on the adjustment piece of the strap could come in handy in an emergency. As mentioned, an available strobe setting also falls into the safety department. Unfortunately, the headlamp can't be locked out, but the on switch is designed in such a way that makes accidentally turning it on unlikely.

The Actik Core Rechargeable Headlamp from Petzl

If you’re in the market for a headlamp, the Petzl Actik Core certainly warrants a close look. Having all the standard headlamp features, a rechargeable battery, good mix of brightness, and an MSRP of $69.95 it should check most practical, convenience, and economical boxes for most backpackers. Although the price is a bit more than non-rechargeable headlamps, the convenience and the fact that you won’t have to spend money on batteries over the life of the headlamp still makes it an appealing purchase. Weighing in at just shy of three ounces, the performance certainly is commensurate with the modest weight. It you’ve ever tried to find a campsites at night using an underpowered but ultralight headlamp, I think you’d agree the extra weight is well worth being able to see what you’re doing and not ending up camped on a bumpy, sloping piece of ground. Available in black or red, this headlamp has reasonable warranties for the lamp and battery (five years for the lamp; one year or 300 charging cycles for the battery, a Core replacement battery is $29.95).

You can find the Petzl Actik Core here at REI and at Backcountry.com. For more on headlamps in general, see our guide on choosing a backpacking headlamp.

Mark

After making the switch from hiking books to trail runners a few years ago, I’ve been fairly loyal to various iterations of the Brooks Cascadias. At any given time during the hiking season, there is usually at least one Gore-Tex pair of Cascadias and one regular pair on my feet or in my gear room.

Brooks Cascadia 13 Trail Running Shoe Review

Alternating between the two based on trail conditions or the season has kept my feet happy for well over a thousand cumulative miles of backpacking and trail running. I’ve found both versions to be supremely comfortable for my absolutely average feet and, when purchased on sale, to be reasonably economical since they generally seem to last less than a year of frequent use, even when splitting the wear between two pairs. The Brooks Cascadia 13 is the most recent version of the popular trail running shoe and continues with the same general principles of comfort and performance that have defined them since they came on the market.

I used the Cascadia 13s on a few brief day hikes before lacing them up at the Iron Gate Trailhead on the edge of Washington’s Pasayten Wilderness for a 60-mile backpacking trip. As expected, and as with most trail running shoes, there really isn’t any break-in period required – they’re comfortable right out of the box whether you’re going on a 3-mile run or a 30-mile hike. The trip in the Pasayten put the shoes through a good mix of terrain and conditions – from well-graded forest trail to steep burned sections, and sunny afternoons followed by snowy mornings.

Hiking in the Brooks Cascadia with Gaiters

Despite a pack with gear for shoulder-season weather in the Pacific Northwest and five days of food, the Cascadias were exceptionally comfortable and provided all the support needed. Even after long days with lots of elevation change – the most challenging day being around 24 miles and with 3,500 feet of elevation loss and 4,100 feet of elevation gain – my feet were still pretty happy at the end of the day (although they became even happier when slipped into Crocs at the end of the day after a quick soak in a stream). I’m prone to sweaty feet and appreciate the breathability of non-waterproof trail runners, but even on uphills during a warm and sunny afternoon my feet never felt like they were sweltering in these. The Gore-Tex lining came in handy when crossing small streams and was particularly appreciated when walking through a few inches of wet snow. Similar conditions a few months later during a trip to a hot springs in Idaho saw the Cascadias working well in the same conditions, as well as when hiking through overgrown stretches of trail. They also gripped well on dusty and eroded sections of creekbank which, at one time at least, had a trail along it.

Brooks Cascadia Tread and Sole

Subsequent trips with more cross-country travel, including some particularly rough sections through recovering burns, put some wear and tear on these shoes. Extended use in such conditions rapidly wears out the less rugged parts of the shoes, with the mesh areas and spots where one piece of fabric transitions to another being the most vulnerable. While the performance in full-blown bushwhacks is reasonably good (a pair of gaiters is almost essential for keeping our debris), it is best to avoid using these when in rugged off-trail terrain due to how rapidly it reduces the lifespan of these shoes.

As a backpacker and not an orthopedic expert, I can’t comment with much authority or intelligence on the various merits of the shoes relatively standard 10mm midsole drop or its “neutral” support. All I know is that for someone with no major footwear preferences, no foot issues, or other special considerations that the shoes performed slightly above my more-or-less average expectations. One nifty feature that I truly appreciated was the elastic stash pocket on the front of the tongue to tuck the laces into. This clever design provides a place to keep laces out of the way, which was helpful when putting on gaiters as well as when trail running to provide some additional peace-of-mind about tripping over them or having them snag on an errant branch or root. At 12.3 ounces (each) the Cascadias are light enough to not feel burdensome when on the trail and, after changing into fresh socks and opening up the laces, function decently as a camp shoe once you’re done hiking for the day.

Review of both the Mesh and GTX Brooks Cascadia

Based on my experiences with the 13s, I plan to buy at least another pair when the 14s inevitably are released and they are marked down for closeout. And I’d say that it’s likely you can count me in for the 15s, 16s, and 17s as well.

The Brooks Cascadia is available in both a Gore-Tex and mesh version starting at around $130. Find them here at REI, at Backcountry.com, and on Amazon.com.

Aaron

A good light for backpacking is a required and essential safety item and a category for which there are no shortage of options available – and considering the convenience and hands-free operation provided, headlamps are the most popular option for backpacking lighting needs. What follows is an overview of features to consider when selecting a headlamp for backpacking and thoughts on lighting needs for the trail.

How to Choose a Headlamp for Backpacking

The Backcountry Headlamp

With headlamps offered in a variety of weight classes and with light output ranging from barely capable of illuminating a camp for basic tasks, to headlamps that could be bright enough to double as an airplane landing light, some form of balance must be sought in this regard. For backpacking we need a headlamp that checks a few boxes – a headlamp should be lightweight, bright enough for both trail and camp, have acceptable battery life, be easy to use at 3am in the morning, and be durable and waterproof.

While these are the basics, other features can undoubtedly be nice to have. With USB connections and power outlets tough to come by in the wilderness, some way to lockout the light can prevent the light accidentally turning on inside your pack during the day and draining the battery is a great feature to have. Locking out the light, if equipped, can be performed through a manual switch or power button sequence, or – as is the case with the Zebralight H53w that I use, simply by unscrewing the battery compartment cap slightly. Whatever method here, you’ll be assured that you have light at the end of the day and peace of mind on the trail, but this is also something that needs to be easy to do – nobody wants to have to fully remove and insert batteries daily.

Regulated Headlamp for Hiking & Backpacking

With LED headlamps dominating the market, these days it’s pretty easy to find headlamps that are both bright and light(weight). Usually something in the 3-5 ounce range – with batteries – is a good range to target. Lighter options do exist (example the Petzl e+LITE) but usually sacrifices will need to be made in regard to light output, battery life, comfort, or all 3. Heavier than this range and we are generally looking at headlamps that might be better suited for other activities and will begin to take up more pack space.

Look for a headlamp that is comfortable and waterproof as well – I at times wear my headlamp from dusk to dawn – a wide and adjustable headband helps here and this is another area were lightweight lights have the benefit of less bounce and just less to wear. For water resistance, some headlamps can oddly be lacking so it’s good to check the spec sheet here, and the more waterproof the better – some headlamps may only be splash resistant. Others have a waterproof main housing, but the battery compartment could still get wet in the rain and will have to be dried out later if this happens.

In the power department you have a few choices and many headlamps are available that can utilize standard batteries or rechargeable batteries, have a built in rechargeable battery, or can use both in some cases. If you’ll be taking frequent trips throughout the year, I’ve found rechargeable headlamps to be ideal. When using disposable batteries in the past (Energizer lithium batteries are high performers), I’ve inevitably ended up, after a few trips, with a collection of batteries in unknown states of partial charge. When using rechargeable batteries or rechargeable headlamps, all one has to do is charge things up before a trip and you can start your trip on a full charge every time, and without having to take along too many spares.

Backacking Headlamps

Photo: Mark Wetherington

However both a disposable or rechargeable approach can obviously work. Keep in mind that many headlamps with built-in rechargeable batteries will lose capacity over time. With my headlamp of choice using a single AA battery, I go with Sanyo Eneloop batteries that are both replaceable and rechargeable and spares are easy to bring along. This is especially helpful during shoulder season and winter trips when daylight is limited and I find myself using my light much more. Either way, output of the light will be, depending on the light itself, regulated or unregulated. A regulated light will maintain a more consistent output of light over the life of the battery at the cost of overall time. Unregulated lights will gradually diminish the light output as the battery discharges, but will frequently have extremely impressive run time specs (at least on paper), but many of these hours will be at a quite dim light output.

Lumens and Light Temperature

But how bright of a headlamp do we need? It all comes with tradeoffs, and more light means less battery life. A light with a wide range of adjustment, and that you can easily and intuitively adjust is ideal in this regard. For basic hiking on a trail at night, I’ve found about 50 lumens or more to be a good target number. You won’t be able to see far, but you will be able to see your feet, the trail, and a bit of the trail ahead.

Around camp, lower light levels are called for and perhaps 25 lumens will do for going about some camp chores in darkness. Once in the tent, a light output of just about as low as possible can be very nice to have for not blowing out your night vision and when you only need to find things very close at hand. This level of light can be obtained in a couple ways. One strategy is for a lower output, secondary red light to be designed into the headlamp, the red light being especially helpful for preserving night vision. The other method is to simply have an extremely low mode and level of light built into the regular LED in the order of just a few lumens. I’ve found both approaches to work about equally as well. For off trail, searching for a blaze in the distance, or any time you need to see as far as possible high modes are needed – over 150 lumens. Some lights on the market today can output many times more than even this figure. For a backpacking light however, where battery sizes are smaller and we’re looking to go as light as possible, these modes will quickly drain batteries and are best used only for short periods of time as needed, with lower modes preferred for all around use.

Headlamp on Low Mode

For checking the map in the tent at night, low levels of light are called for.

On longer trips, more battery life is always better and can vary greatly by season. While in the summer I can make a single battery in an AA headlamp last for a weeklong trip, I might be going through an entire battery in a couple nights in late November. Taking along a spare battery, or a way to recharge a rechargeable headlamp with a built-in battery (battery pack or solar charger) in the field is one way to know you’ll always have battery power and if you have a headlamp with a battery level indicator like the Black Diamond ReVolt, all that much better.

Light color is another factor to consider. Possible red LED aside, headlamps on the market today are made of mostly cool white LEDs that are brighter on the stat sheet, but may be a little cold and on the blue side for some. Other warmer LED headlamps are also out there that provide light more like an incandescent light bulb and render colors more naturally. Some brightness will normally be sacrificed however. Other LEDs emit a light in the neutral category; somewhere in between. It all comes down to personal preference in this regard. Beam pattern of the main LED is also something that should be evaluated. Beam types are most often full flood, or a combination hot spot (a brighter, longer distance center spot) combined with a dimmer flood pattern (spill) around the hot spot. Full flood lights can serve one around camp well and illuminate wider areas with brighter light, but less far. Hotspot / spill lights do sacrifice some close-in illumination coverage but will help in finding that next blaze at a distance. Other lights, like the Princeton Tec Axis, have an adjustable beam pattern and some lights may use multiple selectable LEDs to achieve this effect.

Headlamp Hotspot and Spill Example vs. Full Flood When Backpacking

Center hotspot and spill example

Other Lighting

Other lighting can be nice to have for camp if you don’t mind packing the extra weight, and on some more relaxed trips I have been known to bring along a Snow Peak Hozuki mini lantern for the tent at night – especially nice for a little reading on long winter nights. Any spare light you bring along is not always frivolous and can improve the camp experience a bit while serving as a backup light source as well. Flashlights can be useful on the trail – automatically by being held lower to the ground more shadows are created that can help when navigating bumpy trails. However, a headlamp can also be held and used like this or attached to one’s waist for the same effect.

Overall, the best backpacking headlamp might be the one you think about the least on the trail and a myriad of options are available – finding the perfect solution in this category is often a result of a series of compromises and finding the best balance in regard to your own lighting preferences. For a list of outdoor-ready headlamps that you can sort and filter by many of the considerations and features discussed above, check out this page at REI.

Steven Genise

In his beautiful and evocative memoir The Carry Home: Lessons from the American Wilderness, acclaimed travel writer Gary Ferguson breathes emotional and humane life into the Mountain West. After 25 years of marriage and as many seasons sharing a USFS ski patrol hut, Ferguson’s wife Jane passes away suddenly in a tragic canoeing accident in northern Ontario, dividing Ferguson from not only his partner and best friend, but from his identity in relation to her. In recognition of her last wishes, he sets out to scatter her ashes in her five favorite backcountry locations, and in doing so begins to hunt for what meaning he can reconstruct of his own life in her absence.

Review - the Carry Home by Gary Ferguson

As Ferguson takes the reader through the deep wilds of the American West, he constructs his world through prose as granular and pulsing as his environs: “West of Caineville the land melts into the bare bones of existence: rusted waves of sandstone peeling away with every passing storm; deep blue sky, hot and thirsty and bright.” But what breathes life into his writing is not the descriptions of the earth around him, but rather the emotional connections he generates to it with his readers. Each of the locations at which he scatters Jane’s ashes bears personal meaning, and he imbues that meaning into his descriptions from the opening passage:

“The end came for Jane, and so for us, at the edge of a spring, when the leaves of the north country were washed in that impossible shade of lemonade green. A color she said always reminded her of a certain crayon in the old Crayola 64 boxes she had as a kid – one labeled simply “yellow green” – a clumsy name with no hint of the promise it held”

From the first page, he reaches out and takes the reader’s hand, guides us through the Mountain West as he knows it. His travels to lay Jane to rest take him through the heart of the northern American Rockies, from the Sawtooth Range of Idaho to the northern reaches of Yellowstone and the Beartooths, south down to the canyons of Utah, but the greater story that he tells brings the reader to Colorado, Oregon, and the Northwest Territories of Canada. His trips start brief as he recovers from his own injuries, making short forays into the Sawtooths and into Utah alone to say his private goodbyes and close the intimate chapters on the story of their life together. But by the time he’s ready to make the final scatterings, he’s joined by friends, family, and anyone who has their own closures to make with Jane, and leaves straight from his front door in the foothills of the Beartooths and hikes a hundred miles south and west for her final ceremony in the northeast corner of Yellowstone. And like a guide, he shows us what’s worth seeing, tells us about his connection to it, but encourages us to make a connection for ourselves. He lays the emotional agar and steps away to let us seed it with our own experience.

He occasionally gets in over his head in this regard, jumping back and forth, often several times per (already short) chapter, between multiple recollections of a place. But while understanding the location’s importance in his and Jane’s life is crucial to our appreciation of his voyage in the present, his frequent and sporadic trips into the locations’ natural and explorative history often interrupts the pacing and adds further complexity to an already complex story.

But of course, a search for identity is necessarily complex, and that is ultimately what brings Ferguson out in the wake of Jane’s death. Not to find the right place to lay her to rest, not even to honor her memory at the places she loved the most. He spent 30 years of his life at her side, as rangers and as partners, and thus his identification with nature is pinned to his identification with her. His journeys lay Jane to rest, sure, but ultimately his driving force is to work out who and what he is without her, and how he relates to these timeless wilds. Jane is now part of the wilds just as she is part of him, but as the wilds go on, so too must he.

You can find The Carry Home: Lessons from the American Wilderness here on Amazon.com.

Aaron

One of the more recent meals from Backpacker’s Pantry, their Sweet and Sour Rice and Chicken backpacking meal brings this classic Asian dish to the trail in a 2 serving entree that’s ready in 15-20 minutes (depending on altitude) after adding 2 cups of boiling water. Included in the meal is an organic olive oil packet, to be added to the meal prior to adding hot water. All combined you’ll be getting a dinner that offers up 680 calories along with 38 grams of protein in this meal based on rice, freeze-dried chicken, pineapple, and green and red bell peppers along with other base ingredients and spices.

Backpacker's Pantry Sweet and Sour Chicken and Rice Review

After adding the needed water and after a little waiting, the meal rehydrates well and without any unintended crunch when given sufficient rehydration time. The chicken component here is not at the forefront, but is noticeable enough, and overall the meal is fairly sweet – more on the sweet side than the sour side when it comes to my palate. Standing out especially however are the pineapple chunks, which taste almost as if you sliced them off a pineapple you packed along and added them to the bag right before making the meal. I thought the meal needed just a little something however – and that was quickly solved by adding some heat with a dash of spice from my backpacking spice kit. The overall consistency once prepared is a bit on the soupy side, but it works and the red and green bell peppers do add some crunch.

Sweet and Sour Rice Backpacking Meal Before Rehydration

Before rehydration

One thing I really like about meals from Backpacker’s Pantry are the rounded edges of the package itself, which do not puncture the odor resistant bags I usually pack along for use inside an Ursack. With other meals that have sharp edges, I have to trim these prior to a trip to prevent punctures. And, while it probably won’t add much to a trip – Backpacker’s Pantry might just win when it comes to the freeze dried meal package artwork department as well.

Sweet and Sour Chicken After Rehydration - Backpackers Pantry

Overall this is a nice meal to add to one's repertoire of backpacking meals and it’s nice that this meal is at the higher end of the caloric scale, at least for pre-made backpacking meals. While more legitimately appropriate for one person after a day of hiking, the meal could serve as a base for two especially if at least one in the group does not have the largest of appetites.

One other thing to note is that if you find a Backpacker’s Pantry meal you like, you may want to stock up as from year to year many of their meals are discontinued, changed, or replaced – it’s a bit like baselayers from Patagonia that are never the same from year to year. As an example, the meal reviewed here has replaced one of my past all-time favorite meals in their lineup – their Hawaiian Chicken with Rice, and Sweet and Sour Rice and Chicken has apparently replaced their previous Sweet and Sour Chicken. Other meals like their Pad See You with Chicken, which made our list of top 10 backpacking meals has recently been discontinued, so I suppose the moral of the story is to stock up while you can. The new pouches from Backpacker's Pantry come with a 10 year suggested shelf life from the date of manufacture.

The Backpacker’s Pantry Sweet and Sour Rice and Chicken meal retails for about $11. You can find it here at REI.

Aaron

As soon as we set foot on the trail, a way to carry one of the most essential ingredients for a successful hike – water – becomes essential. With a myriad of options available from bottles of nearly every variety to dedicated, and often complex, hydration systems on the market today, when choosing a way to carry your water while backpacking the shopping experience can become complicated quickly. What follows is an overview of options that are available for this task along with my preferences, and a look at various water-carrying strategies for the trail.

How to Choose Hydration Options and Backpacking Water Storage

Bottles

The simple standard water bottle comes in many forms, but attention will need to be paid towards capacity, ease of use, durability, and weight. By far the most popular water bottle you’ll find on the trail, and often off of it as well, is the 1 liter Tritan Nalgene bottle. These bottles offer a nice capacity while still fitting in most backpack water bottle pockets – but they aren’t light – weighing around 6 ounces for the bottle alone and these are often one of the first things backpackers will change if they’re looking to save some pack weight.

In the bottle category, repurposed plastic drink bottles will be among the lightest options, such as empty Gatorade bottles, bottled water containers, 1 liter softdrink bottles, etc. and often will weigh less than 2 ounces empty. The bottles are an excellent choice if you’re looking to go ultralight and are ok with treating them somewhat gently. These types of bottles do not handle boiling water well, and I’ve had these bottles last for many trips only to crack when dropped a short distance – relegating them to something I can’t use but get to carry around for the rest of the trip. Luckily, if you go this route replacements are cheap! Soft bottles can also be placed into this category, also being very light if you do not mind a non-rigid drinking container.

Backpacking Water Bottle - Naglene Ultralight HDPE Narrow Mouth Bottle

In between these 2 options is the Nalgene Ultralight, or HDPE version which features a more opaque and flexible type of material than the Tritan (both are BPA free). These at just under 4 ounces in the 1L version, are still a bump up in weight from a something like a repurposed plastic bottle (Gatorade, etc.) but will be much more durable. Both types of Nalgenes will also handle boiling water with ease, and on cold nights these are great for tossing inside your sleeping bag (the heavier Tritan will hold heat the longest). With a balance of durability and weight, the Nalgene Ultralight has become my personal go-to bottle choice on the trail. Both types of Nalgenes are available in a wide mouth (easier to fill) and narrow mouth (easier to drink) versions.

Of course, there are countless other options on the market in this category (REI offers 100+ water bottles for example), the main things are to select the capacity you need and go with some type of bottle that will be sufficiently durable for your wilderness excursions without weighing you down – not counting the water that the bottle will carry. For capacity 1 liter seems to be about right on size to last for a sufficient amount of time without having to refill too frequently, while still being small enough to be packable. For 3 season use and weight wise, it may be hard to justify anything weighing more than the already a bit burly Nalgene Tritan bottles. This would exclude winter backpacking however, when something heavier that is vacuum insulated like a Hydroflask or a Klean Kanteen can be very nice to have and can keep water / tea etc. hot for many hours even in bitter cold temperatures, keep water from freezing at night, etc. (burying your water bottles, upside down in the snow is a another technique here).

Backpacking Water Bottle and Hydration System

In all cases make sure your backpack choice allows for easy access to your bottles so that you do not have to take your pack off to get them out or back into the water bottle or side pockets on your pack. Although, there are other ways to attach a bottle to your pack as well. Lastly, one other small, but handy feature to have is a measurement scale on your bottle, which can help when it comes to measuring out water for that freeze dried meal at dinner time.

Hydration Reservoirs and Systems

Hydration reservoirs are very popular and for good reason: once they are filled, in place, and setup they make drinking on the go (we are hiking after all here) very easy and can be operated without stopping and having to remove and replace bottles. While filling can be awkward, often times your water filter choice can be connected directly to the system and the reservoir can be filled by pumping water or via gravity.

Hydration systems are perfect if you like to take more of a sip as you go approach vs. a tank up at intervals approach to hydration on the trail. In any event, since having that drink tube close at hand throughout the hiking day makes things so easy, I do find I always seem to end the day more hydrated when I pack along a hydration system compared to a bottles only approach, and this is especially helpful in hot weather and at altitude. For capacity here 3 liters is a great all around size – as long you remember that you don’t always have to fill it all the way – only enough to get to the next water source (or water source you want to stop at). Many various options exist on the market, but as features increase so does the weight.

Choosing a Backpacking Hydration System

While insulated tubes are available for cold weather hiking, for winter use I do simply leave the hydration system at home and switch to a bottles only approach (often including insulated bottles as we talked about earlier). Hydration reservoirs can be a little tricky to clean: after all we have a main flexible reservoir often with a small opening, a drink tube, and a bite valve. Some type of system with an anti-microbal treatment like the Platypus Hoser is very much appreciated here, along with a cleaning kit when needed between trips. Many bite valves will wear out or get dirty over time and start to slowly leak, so having some spare bite valves in your gear stash is helpful. Make sure you’ll be able to route the drinking tube out of your pack – most packs have dedicated hydration ports – and while a hydration sleeve in the pack can be useful, it’s not necessary – I usually pack my hydration system sideways across the top of my pack for easy access during the day.

Capacity Considerations

Having the ability to carry extra water or have extra water on hand while at camp can be beneficial as group size increases, when you’ll be hiking where the distances between water sources are large and / or during hot weather, and when you’ll be carrying all of your water into a dry location on shorter backpacking trips. While I have been known to carry gallon plastic jugs of water in the latter type of situation on several occasions, this is not the most suggested way of accomplishing this task. Rather than fill our pack with empty bottles that always take up lots of space empty or full, my preference here is to utilize lightweight, collapsible containers like your standard Platypus container or similar. Taking up little space and weight when empty, these can easily be filled at camp or when needed for dry locations.

Nalgene Cantene Collapsible Backpacking Water Storage Container

The total capacity you need among all water containers will vary based upon how often you like to stop throughout the day to filter / treat, how much water you like to drink, conditions, and if you’ll be dry camping or not. In normal conditions where water sources will be prevalent, I find that a 3L hydration reservoir combined with a 1 liter bottle is a great combo: I will usually either leave the water bottle empty or leave space in the reservoir during the day to save on weight, refilling both completely when at camp or at the last water source prior to. Water is heavy, but your pack gets lighter with each sip; strategies vary greatly on how much water to carry and I like to take the carry a little more weight and stop less often approach in this regard. If you like to spend more time in camp, or like to hit the trail and do not want to be forced to filter water again first thing or early in the day, having an extra collapsible container can be helpful. In drier conditions extra containers may also be needed, so a little math will be required in these cases to see what the ideal total capacity to take along should be.

The best route to take when it comes to your backcountry hydration solution? Simply put, there may not be a best. My preference is to vary my approach to the subject depending on season, the type of trip, weather, and anticipated sourcing of water on the trail and my approach nearly always results in some type of mix of all of the above. A hydration system is great for convenience during the day, but I still always like to have a bottle on hand for camp, for a little capacity boost, and to have if I’ll be adding any type of drink mix to my water, etc.

For a complete list of hydration options that you can sort and filter by the considerations we’ve discussed above, check out REI’s complete selection of water bottles and containers here, and you can find a list of hydration systems on this page also at REI.

Doug Emory

Chris, Randy and I sat at a local brewery, a map of Olympic National Park spread across the table. We had climbed in the Olympics for decades, but now we were attempting something different – a thru hike from one side of the park to another. You might have thought planning to cross using established routes would be simple, but it was proving anything but.

“Even the freaking rain forest is on fire.” Chris traced a route with his finger. The Pacific Northwest was suffering through one of its hottest summers on record, and our choices were dwindling. Park rangers had nixed the north-south high route, telling us the Elwha Snow Finger – the path leading from the mountains to the central river valley – had disappeared with climate change. Descent would require a rope and rack of climbing gear. As Chris noted, the western exits were threatened by the Paradise Fire, burning for months in the upper canopy of the Queets Rainforest.

Thruhiking Olympic National Park

After a month of planning we decided to come in from the east, up the Dosewallips River Trail, over 5800-foot Hayden Pass, and then out to the north, along the Elwha River. Even this route reflected the consequences of a changing climate and aging park infrastructure. We’d be out for six days and travel 60 miles, but 11 miles of that total would be on what were once access roads. A 310-foot section of the Dosewallips River Road had washed out in a flood in 2002, and cost, competing views of wilderness, and the likelihood the river would continue running higher essentially meant the road – the traditional eastern approach to the park – would never be rebuilt. We would end our trip the same way. On exiting the trail system at Whiskey Bend, we needed to trudge six miles along a road that was frequently blocked by flooding and was crumbling away one chunk of asphalt at a time.

The trip began, then, with our staggering along the Dosewallips Road. The temperature topped 90 degrees. The steep rise to the abandoned ranger station angled us into the sun’s glare, bleaching the road bed white and burning the outline of my pack along my shoulder blades. Drenched with sweat, we dropped our packs at the base of a towering cedar. I sucked in a breath and looked at what remained of the ranger station and campground. The place felt haunted. The river’s white noise might have blended with voices, as families came to picnic beside the sparkling water. Now plywood covered the windows and doors of the park service buildings. Modesty at the toilet was provided by a shower curtain hung where the door had once been. Waist-high grass swayed, overgrowing the picnic tables, and the informational signs –  “Dosewallips Trailhead/Mountain Wilderness” – and a host of others had been blown over, the plastic facings shattered and their bases smothered in weeds. 

Meadow and Olympic Mountain View

On the trail at last, we fell into a familiar line: Chris leading, Randy next, and me anchoring. Our goal was camp on Deception Creek, 8 miles and 1500 vertical feet away. Our time on the sun-drenched road had wasted us. Even sheltered under the cedars and firs, I couldn’t catch a full breath in the heat.  We dropped onto the mossy carpet beside the trail at ever-shortening intervals. At each stop we’d gulp water and then guiltily check our bottles, evaluating whether what remained in them would last till camp.

Finally, mercifully, a bear wire appeared, tracing a line from a fir’s branches to the ground. The camp was just below the trail, a big dusty circle with the creek trickling quietly along one side and the river giving a full-throated roar on the other. I dragged myself down the path and walked out beside the river. The Dosewallips cascaded by in blue-white arcs smooth as Chihuly glass. We had 13 miles behind us and 47 left to go. 

“These long hikes, you get faster each day,” I said over dinner.

Randy, ever the cynic, caught Chris’ eye and bobbed his head my way. “Does he ever stop lying?”

“Well, the weather is supposed to break soon,” I replied, trying to fight the leaden mood exhaustion brought on.

But the next morning supported Randy’s negative world view. The trail climbed the valley, popping out of forest and into meadows of head-high grass and Russian thistles, the plants holding heat like a sauna and disguising chuckholes deep as tiger traps. I remembered the first book I’d ever read about the Olympics – a 1970 edition of the Olympic Mountain Trail Guide by Robert L. Wood – and thought how this day contrasted with his telling. Mt. Fromme, described as “crowned with snow cornices”, now shimmered at the valley’s head, a series of naked cliffs that seemed to float, detached from the earth. Near tree line, Dose Meadows opened before us, acres of grass and lupine burning with light. At Woods’ writing, the meadow had teemed with wildlife, marmots, deer, and bears among throngs of backpackers, but we hadn’t glimpsed an animal, human or otherwise, in a day and a half, the three of us alone on the once-popular trail.

Backpacking Through Olympic National Park

A boot path led around a low dirt hill to another gorgeous site on the Dosewallips, the river here placid and shallow. Once the tent was up, Chris and I hastily repacked for our side trip up Lost Peak. We might be thru-hiking, but peaks rose all around us, and the climbing bug couldn’t be easily shaken. “You sure you’re not coming?” I asked. Randy stood beside me with a book under one arm. “Swear to god, man, just two miles up. No farther than that.”

But Randy snapped his book open, and the two of us headed up the Lost Pass Trail, so primitive and steep we had to kick our boot edges in to hold the slope. We reminisced along the way. One goal of this trip was to slow life down and refocus. “I feel like the last twelve years went by like a dream, Doug,” Chris said. “Like I lost them. Where’d they go?” Once, we climbed three weekends a month, but we all settled down and had kids, and while their young lives flew by, our trips to the mountains had become rare and manic in turn.

Harsh alpine country surrounded us at Lost Pass. We headed toward a rounded dome to the east, kicking over talus and through krumholz. The mountain was parched. Heather snapped as we pushed through, and every broadleaf alpine plant was burned a brittle red. Lost Peak was a rubble pile about 100 feet higher than the dome, and we scrambled the boulders to the top. We looked back the way we’d come. The river’s canyon wound away, slopes darkening with firs until everything vanished in the haze.

The Route went past many rivers including the Dosewallips, Elwha, Hayes, and Lillian Rivers

Randy was still reading when we returned, reclining against a log in the meadows and bathed in sunset light. The scene was blissful, and, next morning, the universe picked that same joyous tune. High clouds rolled in and the heat wave broke. For day three we’d maintain our basecamp, go light to Hayden Pass, and then follow a climber’s trail to Sentinel Peak. The river breathed its last beneath a final bridge, just a sheen of water trickling down rock steps. We hiked through tundra and followed the looping switchbacks to the pass, just a sharp notch in the ridge. A strong trail south wound up Sentinel, crossing talus basins and squeezing through clumps of alpine firs. Views opened on the rock slabs just below the summit – far off, the smoke plume from the Paradise fire and, nearer, clouds building behind Mount Anderson, a tortuous ridge-run away, its twin summits separated by a glacier and a rock pillar thrust skyward like a knife blade.

Olympic Trail Junction

We settled back in camp early. I’d planned on an afternoon nap, but we shoveled down snacks and chattered away, and I couldn’t keep my eyes closed, afraid I’d miss the next story though I’d heard each one a dozen times.  

That evening, a buck stepped from the shadows across the river, the first animal we’d seen in four days out. Heedless of us, he lowered his head to drink, his neck and shoulder muscles rippling. He picked his way soundlessly through the brush, glowing in front of that dark forest like Zeus come to earth in animal form.

The next morning we hiked to the pass again and took the Hayes River Trail down, coasting nine miles to the banks of the Elwha. The views of Mount Anderson’s intimidating glaciers disappeared. We navigated a trail washout, and shortly after that entered a gentler world. Hikers appeared in clusters. The forest rose and moss painted earth and blow downs a delicate green, every image softened as though viewed through a gauze-covered lens.

Historical Cabin in  Olympic National Park

On the porch of the Hayes River Patrol Cabin we took a break before strolling to yet another perfect river camp. Compared to the Dosewallips, the Elwha was mellow, its water clear and the gravel-lined bottom symmetrical as though a pool boy had taken a rake to it. Our final two days of hiking had a dreamlike quality to them after the battering we’d taken at the outset. On day four, the valley broadened as we passed the Elkhorn Guard Station, deciduous trees draped with moss in a scene out of the Mississippi bayou. After one last camp, on the Lillian River above the Elwha, we passed increasing numbers of hikers and reminders of the human history in this valley: the weathered cabin grandiosely named “The Elk Lick Lodge” and the equally-dilapidated Cougar Mike’s Cabin a couple of miles further up the trail.

Hiking Trail in Olympic National Park

Half an hour past Cougar Mike’s came trail’s end at Whiskey Bend. We swung around the road damage and hiked the pavement the final six miles to one last barrier, the gate closing the road to traffic. There we encountered a scene of intentional destruction, all in service of this beautiful country we’d just traversed. I dropped my pack and followed my friends onto an overlook platform. Across the river, a matching platform was filling with tourists exiting a bus, but on our side we stood alone.

A century ago, the Glines Canyon Spillway had been erected to dam the Elwha at a cleft between rock walls. Now the dam was gone, removed in 2014 to restore the river and allow a vanished ecosystem to be reborn. In all honesty, it didn’t look like much – the spillway was just two weathered cement walls caked with moss, old metal channels hanging loose above the rushing water. Back in the direction we’d come, manmade Lake Mills had drained. The ground it once covered looked like a construction site, braided channels flowing through a mudflat and patches of scrub. But the point of it, I told myself, was what this scene symbolized. With the park’s roads crumbling, the high country parched and the forest on fire, at least this attempt was being made to return one river valley to its pristine state in a way everyone could enjoy, whether or not they chose to hike the whole darned park to get there.

Backpacking Along the Trail


Information: As the park service says, “Wilderness Camping permits are required for all overnight stays in Olympic National Park wilderness (backcountry) year-round.” All of the areas on this trip were considered “non-quota”, which makes getting a permit easier, but the process is still fairly complicated and appears to be changing from an in-person or phone in to an online system. Best recommendations are to check out the wilderness sections of the park website, call the park at (360) 565-3130, or stop into a wilderness information center at Hoodsport or Port Angeles. One possible complication is that the Hayden Pass Trail was damaged (fire again) in 2016, and right now the NPS doesn’t recommend it. If it is not reopened, you might consider taking the primitive Lost Pass Trail north and exiting at Hurricane Ridge.

Best Time to Go: Obviously, the weather has been warming, but from the end of July through September, weather in the Pacific Northwest remains as close to perfect as you can imagine. While it’s always a necessity to pack rain gear, days are long and nights are temperate.

Getting There: The Dosewallips River Road leads west off Highway 101, just north of the tiny town of Brinnon, Washington. If you’re coming from the Seattle area, the coolest way to make the trip is via the Edmonds/Kingston ferry (reserve your spot through the Washington State Ferry system), and then take Highway 104 till it ends at Highway 101, at which point you head south toward Brinnon.

Maps and Books: Olympic Mountain Trail Guide by Robert L. Wood – last edition available out in 1970 is the book I still use for general park info since the author knew every trail well. A lot has changed, but for the basics, with reliable info on backcountry camps and distances, it’s still great.

If the idea of bagging a few peaks along the way appeals to you, be aware that the Climber’s Guide to the Olympic Mountains is known to have some interesting route descriptions for obscure peaks. The guide lists both Lost Peak and Mount Fromme as Class 1, trail all the way to the top, excursions. Lost was a thrash that became a light scramble at the summit; Fromme appears to be a Class 2 that begins with a steep unpleasant stomp through krumholz. Most of the other allegedly 1.1 climbs in the Dose Meadows area are probably of a similarly mixed character. The book does give an overview of all of the approach trail systems, so it has its uses.

There’s also a newer Falcon Guide, Hiking Olympic National Park by Erik Molvar. For navigation, the waterproof and tearproof National Geographic Trails Illustrated Olympic National Park Map is suggested.

Aaron

In recent years, Mountain House has steadily released a variety of new meals to complement their tried and true backpacking freeze dried and pre-made backpacking meal standbys like their chili mac and stroganoff dinners – with their newest meal being the fusilli pasta based dinner reviewed here.

Mountain House Fusilli Pasta Backpacking Meal Review

The Fusilli Pasta Meal from Mountain House is an Italian inspired dinner featuring a fusilli pasta (gluten free diners beware), Italian sausage with, as described by Mountain House, rustic tomato sauce, fire roasted vegetables, and rounded out with olive oil, basil, garlic, and other seasonings. This is a 2 serving meal, and with 520 calories total per pouch it’s about average on the calorie scale when it comes to freeze dried backpacking meals, being more appropriate as a meal for one for most hungry hikers. The meal is ready in just 9 minutes after adding 1.5 cups of boiling water with a quick stir about halfway through the rehydration time.

Fusilli Pasta Nutrition and Ingredients from Mountain House

The meal rehydrates well and does so without having to use too much water with a resulting soupy consistency, and taste wise it’s somewhere in between spaghetti and meatballs, baked ziti, lasagna without the cheese, and maybe a little reminiscent of spaghettiOs and meatballs. No matter what you compare it to, the pasta – in a very much appreciated backpacking spoon compatible form – is at the forefront of the meal and is quite hearty (a term I would not usually apply to pasta), with the Italian sausage and tomato sauce not far behind when it comes to things you’ll initially notice. The garlic and the fire roasted vegetables are discernable, but I do wish these ingredients along with the basil were all a bit more prevalent overall.

Fusilli Pasta from Mountain House Before Rehydration

Before rehydration

The meal offers up a nice base however, so if you’re like me and desire a higher seasoning level, this is easily resolved by packing along a lightweight backpacking spice kit, and it’s always easier to add more than take any out. The taste of the meal is very good however straight from the pouch – although for me the meal did feel a little lightweight for a true one stop dinner, so I would definitely suggest supplementing this one. In particular any type of bread like a bagel or tortilla (perhaps even with butter) that you might have along would be a nice match. If desired cheese would be a nice compliment and would be a great way to boost the calorie count as well.

Rehydrated Fusilli Pasta Meal

Overall, this Mountain House meal is a nice addition to the lineup and is one of the meals I’ll actually look forward to eating – with a side or two perhaps – after a day of hiking. And it should be mentioned that one of my favorite things about meals from Mountain House in particular is that their pouches are now guaranteed fresh for 30 years – making the disappointing experience of finding an expired food pouch towards the bottom of your freeze dried meal stash pretty unlikely when it comes to this meal.

The Mountain House Fusilli Pasta meal retails for about $10. Find it here at REI and on Amazon.com.

michaelswanbeck

Spacious silence and cool, dry air. The sun is always warm in California, even in the dead of winter. Winter time is the off season here in Death Valley National Park, but I can’t imagine why. Boasting the hottest recorded temperature on Earth, it seems funny that most of the park’s visitors come in the summer. If you want to feel some serious, otherworldly heat, then pay us a visit in July! However, if you come to explore at any other time of the year, California’s mild and pleasant weather can be almost guaranteed.

Hiking Towards the Summit in the Panamint Range

Spring is especially nice in Death Valley, when the warm nights return, and the wildflowers occasionally bloom for miles. If you stop by in winter however, you will probably find ample solitude on the trails in the area. At higher elevations in winter, there will be snow and ice towards the top of the mountains, but usually not very much. Cold, crisp air awaits as you hike higher, complete silence, and most likely, isolation.

The Charcoal Kilns of Death Valley

Starting from the charcoal kilns area, deep in the Panamint Mountains you will know when you’ve arrived, because these strange, stone, beehive-like structures will suddenly appear in the pinyon pine forest. They will certainly bring a moment of fascination. Most people don’t realize Death Valley has forests at the higher elevations. As the road winds higher into the mountain range, trees will suddenly appear. Any further up from here it becomes 4 wheel drive only. That road will lead to the trailhead for Telescope Peak, another great day hiking option.

The charcoal kilns are a very cool landmark to check out. In the 1800s they would burn the pinyon pine forest here to make coal, and send it for fuel to the nearby mining boom-towns. I used to live in Death Valley and I fell in love with the park. The Panamint Mountains were my great backyard. When I would get some time to myself I’d wander up into them and enjoy their majestic silence. The hike here took place in January, and the conditions were icy, but without too much snow. The hike didn’t require any special gear, or any special permits. Just drive up into this lonely land and see what’s out there. The Wildrose Trail will generally have less snow on it than the Telescope Trail, so can be a good option in winter. 

View Towards Furnace Creek and Death Valley While Hiking in the Panamint Range

I felt refreshed at the beginning of the hike as I left the charcoal kilns, taking my camera along and meandering around a few scenic corners, before heading straight up! This was the most challenging part of the day as I climbed through the forest, but was the perfect warm-up in the sharp, high desert air. The charcoal kilns are already at 6,800 feet of elevation. Coming from the bottom of Death Valley, I left the warm weather behind having driven literally from sea level, and would climb to over 9,000 feet high on this 4.2 mile, one way hike. It wasn’t too far before cresting the ridge, and I looked down to the first sweeping view of Badwater Basin in the valley. This, I could tell, is where the great scenery would begin. The rest of the hike was much easier than the first part of the ascent. Now I got to stroll along the ridgeline, taking in the view of Telescope Peak behind me. Telescope is Death Valley’s tallest mountain, and has an incredible ridgewalk as well. Trails in this area are great options for day hiking the Panamints.

Day Hiking the Panamint Mountains of Death Valley National Park

After the mellow ridgewalk, I encountered one final push to get to the summit. This is where the snow and ice began, but it was nothing I couldn’t handle. I was actually wearing sandals as well! I wouldn’t completely recommend this, because my toes were getting cold, but I generally love sandals for desert hiking. Just don’t hit a cactus! Finally, the summit awaits. 

Hiking the Panamint Range

I sat there and froze for a very long time, writing in my journal and wandering around that place which feels on top of the world. I took shelter in a pinyon pine tree to each some snacks, surveying the colorful, mirage-like desert all around. No matter the elevation, the sun always feels warm around here. Another great thing about Death Valley is you can hike in the bright moonlight, so I didn’t feel too rushed to get down knowing the moon would be showing up tonight. Still, it’s always a good idea to bring a flashlight or headlamp and the 10 essentials. Upon arriving back home in Death Valley later that evening, the warm air was a welcome greeting.

Along the Trail Hiking in the Panamint Mountains

Information: There is a free campground at the beginning of Emigrant Canyon Road, and at the junction of Wildrose/ Emigrant Canyon Road. They are reserved on a first come basis, and are often crowded or full most times of the year (except winter). Free camping can be found on the BLM land at the bottom of Wildrose Road in Panamint Valley, on many dirt side roads, and roadside camping/sleeping is acceptable there as well. Backcountry permits, day hiking or camping, are voluntary in Death Valley, and can be filled out at the two visitors centers – one in Lone Pine, CA, and one in Furnace Creek, CA. Check with a ranger about snow condition before attempting a hike, and be prepared with all your own water. It’s up to you how much water to carry because it is heavy, but 2-4 liters should be sufficient for a colder, shorter day hike. Of course if you bring more, you can always drink more!

Books & Maps: Hiking Death Valley: A Guide to its Natural Wonders and Mining Past by Michel Digonnet. This book is more than just a hiking guide, the author knows Death Valley very well and explains its rich and colorful history along with the descriptions of the hike. He will also tell you the many unique plants and animals found in the region, as well as more obscure hikes off the beaten path. This guide includes hidden gold mines to explore and descriptions of how to find them. This guidebook is one to constantly return to whenever planning a hike in Death Valley.

Hiking Western Death Valley National Park: Panamint, Saline and Eureka Valleys by Michel Digonnet. This book provides a closer look at the trails on the west side (the best side) of the park.

Death Valley and the Amargosa: A Land of Illusion by Richard E. Lingenfelter. A fascinating read for anyone interested in Death Valley, or who is familiar with the park, this book will convey all of its history. There are many stories, some grim and some funny. From the lost Mormon wagon train that accidentally discovered Death Valley and gave it the name... to the many prospectors and con-men who called the place home. It’s a long and highly informative read, and an excellent series of stories about this haunting land. 

Death Valley National Park Trails Illustrated Map, National Geographic. This is the only map I have ever needed when exploring Death Valley. It has clear topography lines and the beautiful coloring of the map makes it fun to look at and easy to read. It has info on the side about trail suggestions and concerns about hiking in the park. 

Getting There: If traveling from the east, take CA hwy 190, the main road through the park. After passing Stovepipe Wells village, drive 10 miles further and you will find Emigrant Canyon Road on your left. Take that turn, and drive for about 25 miles straight to the Wildrose trailhead at the charcoal kilns. The road will turn to dirt 5 miles before the kilns. These same directions can be used if traveling from the West on CA hwy 190. After you pass Panamint Springs village your turnoff is 22 miles away on the right. If traveling from Los Angeles area however, you will be coming into the park from the south. In this case you can take the back route in... After leaving the town of Trona and cresting the Slate Range Pass, you will drop into Panamint Valley. Take the right turn for Wildrose Road, 15 miles after Slate Range Pass. This will connect you to Emigrant Canyon Road, take a right turn there, and drive just 8 miles to the charcoal kilns. When exploring the region, it is fun to take both roads, Emigrant Canyon and Wildrose Road, to make a driving loop out of it.

Best Time to Go: Hiking the Panamint Mountains can be done any time of the year. My favorite time is December, because the air is very clear that time of the year, but the temperatures can be quite cold. The only time the hike should be avoided is immediately after a high altitude snowstorm or during one. This information should be found out at the visitor center, or at least by gazing up at the snow level on the peaks. Springtime snow is very possible in Death Valley. The best time to do the hike is on a rare cloudy day…In the summer, this hike is an excellent escape from the hot weather, and temperatures will still be mildly warm at the summit. In the spring, vast meadows of wildflowers sometimes bloom in the Panamint Mountains.

Aaron

No matter your approach to backpacking – ultralight, comfort light, traditional, or whatever our own unique approaches may be in the gear department, backpacking in and of itself goes hand in hand with a gear list (whether on paper or simply in our heads), making a way to carry all that stuff one of the most important gear related items we need to consider. What follows is a guide to selecting an appropriate backpack for hiking and backpacking, including an overview of features, technologies, materials, and other considerations that are needed when it comes to selecting the best backpacking and hiking backpack.

How to Choose a Backcountry Backpack

The Backpack Frame

As soon as you start to carry more than 15-20lbs on a trip (including food and water), which is the case for the great majority of backpackers with a full pack, a pack with a frame should be selected to help transfer the weight of the pack off your shoulders and on to your hips. While in years past the great debate was internal frame backpacks vs. those with external frames, the majority of choices on the market today will feature an internal frame. On the flip side externally framed packs are now available with cutting edge materials and designs that are significantly lighter than the traditional heavy and tubular external framed packs of days past, so with packs breaking out of the mold in many cases, I like to focus more on the other specifications of a pack rather than agonizing over the internal vs. external backpack frame debate. As long as it has a frame – commonly made of aluminum, carbon fiber, or a high density plastic sheet – other specifications such as maximum weight carrying capacity, materials used, comfort, and organization are most important to me.

External vs. Internal Frame Backpacks

Many frameless backpacking packs exist and are more specialized in nature, suitable for ultralight loads and as such usually most appropriate for shorter duration trips where less food will have to be carried and in areas where water sources are frequent. With careful packing however these ultralight frameless packs can still be used if you’re very diligent about how much weight you’ll be carrying and especially if you are concerned about having the lightest possible total packweight. However, their use is limited and I find it more feasible to utilize a framed pack on short trips where I might be carrying an extra pound of pack or so, rather than trying to deal with the limited weight carrying capacity of a frameless pack (and often limited storage capacity) on a longer trip. Some frameless packs will even omit a hipbelt to save more weight, but even on a frameless pack I still prefer a hipbelt – while weight transfer to your hips will be limited without a frame, every little bit helps. 

Backpacking with a Frameless Pack

While frameless packs will always boast the best weights, often hovering around just 1lb, thankfully many lightweight framed packs are now available from many manufacturers. For most backpacking purposes a framed pack weighing 2-3lbs is a great range to target, and perhaps a bit more if you like to carry a heavier range of gear, food, or water – or all of the above. And like shoes, backpack fit and comfort is critical and this is where it pays to take some extra time measuring your torso and checking out the manufacturer’s sizing guide, as framed packs are usually available in several sizes. Often each size will have a bit of adjustment built in, and will be provided by moving the hipbelt or shoulder strap attachment points in order to fine tune the fit.

Capacity

Expressed in cubic inches or liters, the most popular sizes for modern backpacking would be options in the 45 liter range (~2750 cubic inches) like the REI Flash 45 – quite appropriate for most weekend trips – and packs stepping up in size into the 60 liter range, which I find most appropriate for week long trips or so. Both sizes can be pushed a bit beyond these limits and depending on your other gear and packing style. Regardless, there will be times when a 45 liter is a bit too small or a 60 liter a bit too large, but it comes down to a personal decision and how your trips typically take place; some us are weekend warriors with others tending to head out only on longer trips. The other strategy is collecting multiple packs and picking from your collection depending on the trip at hand. For me, I like one pack that can do it all just to keep it simple (and cheaper), with my 4200 cubic inch (this includes all storage – not just the main compartment) ULA Circuit serving as my workhorse backpacking pack for all trips. With around 10 days the longest I will go at a stretch (this is about as much food as I prefer to carry at once), the pack will be at its limits early in the trip, but is perfect after a few days. For overnights or weekends in the summer where gear is minimal, my jack of all trades pack will have some extra space, but I will just allow my down bag to loft up inside and it’s always better to be in a situation where your pack is suited to carry more weight than you actually are carrying than the other way around.

Backpacking Packs - Roll Top and Drawstring Closures

The other capacity consideration is in regards to weight. Backpacks with a beefier frame and more sturdy hipbelts will allow you to carry more weight comfortably, but as we increase in weight capacity the weight of the actual backpack itself increases as well, forcing a balance to be struck. Again here we need to evaluate the length of our typical backpacking trip and normal proximity to water sources (water is heavy). One pack will not be perfectly suited for every condition. Whether you are just starting your collection of backpacking gear or are looking to upgrade an existing pack, this is also the time where it pays to evaluate all the rest of your backpacking gear, weigh it, and figure out how much food and water you’ll also usually be carrying before buying the pack itself. My preference again is to go with a pack that is suitable for carrying the full weight of all my gear, the full weight of my food even on day 1 of most trips, and all that combined with all the water I’ll be carrying. Sure, the occasional longest of trips might be a little heavy on my shoulders until I eat a day of food, but 95% of the time the pack will be near perfect. A little math at home here will pay off later on the trail. 

Features and Organization

25 years ago – when you’d find inspirational, beautiful brochures detailing a popular manufacturer’s complete line of external framed packs along with the latest Campmor catalog in your mailbox, packs seemingly had a compartment or pocket for everything. Dedicated sleeping bag compartment. Swiss Army knife pocket. Zippered storage for your MSR white gas fuel bottle. The list goes on. While organization is a key component to finding what you need quickly on the trail, there’s no reason to go overboard, or under when choosing a backpack. I like the big 4: Main storage compartment, outside pocket or storage, hipbelt pockets, and dual side water bottle pockets. I’ve found this arrangement to be the best balance for me on the trail, and I then utilize further lightweight stuffsacks if additional organization is needed – rather than just throwing the complete contents of my first aid kit randomly in the main compartment of the pack for example. 

External Backpack Water Bottle Pockets

With this arrangement you are able to pack anything you’ll need only at camp inside the main compartment (sleeping bag, sleeping pad, etc.), pack anything you might need immediately at hand during the day in the outside pocket of the pack like rain gear – this pocket can be in the form of a lid or pocket on the rear of the backpack. You’ll also have easy access to small frequently used items, or emergency items in your hipbelt and side water bottle pockets – things like a small camera, snacks, whistle, and water bottles themselves – all without having to take your pack off. 
Additional attachment points are always nice to have on longer trips or for those times you might be carrying extra gear. This ability can come in many forms – bungee systems on the outside of the pack, ice axe loops, etc., with the main concern here being their existence without getting in the way or adding too much weight to the pack. Often, normal closure or compression straps can also be utilized to hold items you might want to secure to the outside of your pack like a bulky foam sleeping pad.

Backpack Pockets and Exterior Storage Options

Top loading packs feature a large opening on top of the pack – either a roll top design which work well for compression and water resistance, or with a drawstring closure often covered by a “lid” or “brain” with a pocket. Panel loading packs, which operate a bit like a suitcase with long zippers, are also available if you feel you prefer easy access to all of your gear at once. 

Although it may go without saying, other features such as a sternum strap, load lifters for framed packs to pull the load closer to your center of gravity and move more weight off your shoulders, a comfortable hipbelt, and features like a padded backpanel are all things to check off the list. Other features such as ventilated backpanels, hydration sleeves and ports, or trekking pole holders for example should be sought after on a preferential basis.

Materials

Protecting the rest of your gear contained within, other than shoes and trekking pole tips backpacks face one of the roughest existences on the trail of all the gear we carry. However, going over-durable here can lead to an overly heavy pack, but we still need something that can withstand being dropped on the ground and rocks repeatedly, leaned against scraggly trees, and contact with brush and boulders without having to constantly repair or replace our pack. Often the simple eye test can give an indication of just how durable all the various fabrics utilized for backpacks may be. Silnylon and standard Cuben / Dyneema Composite Fabrics result in the lightest of backpacks, but are not particularly durable fabrics in regards to abrasion resistance.

Backpack Fabric Choices and Exterior Storage

A water resistant ripstop nylon pack fabric

A hybrid Dyneema fabric is also available, featuring a polyester face fabric for increased abrasion resistance while still taking advantage of the waterproofness and strength of the base Dyneema material. (Seams may however, not be sealed or taped in any water resistant pack) Heavier duty ripstop nylons and Dyneema gridstop are more popular fabrics and offer a great balance of weight and durability. The latter two options frequently feature a PU coating for waterproofing, which will degrade over time – no matter the case one should always further waterproof their critical gear by way of waterproof stuff sacks, or by using a pack liner of some type – usually just a larger version of a waterproof stuff sack or a trash compactor bag. In all cases, if the bottom of the pack is reinforced with a double layer or heavier duty material this is always a bonus, with this location being the most susceptible to abrasion and wear.

Multiday Backpacking Packs - Choices and Considerations

Thankfully, as a required item for backpacking there are no shortage of lightweight, framed, frameless, heavy duty, ultralight, top loading, panel loading, and men’s or women’s backpacks – or various combinations of these designs  – on the market today. No matter your take and approach on the subject, the best backpack might be the one that you end up thinking about the least while on the trail; one that carries all your gear across the various intended situations with ease, all the while without weighing you down and one that is sufficiently durable to last for countless backcountry adventures.

For a current list of backpacks that you can filter and sort by many of the features we’ve discussed in this post, see this page at REI.com.

Aaron

The latest meal from Good To-Go, their New England Corn Chowdah is an option that seems well suited for a company that’s based in Maine to offer. This meal brings 330 calories for the single serving version to the table and 670 calories for the 2 serving option, and is a hearty soup / chowder (or chowdah when pronounced appropriately) containing dried corn, sweet potatoes and potato, milk, carrots, bonito (fish), along with leeks, shallots, parsley, salt, and black pepper. This meal is gluten free, pescatarian, and is ready in 15 minutes after adding about 1.5 cups of water for the single serving version and 3 cups on the double serving option.

Good To-Go New England Corn Chowdah (Chowder) Review

Immediately upon opening the bag, you are greeted with the smell of smoked fish, and one favorite of Good To-Go meals is the approximate fill line that they place right on the bag of each meal for those of us that are satisfied with a “close enough” approach when it comes to cooking measurements. After rehydration you’ll end up with a meal that has a soupy consistency – spoon suggested on this one for your backpacking utensil of choice compared to a spork, but with the chowder inspiration here there is still plenty of heartiness to the meal when you dig down towards the bottom of the bag. The smoked fish is quite prevalent – I’d say the bonito ingredient (a tuna relative) could be reduced just slightly if I had to nitpick, but this would be a great meal for those that enjoy a meal on the trail with a seafood component. Despite corn being the first ingredient here, I would consider this more of a fish chowder than a corn chowder. 

New England Corn Chowdah Before Rehydration

As a result however, there is no shortage of savory here, and no shortage of taste either – Good To-Go has really packed in the flavor with a balance between smoky and sweet and this is easily my favorite meal from Good To-Go. The meal rehydrates well after the wait and tastes surprisingly fresh, and it’s hard to think of a better option after a cold or rainy hiking day if you’re a seafood fan. I’d say the serving suggestion is pretty accurate and can be followed here, as the meal is surprisingly filling with the single serving making a hearty lunch for 1 and the double serving working for 2 who don’t have too huge of an appetite and perhaps combined some crackers to go with the chowder or your side of choice.

Good To-Go Corn Chowdah Backpacking Meal

While one can definitely pick up the smell of the fish, there’s no fishy taste. However, with the odiferous nature of the meal, it would be worth considering this when backpacking in bear country when it comes to cooking the meal and in regards to storing the empty bag after dinner, and for the rest of the trip as well. OPSak odor resistant bag suggested. Overall this ended up being a surprisingly filling meal, tasted great, and if you’re looking for a backpackable, chowder style meal with a prevalent seafood component (the meal is quite appropriately named) look no further. 

The New England Corn Chowdah Meal from Good To-Go retails at around $7 for the single serving version and $13 for the double serving. You can find the meal here at REI and on Amazon.com.

Aaron

The Snow Peak 450 is an ultralight titanium backpacking mug weighing in at only a listed weight of 2.4 ounces for the lighter single wall version of the cup (2.1 measured), or 4.2 ounces for the more insulated double wall offering. This classic cup has a capacity of 450ml (just over 15 fluid ounces), and is available in your typical titanium grey as well as in a variety of colors to brighten up your morning coffee a bit if desired. The handles are collapsible for packing, and can work as a way to attach the cup to your pack while on the trail.

Snow Peak 450ml Titanium Cup Review

Although the double wall version of this mug will keep your drink warmer a bit longer, I prefer the single wall for backpacking purposes with the lighter weight in mind. Although my drink will cool a bit faster than the double wall version, the single wall allows one to place the cup right on a stove for a quick reheat, and as such everything balances out somewhat in the end. Be mindful however that the handles can get quite hot when heating on a stove. One thing I do appreciate about the Snow Peak 450 is that it’s light without being too light; unlike some other titanium options I do not find myself having to constantly bend the 450 back into shape after some abuse on the trail.

Snow Peak 450 Handles

The 450’s capacity is just right for a quick cup of coffee in the morning as you’re getting ready to break camp – and with 2 packets of Starbucks Via it makes for a nice strong cup of coffee when filled nearly to the brim. The capacity here is a bit too low if you’re looking for a jack of all trades, master of none combination pot and mug to take along however, so I usually pair the Snow Peak 450 with an Evernew Option for actually cooking meals in a pot, boiling water for meals of the freeze dried variety, or for FBC style dinners.

Single wall titanium mugs don’t insulate well and can get quite hot; using the handles is pretty much required for sipping a very hot beverage and some care when it comes to your sipping may be needed as well. The rolled edge of the 450 combined with not filling it quite all the way to the brim helps in this regard, and Snow Peak offers their hot lips silicone covers as well. While these work well as insulation from the heat, in my experience they don't create a perfect seal and some liquid may be able to escape down the side of the cup when you take a drink. Not too big of a deal, but most of all I found this was just one more thing to keep track of on the trail and as such, I no longer take the Snow Peak hot lips along on trips.

Coffee in the Snow Peak 450 Mug

My Snow Peak 450 has taken a beating on many backpacking trips for nearly a decade, and it’s bounced around over many miles attached to the outside of my pack by the handles (and this can be configured for a “bear bell” effect if desired), been slammed against rocks and trees, boiled in directly on top of canister stoves, and other than a little age to the blue anodized coating of the cup and an inability to read the logo the cup is still going strong, and I suspect it will continue to perform well for another 10 years. Perhaps more? The Snow Peak 450 is just one of those very few items that is hard to beat and doesn’t get replaced by newer or lighter gear as time goes on.

Single Wall Snow Peak 450 on Canister Stove

While titanium backpacking cookware can involve a little up-front investment, the material offers durability and strength while keeping your pack weight low – always a good combination when it comes to backpacking gear. The Snow Peak single wall titanium cup retails around $30 for the grey version, and about $35 for the green, blue, or purple option. Find the standard version here at REI, and find the color version here at Backcountry.com. And for more on choosing a backpacking mug in general, see this post.

Aaron

If your next trip is taking you to a popular trail in a National Park or areas where campsites are available by obtaining a permit and making a backcountry reservation, often times there will be little to decide upon when it comes to choosing a campsite; if designated sites are all that’s available most of the deciding has already been done for you. When exploring more remote wilderness areas and in all areas where dispersed or zone camping is allowed or all that’s available however, when choosing the best place to camp for the night a variety of factors will need to be considered based upon the terrain, season, and other elemental factors. This of course is in addition to the standard prerequisites of finding a spot flat enough to sleep, with good drainage, and that has sufficient space for your shelter.

How to Choose a Great Wilderness Backpacking Campsite


Water

Proximity to water is often a high priority for many campers, but it’s not necessarily a requirement with sufficient planning for dry camping. Water simply equates to convenience – instead of having to carry water, which is quite heavy, from the last source to your dry campsite for the night, when camping close to water it’s easy to setup first, then filter water to get you through the night and have enough to get started on the trail the next morning. Camping near water can have a few drawbacks however, including a colder night – water seeks out low points in the terrain and this is where the cold air will flow and settle after dark. Additionally, wildlife encounters may be increased – including mosquitoes – and at times campsites or camping areas near water can become overused. If you do plan to dry camp, you may want to consider some extra water capacity – your standard Platypus container for example is quite ultralight (when not filled!) and they’re great for taking along when you might need to dry camp on a particular trip.

Wind

Depending on the weather and season, wind may best be avoided or can be sought out at other times of the year. While mountain campsites above treeline may offer the best view and make for a share-worthy photograph, these types of campsites can expose you to the full force of the wind. This makes everything from cooking to getting a good night of rest that much harder, and in these situations descending just a bit and seeking out the trees will help greatly. When backpacking in mosquito season however a bit of a breeze can be a godsend, especially when camping near water. (Always carry repellent – Herbal Armor is a personal favorite, combined with a backpacking headnet for maximum sanity regardless) Thankfully, mosquitoes typically coincide with warmer temperatures so getting a little breeze is no big deal. If wind is a factor that you can’t avoid, having a double wall shelter, especially one with a solid or partial solid interior will help, and seek out any kind of natural shelter possible whether a grove of shrubs, a boulder, heading to the lee side of a slope, etc.

Backpacking Campsite Considerations


Wildlife

For the benefit of all involved, it’s best to avoid any type of area where wildlife will tend congregate or be prone to utilize. Many times, this can mean avoiding overused areas where resident wildlife has come to expect food rewards from insufficiently protected and stored food, and additionally consideration for natural wildlife corridors and funnels should be evaluated in any situation. This includes trips where you’re following a marked trail, hiking offtrail, and in heavily used areas as well as in true wilderness. Just like camping at least a couple hundred feet away from the main hiking trail is a great idea and is usually regulated, using the same strategy when it comes to game trails or areas where wildlife would have to pass is a good idea.

A great example is a large lake with a cliff band on one side, with a grassy meadow in between the cliff and shoreline. The only way wildlife (or other hikers for that matter) can get from point A to point B is by taking the area between the cliff band and the shoreline, and this type of area is one best avoided. If you’ll be camping  in areas where bears are present, additional practices for backpacking in bear country will of course be in order. When you are camping in a popular area, use extra caution with food preparation and storage (by utilizing an Ursack, a bear canister, or food hang - check regulations).

Temperature

Nightly temperatures can vary wildly with terrain – and with cold air sinking and warm air rising camping lakeside at the bottom of a valley may not be the best choice if you're after a warm night, as cold air will settle right where you’ve setup camp. This can be counter-intuitive to some extent however, as when we begin to make large scale elevation changes in mountainous terrain – in the order of around a thousand feet or more – it will be cooler higher and warmer lower. It is usually too tedious to descend 1000 feet or more on any typical backpacking trip just to find a warmer campsite – since most likely you’ll have to gain that elevation back the next day so some compromise is in order. One exception might be in cold weather however, when descending can be quite appropriate in order to drop below the snowline of an impending storm or at least get to an elevation where total snow amounts will be more manageable.

No matter the overall elevation, finding that small rise above the valley floor, or camping on a bench part way up a slope can be significantly warmer than just a contour line on the map lower and will be drier and less prone to overnight condensation as well. When this situation can’t be avoided, having a sleep system that’s dialed in should get you through the night in relative comfort, and make sure to bring that pack towel to dry the condensation off your tent in the morning.

Camping in Mountain Snow Conditions and the Importance of Elevation


Sun Exposure

Something to be sought after in the cold, and avoided when it’s hot – exposure to the sun is always something important to consider. On winter and shoulder season trips where snow can be a factor, planning your trip and campsites to follow south-facing slopes can limit your snow exposure if desired, and will always be warmer than frigid north facing slopes that may see little to no sun at all on short winter days with a low sun angle. In desert or arid climates finding any terrain features to provide shade will be appreciated during the warmer months, although some of this comes down to timing in regard to setting up and leaving camp as well.

In forested areas trees play a huge part in campsite selection – so much that we devoted our Issue 31 Trail Tip to the subject, but in short when it’s cold camping in the trees will be warmer at night and block more wind and precipitation, while being less of a condensation prone campsite, but those trees will also block those first rays of light on chilly mornings. It can be a tough call – and may depend on how early you plan to be up and leaving camp. Additionally, you will want to avoid camping anywhere near or within range of trees that may fall when camping in a forest.

Desert Camping - Sun and Wind


Without a doubt there is no one single best campsite checklist than can be provided that will cover all circumstances, or even cover a single area when one considers the variability of seasons and weather. When it comes down to choosing a campsite for the night on a typical backpacking trip, there may indeed not be an area available that checks everything off the list of factors that are important to you and are most suitable for the situation. However, a quick consideration of the various factors applicable to the situation at hand can help when it comes to choosing between several initially suitable camping areas, or help seal the deal on avoiding a possibility altogether and instead hiking on to greener pastures.

In any case, when it comes to finding a wilderness campsite make sure you check the associated regulations in regards to the required distance from trails, lakes, and streams (note that many established wilderness sites you may come across will not necessarily conform to these regulations), or any other regulations that may be in effect for your backpacking destination of choice, while following practices to ensure you leave no trace.

Aaron

While there’s something to be said for getting technical with your backpacking cookware choices – evaluating the benefits of wide pots for heat transfer, aluminum vs. titanium heat conduction, or breaking down various pot and mug capacities and mixing and matching depending on the trip, there’s also a lot to be said for a single solution that does everything well. When it comes to solo backpacking and even on dayhikes, my cookware option of choice over the past few years has been the do it all 850ml combination mug and pot from Mountain Laurel Designs (MLD).

Mountain Laurel Designs 850ml Titanium Pot Review

The MLD 850 is a thin walled titanium mug with a .85 liter / 28.7 fluid ounce capacity filled absolutely to the brim, featuring collapsible handles, an included lid with integrated venting / drain holes, and a hinged (for packing) lid lifter / handle. The 850 is listed at 3.3 ounces, and comes in at 3.6 ounces on my scale. The 850 will fit 110 gram fuel canisters along with most upright canister stoves, and the mug shape works great for those double doses of morning coffee when you wake up to a fresh layer of snow. The 850 works just as well when it comes around to dinner time; the size of the mug allows you to easily boil 2 cups of water, enough to rehydrate most backpacking meals, homemade, freezer bag style, or otherwise. In fact with the extra capacity here my favorite dinner time routine is to boil about 3 cups of water, pour two cups into my meal, and then enjoy a hot cup of tea with the remaining water while watching the sun go down as the meal rehydrates. Alternatively, if you prefer to cook your meals in the pot there’s room for that here as well if solo for some basic cooking. Either way, throw in a backpacking utensil and you’ll be set.

MLD 850 Titanium Mug Pot

The 850 is that great size that is not too large to work as a mug, and the handles feature a strategic and convenient finger rest – by resting your middle or ring finger on the flat part of the handle you don’t have to white knuckle the handles or use two hands to hold on to a full cup of coffee. Although the capacity is listed as 850ml, if you plan to boil water about 3 cups is the max comfortable limit here to prevent water from boiling over the sides. I’ve found the stability on upright canister stoves is fine. Keep in mind that the handles here will be close to the stove however – so try to keep the handles downwind if you can (see our Issue 24 Trail Tip).

MLD 850 Lid with Drain Holes and Handle

If I have one nitpick on the 850 it’s that from time to time, the pot is so thin that it can get bent out of shape ever so slightly, which won’t allow the lid to fit fully flush. This is about a 5 second fix (just gently bend back into shape), and could be solved through more careful packing; cookware may not face the easiest of existences in outside pockets of packs as they’re leaned against trees and rocks, or when pots are shoved into full packs. But sometimes this is the small price we pay to go ultralight. While Mountain Laurel Designs has recently hinted that the venerable 850 may or may not be available in the future, it’s still in stock as of the time of this writing (the Toaks 750 pot is very similar and also comes in a bail-handled version).

MLD Lid and Boiling Water in the 850 Pot

Although the 850, or pot / mug combos of this design may not be quite as fuel efficient as a separate wide pot (example: the Evernew 900) combined with carrying an additional backpacking mug, the 850 works well for those desiring an all in one, jack of all trades ultralight solution for their solo backpacking cookware needs. The MLD 850 retails for $55, and you can find it here at MLD.

Aaron

The Mountain Beef Stew Meal from Wild Zora is a just add water freeze dried meal suitable for backpacking that keeps the ingredient list simple while also meeting a slew of dietary requirements and preferences. The meal has no gluten, milk, grain, nuts, or added sugar and was designed to meet a higher meat Paleo dietary requirement. This meal is just one in a line of meals including breakfasts and dinners and with options ranging from the Caldera Chicken Curry to the Bedrock Beef Chili .

Wild Zora Paleo Meals to Go Mountain Beef Stew Review

While I have no specific dietary requirements that I follow myself, I am also not opposed to meals of this nature in the backcountry. Whether dinner ends up being Paleo, gluten-free, dairy free, etc., as long as the meal tastes good, is easy to make, and serves the purpose – be it breakfast, lunch, or dinner I’m happy to clean my proverbial plate. Additionally, when backpacking with others who may follow a more restricted diet, I often find myself sampling these types of meals anyway, and sometimes it's just easier that way when backpacking and cooking as a group.

Wild Zora Beef Stew Ingredients and Nutrition

The Wild Zora Mountain Beef Stew meal has few enough ingredients that we can list them here: containing just grass fed beef, organic carrots, sweet potato, onion, broccoli, mushrooms, celery, and green onion along with salt and seasonings. Preparation is simple as well, simply remove the oxygen absorber, add hot water, and rehydrate for 5-15 minutes. Once prepared, the meal is quite different than many freeze dried meals in that it rehydrates well without any type of soupy consistency. While not a traditional stew, the meal has quite a bit of texture, the taste is great, and I was surprised that I didn’t even have to break out my backcountry spice kit as the meal needed no additional doctoring. Homestyle potatoes with the skin still on combined with the beef and vegetables remind one of a steak and potatoes type meal, but even though there’s lots of protein in this meal which will make it more filling than many, I could easily eat two. No complaints in the taste department however: the meal is really quite good.

Before Rehydration - Moutain Beef Stew

Before rehydration

The main thing I appreciate about this meal is that unlike some other options that are out there they didn’t skimp on the meat ingredient, it’s at the forefront of the meal and if you tend to prefer meals of this nature this might be the premade backpacking meal for you: each 3 ounce pouch contains 36 grams of protein. However, at 370 calories this meal is not high enough on the caloric scale to serve as an appropriate dinner for one for most. And at $13 per pouch, if they were able to maintain the price point while boosting the calories it would certainly be appreciated on those high mileage days, although you can always bring the price down a bit by taking advantage of REI’s bulk food discount.

Mountain Beef Stew from Wild Zora Prepared

If you are on a restricted or a Paleo diet of course other backpacking meal options may be limited, so the appeal of this meal will be highest in those cases. For me, the Wild Zora Mountain Beef Stew is serviceable as part of a meal and the calories can be boosted by way of some instant rice noodles and / or some olive oil etc., or by using the meal as a “course” in a larger dinner plan with another option for instance. Overall if you’re looking for something different in a freeze dried meal or are looking to mix things up a bit on your next trip and the Wild Zora approach appeals to you, this meal is certainly worth a look.

The Wild Zora Paleo Meals To Go Mountain Beef Stew meal retails for $13. Find it here at REI and on Amazon.com.

Aaron

Backpacking with a dog will always add an extra section to your gear list, and when hiking during the colder shoulder season or winter months and in mountain locations that generally are always somewhat chilly at night, keeping your dog warm for a restful night of sleep is an important factor to consider. The Ruffwear Highlands Sleeping Bag for dogs is one way to provide insulation for your dog at night and is a dog sleeping bag solution I’ve been using on the trail for the past year.

Ruffwear Highlands Dog Sleeping Bag Review

The Highlands Sleeping Bag uses synthetic insulation with a water resistant polyester shell, and a side zipper designed for easy entry and exit. On the bottom of the bag, a pad sleeve is built in, and insulation under your dog will be just as important if not more so than the bag itself. The bag has a listed weight of 26.8 ounces (26 measured) and packs into a 12 x 7” included stuff sack. The stuff sack is not waterproof, and thus I use an 8L Sea to Summit UltraSil Dry Sack instead – and this would even fit inside a compartment of the (size medium) Ruffwear Approach Pack my dog wears on the trail if desired. The bag is bulky however, and requires that you pack the same amount of weight in the other side of the dog pack, so I instead have my dog carry lighter items while I carry the Highlands Sleeping Bag. The sleeping bag measures 35 x 26” flat, and the opening of the Highlands does not feature any type of closure or cinch system, and simply lays flat over the dog. The sleeping bag only comes in one size, but is just about perfect for my 40-45lb heeler. However, slightly larger dogs would still fit, and smaller dogs will have plenty of extra room. Note that there is a separate product from the sleeping bag, the Highlands Bed, which is not a sleeping bag and is designed simply as something for your dog to lay on top of.

Synthetic Insulation is Used in the Ruffwear Sleeping Bag

In previous years, I would bring along a cut down section of a closed cell foam Therm-a-Rest ZLite or RidgeRest pad for my dog to sleep on top of, and would then cover the dog at night with my spare clothing – like a down jacket combined with a rain jacket. This worked well, but would often need readjustment at night as my dog moved about. Additionally, this strategy no longer became possible when I switched to a lighter weight, hoodless sleeping bag where I prefer to wear my (hooded) down jacket while sleeping. Thus, a separate solution for my dog was needed. A separate dedicated jacket could easily still be used and is relatively lightweight, but the readjustment throughout the night issue remains. Using the Ruffwear Highlands Sleeping Bag has been a benefit in this regard. 

Using the Pad Sleeve on the Ruffwear Sleeping Bag

While the included pad sleeve is intended to fit the optional Highlands Pad, I simply use a section of a Therm-a-Rest RidgeRest SOLite which fits perfectly when you round off the corners of the pad a bit and provides plenty of 3-season insulation and warmth, and maybe even a little extra comfort for your dog after a high mileage day. I have found the pad sleeve quite useful, and compared to my old system of a separate foam pad and overlaying a down jacket, there’s nothing to constantly re-arrange here throughout the night.

Therm-a-Rest RidgeRest Pad Cut to Size

The bag does not have a temperature rating, but combined with the foam pad underneath and a Ruffwear Cloud Chaser Jacket that my dog wears in the backcountry as well – my dog has never been cold on typical 3 season trips in the Rockies. The only caveat is keeping your dog actually inside the sleeping bag, but success there will obviously depend on the personality of your dog – and the zipper that allows you to completely open the top of the bag and lay it aside temporarily until your dog is settled inside helps greatly in this regard.

Ruffwear Highlands Sleeping Bag Packed Size

Although the polyester shell is tough and the synthetic insulation appreciated in wetter weather and with a soggy dog, the only issue I have with the Ruffwear Highlands is the bulk and weight. At around 27 ounces, this is as heavy as many lightweight 20 degree sleeping bags (for people) and heavier than the sleeping bag I carry, and it could indeed start to tip the scales on the Highlands bag from actual backpacking to perhaps more of a camping oriented item depending on your personal take in this regard.

Highlands Bag by Ruffwear - Sleeping Bag for Dogs

All considered however, the bag certainly does a good job on those chilly backcountry nights and overall is a well designed sleeping solution for your dog. The same design utilizing lighter weight and more compressible materials would certainly be nice to have for backpacking purposes, or perhaps an alternative ultralight model, but considering that I have packed the Ruffwear Highlands on many higher mileage wilderness backpacking trips over the past year, it is certainly doable in this type of scenario if you feel the Highlands bag meets your (dog’s) needs.

The Ruffwear Highlands Dog Sleeping Bag retails for $100, but you can often get it on sale at the following retailers - find it here at Backcountry and on Amazon.com.

SarahLynne

We shuffle off the bus and melt into a crowd of tourists, all headed for the perfectly framed view of the Maroon Bells surrounded by bright yellows and greens. Just a minute from the parking lot and we’re already sold on our three-day adventure. More commonly a four-day trip, the Four Pass Loop is one of the most popular – and most photographed – backpacking routes in the United States.

Backpacking the Four Pass Loop Colorado

The 28-mile trek takes hikers over four mountain passes, ascends and descends over 7,800 feet, and challenges even the most experienced of adventurers with its constantly changing conditions and frequent mid-afternoon summer thunderstorms. It’s no wonder they’re nicknamed the “deadly Bells.” We’d waited for a clear weather window, but these mountains still had a lot in store for us.

Our first day leads us through the peaking aspens and over two of the four passes. We begin climbing almost immediately from the trailhead at Maroon Lake, energized by a good night’s sleep and the excitement of the day and too awe-struck to notice the weight of our heavy packs on our backs. At 1.4 miles, we hit Crater Lake – a dried-up landmark on our map that means it’s time to head west. We opt to do the loop clockwise to avoid a notoriously challenging ascent up Buckskin Pass, assuming a steep downhill will be much less exhausting. We blissfully navigate forests of thick yellow and began crawling up mellow, rocky slopes. Soon enough, they begin switchbacking and we catch an intimidating glimpse of our first mountain pass: West Maroon.

Hiking in the Maroon Bells

We had done significant research and prep before heading out, including purchasing a topographical map, downloading digital maps, and even tracking our hike using two cell phone apps. That said, we couldn’t figure out how far we would have to travel on our first day. Apparently, not many hikers do the Four Pass Loop in only three days, so the mileages and trip reports just didn’t add up. We figured it would be anywhere from 10 to 13 miles to Fravert Basin, where we intended to camp, but we had no idea how challenging our day-one itinerary would be.

Once we begin ascending West Maroon Pass, our pace slows significantly. It’s mid-afternoon, and we haven’t eaten a proper breakfast or lunch. I’m already delirious. We pull over to the side of the trail and dive into a hearty meal of Clif Bars and gorp – definitely not what my body wants – and push upward, determined to hit camp before dark. We crest the first pass with high spirits, stunned by the impressive view on the other side. The trail seems to dip and dive into the valley below with no sign of re-ascending another, but there’s still plenty of sunlight remaining.

Valley Seen While on the Hike

After a painfully steep descent, we continue on toward aptly named Frigid Air Pass. As we start another climb, the wind picks up significantly, pushing back against each step forward. Only motivated by the thought of my next meal, I force my hiking partner, Andrew, to step off the trail and cook us a real lunch: ramen noodles. In the distance, I notice a bright orange tent against the green backdrop of the valley – nestled up against a dream-like lake, peaks forming a perfect circle around the campsite. Can’t we just hide out here tonight? I toy with the idea for a short second before realizing Andrew’s already begun stuffing things back into my pack. At least full and warm again, I summon the willpower to continue upward.

Once we complete the long and arduous ascent up Frigid Air Pass, we crawl over the ridge just as the sun is setting. It transforms the maroon peaks into dark silhouettes and we can’t help but pause to take it all in. For a moment, all that matters is the remarkable stillness and silence in the mountains, and we don’t care what the lack of light means for the remainder of our descent to camp.

Frigid Air Pass Maroon Bells

The next few miles are a blur – we trudge on mostly in silence, only stopping to don our headlamps, hats, and gloves before entering a pitch-black evergreen forest that supposedly houses at least a dozen campsites. The temperature is dropping quickly and there are no signs of other campers nearby. Our map tells us that we should realistically be surrounded by sites, but there are no noticeable signs or packed-down paths leading away from the main trail. Finally, we come across a wide, flat clearing directly next to us, and a few tents appear in my spotlight about 100 feet back. “We can’t sleep this close to the trail,” I objected, but after another 15 minutes of exploring our (lack of) options, we decide this is it: our home for the night. We walk our bear canister into the downed trees nearby, crawl into our sleeping bags, and shiver ourselves to sleep.

We wake up with the sun and our nearby neighbors, who explain they had spent two nights there and don’t think there were any other open campsites the night prior. What would we have done if this spot were taken? I wonder. There’s no way we could have continued for another eight miles. After a hearty breakfast and giving the necessary thanks to our camping gods above, we hit the trail. Day two’s agenda: ascend another 2,000 vertical feet over Trail Rider Pass and camp near an alpine lake.

Along the Trail

It’s a slow and painful start. Our bodies ache, our legs sore from the unexpected torture we put them through yesterday. I silently wish we’d opted for the four-day option, and wonder aloud if another night in the wilderness is worth it. Always, I think. But Andrew pulls me back to reality quickly – we both have jobs, and as refreshing and energizing as it is being out here, part of the allure and magic is the fact that we don’t get to do this very often. We continue our long walk.

After what seems like a steady and continuous uphill climb for most of the late morning, we drop into a stunning valley: an alpine lake envelops its middle, surrounded by towering peaks on all sides. We look across the way and spot what look like ants in the distance, crawling up a switchbacking trail at a painfully slow pace. At first, we think they’re ascending a Fourteener – a  14,000+ foot mountain fairly common in the Rockies – but upon closer inspection, we realize they’re not on another trail. They’re on our trail. We haven’t even made it halfway up the pass yet. We break for noodles, watch our dog splash through the green-blue water of the alpine lake, fend off sleep while lying in the warm sun, and regain motivation.

Trudge up the pass. Descend into a stunning valley dominated by the lake. Scramble past a field of loose boulders. Race down the final approach into camp to snag one of the last designated spots. Pitch our tent. Crawl to the shore to cook a meal just as the sun lowers behind the peak above us. Our minds and bodies are exhausted, barely able to perform basic functions or form full sentences as we brace for another frigid night. But as our heavy eyes begin closing with a tent-door view of the expansive lake next to our encampment, none of that matters.

Lake Seen While Hiking the 4 Pass Loop

We don’t rush to leave camp, instead opting to bask in the peaks’ symmetrical reflection in the water as we finish off what remaining food we have: a dehydrated pad-Thai meal, cinnamon oatmeal, instant coffee, and peanut butter. In the minds and stomachs of two hungry backpackers, this is indeed a final-day feast. Satisfied by our eclectic meal and the resulting amount of weight we’ve cut from our packs, we say goodbye to our perfect campsite.

We fly past almost everyone that had left camp earlier that morning, determined to make it back to the trailhead with plenty of time to down beers and burgers in Aspen before a long drive home. And before we know it, we’re thanking ourselves for choosing to descend Buckskin Pass instead of climb it. It’s miles and miles of steep, painful downhill. Our legs beg us to stop, but with each camera-wielding, backpack-less tourist we pass, we realize we’re getting closer. Finally, the view that stunned us three days ago as we hopped off the bus rewards us with another appearance. Equally as awe-struck, we stop at the main viewing area and stare at the surrounding peaks. It’s hard to fathom how expansive this range is, and I struggle to make the final march toward the bus.

Maroon Bells Trailhead

In three days, we’ve experienced every type of terrain from scenic forests to wildflower-covered meadows to barren, rocky mountain passes and crystalline alpine lakes. We’ve climbed thousands of feet, descended the same amount, crossed innumerable streams and creeks, fallen asleep under clear night skies, and found ourselves in awe over the hump of every mountain pass. It’s truly been one of the most spectacular trips to the mountains, and we stare out the window of the 3pm shuttle back to town wondering when we’ll reunite with this jaw-dropping range. Hopefully, soon. But first, burgers.
 

Information: Entrance is $10, but the Maroon Lake parking lot often fills up by early morning throughout peak seasons, so parking is only allowed before 8am and after 5pm. A shuttle runs every 20 minutes (June 9 through October 8) from nearby Aspen Highlands Ski Area along Maroon Creek Road. Tickets can be purchased next door at Four Mountain Sports for $8 round-trip (more info here). Lodging and restaurants are available in nearby Aspen. Camping is allowed at many marked, designated spots along the trail, or at least 100 feet from any body of water. Wilderness permits are required and are available at the trailhead ranger station or by self-registration at the trailhead if you’re arriving after-hours. Water can be filtered at most points along the trail, but keep in mind that many streams and even lakes included on maps might be dry in late summer months. Bear canisters are required for the trek. More information on the trail can be found here.

Best Time to Go: Summer is the peak season, but early afternoon thunderstorms are common – it’s safest to be over any pass before noon, at the latest. If you’d like a bit more wiggle room, early fall offered spectacular and unparalleled views of the changing aspens (sans storms). Temps dropped to around 15-20 degrees Fahrenheit at night, but days were still mid-70s.

Getting There: The Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness is located just outside of Aspen, Colorado. From downtown Aspen, take highway 82 for .5 miles west before exiting the roundabout onto Maroon Creek Road. From here, it’s another 9.4 miles to the parking lot. If you’re instead planning to shuttle from Aspen Highlands Ski Area, it’s only 1.5 miles on Maroon Creek Road.

Books and Maps: A National Geographic topographical map for Maroon Bells/Redstone/Marble can be purchased for $12 – we found it extremely helpful in figuring out where we were in relation to marked campsites we could only find on non-topo maps online. When paired together, the combo worked perfectly. There are also several other books on hiking Colorado’s many famed Fourteeners in the area, if you’d like to tack on any major peaks during your camping excursion (and have the necessary training and gear). We passed trailheads for many of them including Pyramid, Maroon, and North Maroon peaks while hiking the Four Pass Loop. These are all more technical, class three and four climbs.

The Author: Sarah Nelson is a backpacker, volunteer outdoor educator, and journalist based in Boulder, Colorado. Follow along for more of her adventures at @sarahhlynne.

Aaron

Exped Synmat UL Sleeping Pad Review

A lightweight, inflatable 3 season sleeping pad from Exped, the Synmat UL features synthetic insulation that takes the r-value up to 3.3, with Exped subsequently rating the pad warm down to around 25 degrees Fahrenheit. The Synmat UL is available in 4 sizes: small, medium, and the medium wide and long wide – the later 2 offering a width of just over 25 inches, compared to the standard 20 inch width of the small, the medium, and most other sleeping pads on the market.

Exped Synmat UL Sleeping Pad Review

The sleeping pad features separate inflation and deflation valves that lay flat and allow for quick deflation, or easy fine-tuning of the inflation level via a convenient one way valve on the intake, which can slightly be depressed to allow a small level of air to escape. 20D fabrics are utilized and the top features a honeycomb "Gripskin" pattern designed to keep you on the pad at night. The Exped UL will weigh between 15 and 21 ounces depending on size – the Synmat UL MW here is listed at 19.9 ounces, and weighed exactly that on my scale. Also and now included with the mat is an Exped Schnozzel pump bag, that allows you to inflate the sleeping pad quickly and easily without introducing moisture from your breath into the pad. Previously one had to buy the Schnozzel separately for around $40, so the new inclusion is a nice perk. The Schnozzel can also be used as a pack liner or stuff sack. The new Synmat UL is very similar to, and has seemingly replaced the Synmat UL 7 in Exped’s lineup with a color change, addition of the Gripskin coating, and the inclusion of the pump bag. A repair kit is also included.

Synmat UL MW

Synmat UL sizes (length X width in inches) and listed weights:

S      64.2 X 20.5  14.6oz.
M     72 X 20.5     16.8oz.
MW  72 X 25.6     19.9oz.
LW   77.6 x 25.6   21oz.

Testing out the Synmat UL, and in this case the medium wide (MW) version this past summer and fall, the sleeping pad proved to be about what you’d expect: a well-rounded blend of comfort, ease of use, and warmth without weighing you down. The vertical baffles, the outer 2 which are slightly larger, help to keep one centered on the pad and resist edge collapse (resulting in you falling off the side of the sleeping pad). The pad is also 2.8 inches high, so adequate comfort is provided even on bumpy ground and there’s enough height to adjust the pad even for side-sleeping comfort while keeping your hips off the ground. The warmth provided here is great for general 3-season use. I find r-values in this range to be adequate perhaps down to the high 20’s, but if the forecast calls for nightly lows in the mid 20’s or lower I like to add in a thin foam pad to combine with the Synmat for adequate warmth, or the addition of something even warmer such as a RidgeRest SoLite in the winter.

Exped Flatvalve Inflation and Deflation System

The Gripskin coating on the top of the sleeping pad, which alternates in printed intensity, seems only slightly more tacky than the rest of the fabric itself, and personally I’d prefer any anti-slip treatment on the bottom of the pad if I had to choose a side as any sliding issues I have are usually myself and the sleeping pad together on slippery silnylon tent floors. I’m not sure how much this honeycomb pattern Exped has added to the pad really helps, and a honeycomb design also existed in a more muted, and less aggressive pattern on the UL7, but it certainly doesn’t hurt either. For what it's worth, I haven't had any sliding issues with either this pad or the previous UL7 I've used except again for that occasional pad and myself sliding downhill all together scenario when pitched on less than flat ground. If noise issues are a concern, the Synmat UL is also very quiet. With the included Schnozzel inflation takes no lung power and is achieved in about a minute. The separate deflation valve dumps all air quickly and packed, the Synmat packs compact enough.

Synmat UL Packed Size

The Synmat UL focuses on lightweight comfort with a rectangular shape, and the 2 wide versions of the pad are especially appreciated as a side sleeper, or for back sleepers that find their elbows falling off normal 20 inch wide pads. To save some more weight by moving to a mummy-shaped version with the same 3.3 r-value, check out the Synmat Hyperlite, and if you mainly backpack in warmer locales you can also stay with a rectangular shaped pad and save weight with the Synmat UL LITE, with its 2.5 r-value and less plush 2 inch height. For a warmer and heavier mat, Exped also has their Synmat Winter line.

Exped Gripskin Coating

Overall the Synmat UL continues the mark set by the UL7 of offering comfort and versatility that make this a great all around choice for 3 season conditions in climates where a backpacker will face temperatures down to, or slightly below, the freezing mark. With its rectangular construction more sleeping space is offered up compared to mummy-shaped pads, and comfort is achieved for back or side sleepers both via the construction and the via the warmth the synthetic insulation provides in appropriate temperatures and for 3 season use.  

The Synmat UL retails from $150 - $190 depending on size, but you can occasionally find them on sale. Find the sleeping pad here at Backcountry, over at CampSaver.com, as well as here at Amazon.

For more and an overview on choosing a sleeping pad in general, see our post on how to select a backpacking sleeping pad.

Aaron

Pad Thai with Chicken from Backpacker’s Pantry takes their most popular dinner – the vegetarian Pad Thai – and adds chicken with a “meal kit” including a lime packet and Sriracha powder, so you can customize the meal to your personal tastes. Right off the bat, it stands out that the meal packs a punch in the calorie department (for a pre-made backpacking meal at least), at 840 calories total.

Backpacker's Pantry Pad Thai with Chicken Review

As I’m personally a fan of a meatatarian meal for dinner when I’m on the trail (after all, breakfast and lunch are usually vegetarian for me just by accident), I’ve always passed on the previous vegetarian version of Pad Thai from Backpacker’s Pantry, despite the fact that it's always been one of their most popular offerings. With the recent addition of a chicken option however, I went ahead and gave the meal a go around in the TrailGroove trail kitchen.

Extra Ingredients Included with this Backpacking Meal

If you’re one that likes an easy to make pre-made backpacking meal but still likes to do a little doctoring, this might be the meal for you. Upon opening the package you are presented with the typical backpacking meal contents and oxygen absorber, but also inside is an additional bag containing peanut butter, peanuts, and the previously mentioned lime packet and Sriracha powder. The peanut butter is added when preparing the meal and the peanuts add some crunch as a topping later…and both help push the calorie count up on this one. 

Pad Thai with Chicken Ingredients and Nutrition - Backpacker's Pantry

After rehydration, the consistency of the meal is good – no soup here, just a hearty blend of ingredients that go together pretty well. For me personally, I didn’t find the lime packet to work too well with the meal and frankly, I think it could have been omitted entirely. The Sriracha powder however, is simply amazing and really packs the flavor with a little spice as well. The peanuts are a nice addition that bring the crunch factor that’s usually missing from these types of meals. 

Chicken Paid Thai Before Rehydration

Flavor wise, the meal is good – I would say it’s a little high on the tomato flavor for an Asian type meal for me however. With the spaghetti-like rice noodles that are ingredient number one, combined with the tomato sauce / powder that is ingredient number two, the meal was a little too reminiscent of spaghetti and tomato sauce for me…though with some other Asian themes mixed in. However, overall the meal does taste good, can be doctored as one wishes, and has a reasonable mid-range price at $11 MSRP and is on the high side of the calorie count at 840.

Backpacker's Pantry Pad Thai with Chicken Meal Ready to Eat

While my favorite Asian themed backpacking meal from Backpacker’s Pantry, and one of my favorite pre-made backpacking meals of all time is still their Pad See You with Chicken offering, it's unfortunately just been discontinued. I wouldn't say that this new offering will replace it on my list of favorite meals of all time, but this will be a nice one to work into the dinner rotation every now and then. Backpacker's Pantry Pad Thai with Chicken retails for $11 and can legitimately feed a couple hikers with average appetites. Find it at Backcountry.com as well as here at REI.

Aaron

Window insulation film, often referred to as polycro in the backpacking community is a thin, clear plastic heat shrink sheeting designed to insulate the windows in your house to save on energy costs – but this material also works very well as an ultralight backpacking groundsheet to help protect your tent floor or for use when cowboy camping or under a tarp.

Window Insulation Film - Polycro Backpacking Groundsheets

As window insulation film is available for a wide range of window sizes, you’re sure to be able to find something to fit your backpacking shelter of choice, and I’ve used different sizes right out of the box for all my shelters from solo shelters all the way up to a Tarptent Hogback (where I use the 84x120” Duck Brand Large Window offering), and in all sizes you can usually pick up a solution for just $5-10. This stuff is extremely light – as an example the average window insulation film ground cloth even for a spacious 2 person shelter will easily weigh less than 3 ounces, with a groundsheet for a larger family or group tent in the 3-4 ounce range. Instead of cutting the groundsheet down to an exact match to my shelter floor, I always leave a little extra leeway all around when the sheet of material allows – this material is designed to shrink in the heat after all – just be careful that the groundsheet does not extend past the floor if it rains (rain can run on top of the groundsheet and below the shelter floor).

Heat Shink WIndow Film Groundsheet

In addition to providing abrasion protection a groundsheet of this type will also provide extra waterproofing for your shelter floor on soggy ground where it’s possible that an elbow or knee could provide enough pressure to surpass the hydrostatic head of a silnylon shelter floor for instance. While many commercially available, and specifically made groundsheet and footprint options are made that will work well, and Tyvek is another tough option, these choices can be more costly in the case of the former, heavier, and / or more bulky to pack (while however, offering more durability). It’s all about whatever balance you’re going for.

Polycro - Window Film Footprint

Window insulation film groundsheets are remarkably tough for their weight – but they are to some extent semi-disposable. However, with a little care I can get many nights and multiple trips out of a single polycro groundsheet. I’ve found the main thing to be careful of with this material is to resist the temptation to anchor the groundsheet in any way, as most tears result when attempting to anchor the corners of the groundsheet using tent poles, rocks, shelter struts, etc. – when pulling an opposite corner tears can more easily occur. Thus, I’ve found it best to let the groundsheet float underneath the floor so it can move, and not tear. While the standard film has worked well for me, you can also find a heavy duty version that’s twice the thickness if you don’t mind the extra weight.

Polycro Groundsheet and Tarp Tent Hogback

Lightweight backpacking gear is always a balance of weight vs. durability, and over the years I’ve found that that the window insulation film groundsheet strikes a perfect balance in this regard. It offers more protection for your tent or shelter floor than going without a groundsheet at all, but weighs only a few ounces, and is light enough to pack even on high mileage and high effort trips. These groundsheets are also compact; no matter which shelter I use I’ve always been able to stuff these groundsheets directly in my tent’s existing stuff sack along with the tent of course. And perhaps best of all, a window insulation film / polycro groundsheet won’t break the bank at only a few bucks, and with care, offers sufficient durability as well.

You can find window insulation film in a wide variety of sizes here at Amazon, (Duck and 3M offer a good size selection) and you can also cut larger sizes down to size, or even tape multiple pieces together for the perfect fit. Lately I've just been getting whatever size is closest to the footprint of my tent, and calling it good.

Aaron

As one of the newest meals they've released, Turkey Dinner Casserole is a meal that's not so traditional when it comes to the Mountain House dinner lineup, but is one that's high on tradition on every other level. The new Turkey Dinner Casserole meal from Mountain House offers up a homestyle freeze-dried backpacking meal that’s ready to eat in just 9 minutes with just a mug-full level of 1.25 cups of water.

Mountain House Turkey Dinner Casserole Backpacking Meal Review

I’m a fan of mixing in freeze dried meals with other backpacking dinners – but some days (many days perhaps) on the trail after a long hiking day I simply want to eat and sleep and get to both as quickly as possible. New meals are always welcome to prevent getting burned out on other favorites, but you can also run the risk of getting stuck with a meal you have to force down in the wilderness. However, after trying out this new meal from Mountain House first at home and subsequently on the trail on trips this past summer, this new Thanksgiving-inspired meal is one that is sure to occupy some space in my food bag on future trips as well.

Mountain House Turkey Dinner Ingredients and Nutrition

Turkey Dinner Casserole is a combo of turkey, stuffing, vegetables (green beans, celery, carrots, onion), broth, and Thanksgiving spices in a 2 serving pouch that has a 30 year shelf life. While I’m not the biggest fan (personal preference) of a couple of the vegetables included in the meal, everything seems to work well together. The meal goes for about $10, but from time to time you can find a deal or any time of the year, REI offers 10% off 8 or more freeze dried meals. Sodium is a bit high in this one, with the entire bag comprising about 2/3 of one’s suggested daily sodium intake.

Turkey Dinner Casserole Prior to Rehydration

Overall this is a really tasty meal all on its own, with large chunks of turkey that will definitely remind one of a Thanksgiving meal, as with many recent meals from Mountain House they’ve really brought the protein to the table. While taste wise this is a new favorite among freeze dried meals that could earn it 5 of 5 stars in that category, I do think a couple things could be improved. First the consistency: the meal tastes great, but could use some crunch. If Mountain House had included a separate pack of crushed nuts to add to the meal after rehydration for example, this would easily solve the problem. The second potential drawback is the price to calorie ratio on this meal. When I consider the around $10 price tag at just 480 calories, it pushes this meal more into the splurge category for me. 25% more product in the bag would help greatly in this regard. Back to that topping idea, if a pack of crushed nuts was also included, boosting the calorie count by at least 100 and adding some crunch while keeping the price the same, and/or a packet of olive oil was perhaps included, this meal would be a slam dunk. Of course, one can feel free to doctor this meal as they wish on their own. Dried cranberries, anyone?

Turkey Dinner Freeze Dried Meal from Mountain House

Mountain House Turkey Dinner Casserole retails for about $10 for 2 servings, but I’d suggest one whole package for the average hungry hiker. You can get the meal direct from Mountain House, or find the meal here at REI and over at Amazon.com.

Need some other ideas for great freeze-dried meals on the trail? Take a look at this post that details our top ten.

Aaron

Tarptent offers a wide array of 1-4 person shelters that all offer a nice blend of weight and functionality, and once you’ve decided upon the best model to suit your needs one additional factor will need to be considered if you’re going with one of their double wall models (now most of their lineup) – as these models are offered with your choice of interior tent type. Mesh, solid, or partial solid interiors may be available depending on the specific model and the conditions that particular tent is designed for. After spending some time with each type of Tarptent inner tent configuration, here’s my quick take on the pros and cons, and best use scenarios that I've found for each option.

Review of Tarptent Inner Options - Mesh, Solid, and Partial Interiors


Mesh

With a mesh inner the complete interior is no-see-um mesh other than the silnylon bathtub floor. The floor is the same no matter your interior of choice, and I always further protect it with a lightweight groundsheet made from window insulation film. As may be obvious, mesh is the best option for warm weather trips and locales and especially anytime you feel you might be spending time in the tent during the day, as any of these tents are greenhouses in the sun. This is also the lightest option – significantly lighter compared to a partial solid inner on Tarptent’s largest offering, the Hogback, in my experience. While mesh offers the most ventilation while keeping the bugs at bay, it’s also the least warm, and as I’ve experienced, doesn’t help much in a sandstorm. However, if most of your trips are in the summer or you live in the south this is a great option.

Full Mesh Tarptent Interior

Mesh inner with fly removed halfway (Hogback)

Solid

Tarptent’s solid inner tents are made with a water resistant and windproof nylon fabric, and this is without a doubt, the most enclosed (and warm) option, blocking nearly all wind and to be honest, sleeping in a tent with a full fabric inner is a different experience, almost cabin-like. While this option can feel a bit detached from the outdoors, a solid inner is great for winter nights and adds noticeable, significant warmth when the temperatures drop and the wind picks up outside with the most protection from exterior elements, and is quite welcome in those conditions.

Example of Tarptent Solid Fabric Inner - Scarp 2

Solid inner example on a Scarp 2

Tarptent does offer a mesh ventilation panel at the top of each door here, but I’ve still noticed some condensation on the inner (forming into ice at the temperatures I use this option) using the solid inner on a Scarp 2. I have however, been quite warm regardless of condensation or not, and this has been a good option for Rocky Mountain winter trips when temperatures are very cold. This is the option that will block the most wind and retain the most heat at night.

Solid Inner Ventilated Door Panels

Small mesh panels at the top of each door offer some ventilation on this Tarptent with a solid inner tent.

Partial Solid

Now offered on many tents in Tarptent’s lineup, the partial solid interior is a compromise between the two above offerings, and if I had to choose is my favorite all around choice for 3 season backpacking here in the Rockies where nightly lows in the 40's are considered a warm night. The top of the inner tent is mesh, offering great ventilation, while the solid fabric extends about 1/3 to halfway up the sides (varying throughout the tent) to block wind, sand, a little shoulder season blown snow, and to seal in some additional heat at night. Even on my last trip with a cold front approaching, a partial solid inner was quite appreciated – there is simply no direct, straight-line path for wind to reach you, and while there was quite the breeze stepping outside the partial solid-equipped Tarptent Hogback, wind inside was virtually 0. Perhaps the ultimate compromise inner, this option is however a bit warmer in regards to a cross breeze on hot days, although a nice touch can be found with the Velcro-secured end flaps, overlapping no-see-um netting, that can be folded down to increase north-south ventilation. The partial solid inner is heavier than mesh as well, and I was surprised that it added 6 ounces of weight in the case of my Hogback, for instance.

Partial Solid Interior Tarptent Hogback

A blend of both types can be found with a partial solid inner.

Whichever route you take on the inner tent, all of them are cross-adaptable to various conditions to some degree, and for the best of all worlds you can always get both types of inners as well and change them out based upon conditions – the interiors are simply attached to the fly with a set of plastic hooks and matching rings or loops on the inner. Although this will take a little yard time before your trip – you can twist the hooks to release each, and then push to attach the new inner. And if you’re adding a different inner tent to an existing tent, the seams on the floor should be sealed (as with a new Tarptent) – I use Sil-Net Seam Sealer and like to add some extra dots or a pattern on the floor as an anti-slip treatment while I’m at it. The inner tents are available separately for around $150 if you already own your tent, or you can simply select one or the other or both if you're buying new.

In my case, having these various inner tent options available simply allows one to extend the tent of their preference further into the next season a bit, and has the ability to add a little more comfort mid-season at anytime of the year as well. For more in general on selecting a tent see our post on factors to consider when choosing a tent, and you can take a look at Tarptent’s full lineup here.

Aaron

Meals from Good To-Go have always been intriguing from my point of view with their focus on delivering backcountry meals utilizing great, real ingredients – their newest meal, chicken gumbo stays true to this philosophy. I’ve always liked their meals as well, but haven’t relied on them too much for my backcountry dinners as all the original meals were vegetarian. Recently however, Maine-based Good To-Go has broken that mold and I had a chance to try one of their new meals with meat – dubbed “carnivore” meals by the company, their chicken gumbo offering made with antibiotic free chicken, rice, okra, along with a set of complementary ingredients and spices.

Good to Go Chicken Gumbo Review

After at least 15 minutes of rehydration time, Good To-Go chicken gumbo rehydrates nicely. With all the spices in the bag here, I was a bit surprised that the first bite tasted a little on the bland side. I was however pleasantly surprised that the heat level was indeed, good to go. As a guy that normally packs a spice rack in the backcountry that includes habanero flakes, I didn’t need to add any additional spice to this meal with the already included ancho chile powder, cayenne pepper, and black pepper ingredients.

Good To-Go Gumbo Ingredients and Instructions

As Good To-Go didn't hold back with their seasoning approach on this backpacking meal, it indeed could be too spicy for some palates however. Crackers compliment the meal nicely, and for those that don’t like too much spice, an addition of this type will tone the spice level down a bit while boosting the calories up a bit as well. One thing I definitely did appreciate with this meal was an extra dash of salt that did seem to bring out the rest of the flavors in the dish, and if you're already bringing some salt along, it's always easier to add more than to take too much out.

Chicken Gumbo before Rehydration

As a guy originally from the south who frequently gets a craving for a side of fried okra with dinners at home at least once monthly, okra in a backpacking meal is simply awesome. Even though it’s the first ingredient, I found myself wanting even more and searching for any hidden pieces of this vegetable popular in the south, which after eating this meal, I've learned apparently dehydrates and rehydrates quite well. For me at least, Good To-Go Chicken Gumbo definitely brings back some memories and is a great comfort type meal, and is very unique among the array of backpacking meal options available from many manufacturers.

Good to Go Chicken Gumbo Meal

At $14 for 2 servings, this meal is quite pricey and I was surprised that the meal expired only one year after purchase...you’ll want to eat your Good To-Go meals quick, and look around for a sale or use REI’s ongoing 10% off 8 or more backpacking meals deal. For lunch, as just a component of a dinner meal, or if you're looking to test the waters a bit a single serving version, as seen here, for around  $7-10 is also available. One great thing about the packaging is a “vaguely approximate” fill line already printed on the outside of the bag. While this wasn’t one of the best premade backpacking meals I’ve ever had, the meal is unique enough to earn a spot in the rotation to mix things up every once in a while without a doubt, and would serve up a nice lunch as well as working for a dinner time entrée.

You can find Good To-Go Chicken Gumbo here at Amazon, as well as here at REI.com.

Aaron

Toaks 550ml Titanium Pot Review

When it comes to backpacking cookware, most of us can keep things simple with a pot combined with a mug of choice. Especially when solo backpacking however, using the same vessel for both purposes is one option to save weight, save pack space, and is a great way to keep the camp kitchen even simpler. The Toaks 550 is about the smallest option you can go with that will still perform well across the board as an all in one solution.

Toaks 550 ml Titanium Pot - Mug Review

The Toaks 550ml Pot is a lightweight titanium mug/pot with collapsible handles and an included lid. The handles, complete with a finger rest, make for a comfortable hold when enjoying morning coffee and the lid improves fuel efficiency. A small handle and venting is included in the lid. Very convenient measuring marks are stamped into the mug in both ounces and milliliters. True to its name, the 550 holds 550 milliliters / about 18.5 ounces of fluid to the brim, so when you factor in a little room, at max capacity it's workable for the 2 cups many freeze dried meals will call for and about right for a big cup of morning coffee.

Toaks Stamped Measurement Marks - 550ml Pot

2 versions of the 550 (with handles) are offered – the standard version seen here is made from a thicker gauge of titanium weighing 3.5 ounces (3.65 measured), and the ultralight, light version is also offered that uses a thinner gauge to get the weight down to 2.6 ounces, saving .9 ounces. A stuff sack, adding half an ounce, is included. Both options have their pros and cons. For cookware that uses a lid, as with the 550, thinner versions are nice for the slightly lighter weight, but life on the trail for a mug / pot can be a little rough. In my case, a pot is often shoved into a a pocket of my pack or perhaps into a full Ursack early on during a trip, or carried on the outside of my pack where it will be leaned against the occasional tree or rock with the weight of a full pack pressing against it. With the light gauge titanium pots and mugs I’ve used they will all usually at some point get bent out shape. No big deal with a mug; but for pots that have a lid it can be a bit frustrating to repeatedly bend the pot back into shape to get the lid to fit right, only to have it get bent out of shape the next day again. While it’s about an ounce heavier, the standard 550 is quite tough and has held up to the above scenarios well without getting wonky on the shape, something I do appreciate at meal time. The standard version is also about $10 cheaper. So without a doubt, there’s an upside to both versions of this mug.

Toaks Stuff Sack

Either way for solo use, toss in a utensil and you can be all set with either version of the Toaks 550. It’s a workable size if you’ll be focusing on freeze dried or freezer bag meals, but it’s still tight – this isn’t the pot you’ll want for cooking more complex meals in the pot, or if you like to boil enough water for a meal plus coffee or tea all at once. In these cases going with a larger pot / mug combo or using a smaller mug combined with a dedicated pot (I use the Evernew 900 or 1.3 depending on the trip) to prevent a double boil scenario would be best....and that’s just fine, as this Toaks makes for an excellent coffee mug for those that like a big brew. Beware also that if you bring a full 2 cups to a rolling boil, some water will jump over the sides, so boil with caution.

Toaks 550 Handles Stowed

Toaks 550 with handles folded

The 550 will fit a 110 gram fuel canister or a stove, and I prefer to just keep my fuel canister separate on this one as my Soto Windmaster doesn’t quite fit when a fuel canister is also inside the pot. If you use a smaller upright canister stove using the stuff sack, and/or turning the lid upside down, can help keep everything together in a single package if that's desired. A Nalgene bottle will also fit inside if that helps you save packing space.

Toaks 550 Nesting 110 gram MSR Fuel Canister

If you're looking for a large backpacking mug, or a small pot...and ideally both of those in the same package, the Toaks 550ml titanium pot makes for a very nice option. The 550 goes for around $25 for the normal 3.5 ounce version, and $35 for the thinner gauge, 2.6 ounce light / ultralight offering. You can find the standard version here on Amazon, and take a look at the ultralight version here at REI.