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TrailGroove Blog

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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. It’s a bit like a cheap pair of sunglasses – with care they will last you quite some time, but when they finally do break or get lost it's no big deal.

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

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.

Aaron

Herbal Armor by All Terrain is a natural insect and mosquito repellent that has been my go to insect repellent choice for the last several years. Over time as I’ve moved from DEET to picaridin to various natural repellents, I’ve had a chance to try many products on the market – and have had the unfortunate experience of being quite disappointed in the efficacy of many natural solutions. Many smell nice, but might as well have been left at home. Returning from backpacking trips with more than a bite or two to scratch on a few occasions using other products, the search for a natural repellent that really worked continued, until I stumbled across All Terrain Herbal Armor.

Herbal Armor Natural Insect Repellent Review

As a seasonal item on my gear list, mosquito repellent is technically an optional item when packing up but mandatory on any spring or summer trip – when they're out in force, mosquitoes can really make it tough to enjoy any hiking or backpacking excursion. While any combination of products containing DEET, picaridin, permethrin, etc. are very proven in their efficacy of repelling biting insects, I’m personally not a fan of the various possible health concerns involved, LNT considerations, and additionally with DEET, possible damage to my plastics and gear. If I can get similar results from a natural product, I'm the type that will always go that route.

Herbal armor contains a combination of natural oils (soybean, citronella, peppermint, cedar, lemongrass, and geranium) and is most popularly offered in a standard pump spray of various sizes, from the compact and lightweight 2 ounce option all the way up to the family sized 8 ounce bottle, and this application method works well enough, but may require that you spray, then rub into your skin by hand. Normal and “Kids” versions are sold, but the formulas appear to be identical. This is potent stuff – you may have to get used to the scent that may even stick around in your clothing after a wash. I’ve found that 100% skin or clothing coverage is not required. Simply by spraying localized zones of your body, sufficient repellency can be achieved. As an example, simply by spraying my hat I can usually achieve good enough repellency for areas above the shoulders for all but the worst summer mountain swarms.

Herbal Armor Mosquito Repellent Ingredients

As I prefer to also utilize good anti-mosquito measures like wearing long pants and shirts, I usually apply Herbal Armor to clothing. Beware however that the product can permanently stain some types of clothing especially when using the pump bottle which applies more of a localized and concentrated spray. For me this isn’t an issue however – when I’m using the product I’m wearing after all, my hiking and backpacking clothes.

While it runs about twice the price as the pump bottles, a pressurized continuous spray option is also available. At around $10 for 3 ounces of net product, this isn’t the cheapest option, but in regards to application it’s far superior than the pump bottle. The spray allows for even coverage and can spray upside down for hard to reach areas (and even works great for dogs as well). While it can be hard to tell how much is left with these, they weigh about 4.5 ounces when new (1.5 ounces empty), so with a digital scale at home you can easily calculate just how full one of these bottles really is. From time to time, you can snag a deal on the continuous spray here at Amazon – I’ve seen them go for as low as $4 and change (rarely). $7-10 is more common. I can usually stretch the 3 ounce spray to last 2-3 nights solo during mosquito season, so multiple bottles may be needed for longer and / or for group trips – a larger (and ideally more economical) spray bottle would be a very welcome offering. Other than price and the ability to tell how much is left by sight, the standard pump bottle does have another advantage over the pressurized continuous spray however – if you didn’t pack enough and start to get low, the pump bottle can be refilled with water, shaken, and the contents used for “ok” effectiveness to at least get you home.

Natural Mosquito Repellent - Hiking and Backpacking with Herbal Armor

While I’ve had excellent success using Herbal Armor against mosquitoes, with good results against other flying biting flies and insects, I’ve only had marginal results with repelling ticks if that’s a concern where you hike – but that’s been par for the course with all repellents I’ve used, synthetics and natural. Clothing applied permethrin is one option, but for ticks I prefer the physical barrier approach combined with Herbal Armor. More here.

As a natural repellent, you will need to reapply Herbal Armor more frequently than DEET – every 2 hours or so on average. However, unlike some other natural repellents that provide only marginal protection, this product works very well (with near 100% repellency on areas freshly applied) and allows us to go hiking and backpacking during bug season without mosquitoes ruining the trip, and all while using a natural product.

You can find Herbal Armor in the pump bottle over at REI as well as here on Amazon.com. Check out the pressurized continuous spray offering here.

Jen

The REI Co-op Flash 45 is a backpacking pack designed for the weekend warrior that has a great set of features at an appealing $149 price point, and that can from time to time be combined with REI discounts to get the price even lower. The top-loading REI Flash 45 features a large main compartment that closes with a drawstring, a hydration compartment and opening, two side water bottle pockets, hipbelt pockets, an exterior mesh pocket, and a zippered lid compartment.

REI Flash 45 Backpack Review

Women's Flash 45 in Seattle Mist trim

The entire backpanel, which is minimally padded in typical “Flash” style, is also ventilated. With the multitude of storage options one can easily find the right spot for anything on their gear list. The pack features a somewhat flexible steel internal frame that brings the load carrying capacity of the pack to a suggested 20-30lbs,  and coming in at about 2lbs 12 ounces (the provided weights might be with tags; the pack here came in one ounce under spec) the pack is quite light. The 420 denier, ripstop nylon used seems very water resistant to proof, but with all the seams on the pack, non-waterproof zippers, and the drawstring type closure (vs a roll top) you’ll still want to be sure to use a pack cover or liner like a trash compactor bag.

Ventilated Backpanel and Hipbelt

The bottom of the pack is further reinforced with heavy duty fabric. The pack features compression features outside, load lifters, and an adjustable sternum strap complete with a built-in whistle. Per its name, the pack features about 45 liters of storage. The shoulder straps also attach to the pack body with a large patch of Velcro, as such, even though the Flash 45 is offered in 2 torso sizes, by adjusting the shoulder strap attachment point each size can be adjusted a bit up or down for a perfect fit. Both men's and women's versions (as reviewed here) are available.

REI Flash 45 Backpack Drawstring Closure
 
Organization is good on the pack, and the contents of your pack are easy to see as well with the light grey color women's model shown here. With limited space however, you might need to strap your tent or other bulky items in between the lid and the top of the main compartment or at the bottom of the pack using additional straps (loops are provided). The dedicated hydration sleeve and hook inside the pack make getting your sipping setup all set easily, or this pocket can be used for even more organization of other items if you prefer bottles - which can easily be grabbed and re-stashed without removing the pack. In fact, the water bottle pockets are partially attached to the sides of the hipbelt to help keep your bottles within reach.

Flash 45 Hydration and Bottle Setup

One hip belt pocket is zippered for security, and one is more of an open stretch stash pocket for ease of use. The lid offers another place to keep things you might need during the day (and also has a hook for your keys), and the mesh outside pocket offers some additional space, with a detachable hook and loop at the top for full access if needed. However, this mesh pocket would be a little nicer if it were larger, or made from stretchier mesh. Trekking pole / ice axe holders can be found on the outside of the pack as well and multiple points of compression help keep everything solid.

Using the Flash 45 Lid and Top Strap to Carry Tent
 
While the pack carries well up to around the 30lb mark, the hipbelt is a bit minimal not in thickness but in coverage, something more substantial here would have been a nice to have especially at higher weights for a more complete interface with one’s hips. However, this pack is on the small side, and unless you are packing very heavy it’s simply tough to find the space to pack more weight than the pack is designed for – which might be a good thing! With a feature set that’s just right for those quick trips and with a price that’s right as well, the pack has also served well as a loaner pack for friends and family who might not have a backpacking specific pack. The pack is also a great size when backpacking into a location is in your plans with dayhikes from there as the pack makes a good option for carrying gear for a group for a day. For longer trips myself, I’ll still stick to a ULA Circuit.

Backpacking with the Women's REI Flash 45

The Flash 45 served as a great loaner pack on this 2 night, impromptu backpacking excursion.

The REI Flash 45 backpack is perhaps best suited for shorter, up to long weekend trips or so, or for group trips where gear like a tent will be shared. For these types of trips however, the Flash 45 is a great choice and size that offers a nice set of features while keeping both the weight of the pack and the price point low.

Two sizes of the pack are available depending on your torso and hip size. The REI Flash 45 retails for $149 and is available in both men’s and women’s specific versions and in several colors. Take a look at each here at REI.com.

Aaron

Whether it’s a trip along a National Scenic Trail or a quick weekend backpacking excursion into an obscure wilderness area – when the mountains are calling, our trips to many backpacking and hiking destinations will also take us into bear country. When hiking and camping in these areas an extra set of considerations will be added to our pre-trip planning process and a few extra gear items will need to be added to our gear list to approach bear country backpacking in the proper manner.

Backpacking and Hiking in Bear Country

To start, it pays to research specific concerns within the land management area where you’ll be hiking – and beware of inaccurate lore and assumptions that may be out there. I’m often surprised for example at how many people still report that there are no grizzlies in my home stomping grounds in the Wind River Range, or even worse those that believe there are no bears here at all – a quick call to the local ranger district or game and fish office is a great way to get up to date accurate information wherever your trip may take you. While you’re at it, check the regulations regarding food storage for the area you’ll be in as well to make sure you’ll be in full compliance, and to make sure you’re aware of any specific concerns or specific locations where bear activity has been reported.
 

In Camp

To limit any potential conflicts in your camp for the night, and to prevent providing the local bear population with food rewards that will only cause grief for you and future hikers, it’s important to 1) store your food separately well away from your camp and 2) store your food in such a manner where it will be impossible to very difficult for a bear to get into your food stash. The cheapest method is to simply hang your food from a tree, and you’ll need a small and lightweight kit to achieve a good hang. The most popular method among lightweight backpackers is the PCT method, and for a detailed, step by step guide on how to perform a PCT hang just follow the aforementioned link. Hanging your food takes time, a bit of skill, and depending on your chosen campsite adequate trees can be difficult to find. I still use a PCT hang on long trips where I just can’t fit everything into other storage options the first day or two out, but my preference is the utilize an Ursack Major (formerly known as the S29.3 AllWhite bear resistant food bag). Find our full Ursack Review here – this is essentially a food bag made from an extremely strong, densely woven Spectra fabric that you then secure to a tree. While an Ursack is heavier than the supplies needed for a PCT hang, the Ursack rules in convenience while still being lighter than a canister. To keep smells down, it’s best to use the Ursack with an accompanying OPSak liner, which is essentially a heavy duty zip top plastic bag you store your food inside, and that fits the Ursack perfectly. Another option is to use a hard sided bear canister. This will be your heaviest and least packable choice – and although failures are occasionally reported – will be the most secure and no other option will double as something to sit on. The BearVault BV450 is one popular option; for more details check out our full BearVault Review in Issue 30.

First Aid Supplies, Bears, and Smellables

Not just food: All "smellables" should be stored away from camp, including first aid and hygiene supplies.

No matter which way you choose to store your food, always store your food downwind from your tent and camping area– any critters following their nose towards your food stash won’t have to pass through your camp to get there, and this isn’t just for food either. Any “smellables”, such as scented first aid and hygienic products, should be stored for the night in your system as well. Cook away from camp when preparing meals (one strategy is to even take a late afternoon break, eat dinner, then continue hiking before setting up camp), and be careful to avoid spilling any food on your clothing. And don’t forget to check your pockets before calling it a night – I’ve had to make the long sleepy trip back to my food bag on many a night after finding a forgotten snack from the day in a pants cargo pocket.

Although this is difficult to predict, it can also help to avoid choosing a campsite that is within a wildlife corridor – look for game trails and evaluate the terrain. For example, a campsite between a river running high with snowmelt with cliffs on the other side puts you directly in the only area that wildlife can travel to get from point A to point B, and may increase your chances of an encounter with any number of wild animals. Moving on and setting up camp past the cliff band or away from the river for instance, can help reduce the chances of a chance encounter.

Bear Spray Being Used and Test Fire


Bear Spray

As much of a necessity as storing your food securely and separately from your sleeping area, in any areas where grizzly or black bears frequent and no matter the species, a can of bear spray is an affordable, easy to use, effective, and relatively lightweight option to carry for defense. Generally and speaking in net weight terms, the 8 ounce size range is adequate. For a little extra boost, upgrading to the 10 ounce range will give you a little extra range and time, but the most important factor with bear spray is to keep it somewhere where it is immediately accessible (many will come with a holster that can be attached to your backpack), and it will help to occasionally perform a practice touch and removal of the safety mechanism to develop the needed muscle memory. Many manufacturers will offer test cans to practice with as well, or personally, I always practice with my cans that expire over the years. Beware of spraying into the wind so as to not incapacitate yourself, and in regards to aim, it’s better to miss low than high if you have to miss – this way any approaching animal will have to run through the spray instead of possibly avoiding it by running underneath. And most of all of course, follow the directions on your can of bear spray. Bear spray can be found here at REI.

Black Bear Tracks - Porcupine Wilderness Michigan


On the Trail

While at camp we want to keep food odors down and away from our sleeping area in order to avoid attracting a bear; while on the trail the focus will be to avoid surprising a feeding bear and / or one with cubs. From bear bells to air horns to whistles and more, there are a variety of ways to avoid surprising a bear while on the trail. Any of these strategies will work – and larger groups are usually pretty noisy simply by nature – and if you choose to forgo use of any of these add on noise makers your voice will do and is without a doubt, most recognizable as human. An occasional “hey bear” or your phrase of choice will be helpful, especially in areas of dense brush, willow thickets, etc. Pay attention to the wind as well. If you’re walking into a headwind, be very aware that both your voice as well as your scent will not carry. Be louder. If you backpack with a dog, keep it under very strict voice command and / or on a leash – a dog chasing after a bear will only make a situation that much more unpredictable and the last thing you want is a dog bringing a bear back to you.

Bear Investigated Nalgene - Popo Agie Wilderness

Not a Cowboy fan; Bear-investigated Nalgene, Popo Agie Wilderness

If you do encounter a bear on the trail or in camp for that matter, ready your bear spray, do not run, and remain assertive without being aggressive. By the time you take the safety off your can of bear spray – and as was the case with my last bear encounter with a black bear and two cubs – you’ll likely now be looking at the bear’s backside as it runs away from you as fast as it can. If the bear does not retreat, keep your bear spray ready, back away slowly, and find another route.


While backpacking in bear country brings with it a set of unique considerations and will require a few extras to bring along in the gear department, it’s important to take these precautions not only for you but for future visitors and for the bears themselves as well – once a bear gets into a food bag for example, habits develop and it’s usually not good for all parties involved. With the proper preparation and a little planning when on the trail, we can keep our food protected, and take steps to reduce the chances of an encounter in the first place – whether we're in camp or out on the trail.

Aaron

A clothing system for backpacking needs to be as lightweight as possible while still performing a variety of critical tasks in an ever-changing and varied wilderness environment. A clothing system must be comfortable, will act as our first line of defense to keep us warm, and should protect us from the sun, precipitation, biting insects, and bumps and scrapes on the trail to name a few concerns. While each of these tasks are easily obtainable with dedicated and specialized items of clothing, when it comes to backpacking a clothing system is best composed of more generalized items. These items should all work together as a system using layers under different circumstances – a system where weight is reduced and efficiency is obtained via a sum of its parts. In this post we’ll look at clothing systems and a list that works well for most 3-season conditions a hiker and backpacker will face, and for the organizational purposes of this post, we’ll start with headwear and work our way down to the socks.

Hiking Wide brimmed Sun Hat


Headwear

A hat is one area where a one-size-fits-all-situations solution may be hard to come by. For hiking during the day sun protection is key, and nothing will beat a wide-brimmed hat. The wide-brimmed hat offers little compatibility with the hood of your rain jacket during rainy weather however, and a baseball style hat actually works very well with hoods to help keep the hood in place and out of your face. The solution comes down to personal preference; frequently if a trip is forecasted for fair weather I’ll opt for a wide-brimmed hat, and if the forecast calls for clouds and frequent rain, I’ll go with a hat of the baseball variety – sun protection can still be obtained here by combining the hat with something like a buff, bandanna, or hooded shirt – but this configuration will not make its own shade like a wide-brimmed hat.

Either way, this during-the-day choice should be paired with a beanie type hat, and I prefer something of the fleece variety here, but many other options are popular ranging from wool to down. Whichever way to go, this piece should be warm and if it blocks the wind, either through the use of dense outer fabrics or through use of a wind block fleece, a warm hat will go a long way towards keeping you warm in camp, while sleeping, and during cold morning starts on the trail. During mosquito season throw in a headnet as well – but find much more on dealing with biting insects here.

Clothes to Take Backpacking - 3 Season Use


Upper Body

I take this beyond a 3-layer layering system, but only slightly. I find that an additional shirt adds versatility, comfort, and total system warmth – I start with a simple short sleeve 100% synthetic shirt and haven’t found anything that fits better, dries faster, or is more comfortable than our own TrailGroove Performance Shirt. However, while comfortable a short sleeve shirt offers limited protection against the sun or mosquitoes (requiring extra sunscreen or bug repellent), or crisp and chilly mornings. Thus – and this is one of the most versatile clothing items out there – I add in a lightweight, long sleeve, zip neck shirt as can be found with REI’s Lightweight Tech Tee, and I’ve had good success with Patagonia’s Lightweight Capilene Line as well. The higher neck offers additional warmth, but you can vent as needed on the fly with the zip-neck front while the longer sleeves also offer sun and bug protection, warmth, and can be pushed up for those uphill sections when you start to warm up. With such versatility, if I’m not wearing it – this is an item at the top of my pack that I can reach for quickly. If preferred, a button-up style collared shirt can also work well here. This layer can – as long as you’re content wearing a long sleeve shirt all the time as your primary layer – replace the short sleeve option if desired. While I prefer synthetics, merino wool is another option for both parts of the system listed above. Wool offers an additional benefit of keeping the hiker stink down on those longer trips, and is generally more expensive. Either way, it’s best to avoid cotton clothing items all around, save for specific hot and dry weather hiking situations where you can get away with mixing some in. Don’t overlook color choices as well which can help you stay cool or warm as needed and more – for much more on that factor take a look at this article.

Any upper body clothing system isn’t complete without a jacket, and for 3 season use, combined with the additional layering options that a complete system will offer, we don’t need to go overboard with something too warm – and too heavy. Lightweight down jackets are very popular both on the trail and at any local, trendy coffee shop in cool weather, and are a good choice for the mountain west where predominantly dry, low humidity conditions will be encountered. Just like down sleeping bags these jackets will offer excellent warmth for their weight. Synthetic-fill or fleece jackets are another option and are especially suited for wetter conditions and more humid and rainy locales; fleece is an especially good option if you wish to utilize this piece while actually hiking, but a fleece will need to be paired with another, wind blocking layer any time wind is a factor. A good weight target for a 3-season jacket is under a pound, and around 10 ounces will put you on the lighter end the scale while still offering adequate 3-season warmth when layered. A hood here is optional – but I find the weight penalty well worth it for the extra warmth a hood provides.

Lightweight Clothing System and List for 3-season Backpacking

You likely won’t need or use your jacket during the day while on the trail, but it will be welcomed at the end of the day, for adding warmth in your sleeping bag at night, and while sipping coffee first thing on a frosty morning. Some examples of insulated jackets can be found in the Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer and the REI Magma Jacket. Slightly heavier warmer options include the Montbell Mirage, more expandable across other seasons or for those that run colder.

Lower Body

Preferences for your legs will vary – from shorts, to pants, to convertible pants, to skirts and even kilts. Anything that’s not full coverage is best reserved for fair weather on-trail hiking – talus, brush, briers, etc. can quickly wreak havoc on an unprotected hiker’s legs, and will force you to use copious amounts of insect repellent during bug season. My preference is for long pants that protect against those mosquitoes, can be tucked into your socks for tick prone areas, and offer substantial protection when offtrail or for the occasional slip on the trail. Currently, I use the Zion pants from Prana – and I prefer the convertible option. I actually rarely hike with them in “shorts mode”, but with convertible pants that option always exists and I mainly use the leg zippers as well placed vents in hot weather. By unzipping the zippers on these convertible pants about halfway, your legs are ventilated with each step forward, while still being protected from the elements.

Clothes for Summer Backpacking and Hiking in a Mountain Environment

A thin pair of thermal type synthetic or wool pants will add additional warmth on chilly trips and will be welcome on cold nights and mornings – something like a lightweight Capilene option is perfect here and will really add some warmth when layered under hiking pants. This is an optional item for me though, and will stay behind on mid-summer trips to save pack weight.

Whether lower or upper body, underwear may be getting into a bit of a sensitive issue – with comfort being key, adequate support where needed, and something that quickly dries making up the most important factors. While you don’t need spare shirts and pants and a change of clothes on the trail, an extra pair can without a doubt be nice to bring here for a rotation.


Socks and Gloves

A bit less sensitive but just as personal, socks and gloves round out the package and perhaps most of all, socks will be critical to enjoying any hike. A good sock really can make all the difference – as a personal example if I go with a synthetic sock I’ll likely get a blister on every trip; since switching to merino wool socks I haven’t had a blister...in years. Thus, while I’m primarily a synthetic guy for most of my other clothing choices (save the down jacket), I’m in the pro wool camp when it comes to socks; merino wool is less abrasive, dries in a respectable and adequate time, and maintains comfort for your feet across many conditions from hot and dry to cold and wet weather. While I take few spare clothes in any other category, you will want at least two pairs of your favorite hiking socks here at a minimum, and I usually take 3 so I always have a dry pair to sleep in. When one pair gets soaked, hang them on the outside of your pack so they’ll dry during the day, and rotate as needed. My preference are socks from Darn Tough, and I usually go for the Light Hiker or Comfort Hiker versions. Fit is key and different brands fit different people differently, so try as many as you can until you find the right option for you. Height depends on your preference and mostly shoe choice – for more, check out our article on footwear selection.

Backpacking Clothing List and on and Offtrail Hiking Considerations

Any light pair of gloves will be suitable for 3 season use and selection here is not as important as something like a good sock that’s subject to constant motion in your shoe and a heavy duty, insulated, waterproof glove is not needed – just a pair of lightweight liner gloves or mittens made from wool, synthetics / fleece are perfect to take the edge off when a cold front rolls through on an early fall day. For more warmth and to shield your digits from wind and precipitation use your liner gloves with a waterproof rain mitt – more on that in the next section.
 

Rain Gear

Rain gear completes out the package, and things can get complicated quickly when it’s comes to waterproofing and breathability ratings; as both of those metrics go up together often so will the price. The 3 important factors here are something that’s waterproof, lightweight, and offers some breathability at whatever price point you choose. Many high-end options exist at the lightest weights like the Helium II from Outdoor Research and many others. At a mid-range and mid-weight price point, the Marmot Precip series is hard to beat. And at somewhat of a bargain, check out the various Frogg Toggs options, although durability may not be a selling point here. Staying dry is the most important issue at hand here, and while items like a parka will work, for layering purposes and the most coverage I find that a separate rain jacket and rain pants work best. With many heavy-duty options out there this is an easy category to go too heavy, but an equally good category to save pack weight. Around 20 ounces or so for a rain jacket and pants combination is a respectable target, with around 12 ounces total being in more of an ultralight range. A pair of rain mitts – I use the MLD eVent offering – will keep hands warm during chilly rainy days.

Using Rain Gear and Clothing Layers for 3 Season Backpacking in Snow Storm

Don’t forget that rain gear isn’t just for rain: you can don your rain gear to block the wind, protect against mosquitoes, and to add warmth as an outer layer anytime it’s needed and even in your sleeping bag at night for more warmth, so be sure to size appropriately so you can layer underneath. Keep your rain gear in an outer pocket of your pack for easy access during the day when a shower rolls through, or when you just want to use your rain jacket for the wind on a lunch break. The rest of my clothes not worn are stored in a waterproof stuff sack like a Sea to Summit Ultrasil dry bag or the multi-use Exped Schnozzel.
 

My 3 Season Backpacking Clothing List:

  • Sun hat
  • Warm hat / beanie
  • Short Sleeve Shirt
  • Lightweight Long Sleeve Zip Neck
  • Light Down / Synthetic Jacket
  • 2 Pair Underwear
  • Hiking Pants
  • Baselayer Bottoms (optional)
  • Liner Gloves
  • Rain Mitts
  • 2-3 Pair Socks
  • Rain Jacket and Pants
  • Dry Bag (for anything not worn)


Typical 3 season conditions can involve everything from hiking in the heat of summer to light snow and in cool wet conditions – sometimes on the same trip – and in locales ranging from the desert to alpine tundra to a rain-drenched forest. Once dialed in, an adequate clothing system simply and quietly does its job on the trail across all of these conditions; so that we can relax and enjoy the wilderness ride no matter the sun, the rain, mosquitoes, or even a bit of snow around the shoulder seasons…or wherever the next trip may take us.

Mark

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

Backpacking in the Superstition Wilderness of Arizona

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

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

Cactus Along the Trail in the Superstition Mountains

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

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

Camping in the Superstition Wilderness

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

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

Evening Hiking Through a Desert Canyon, Superstition Wilderness

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

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

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

Hiking Through Mountain Scenery in the Desert Rain

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

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

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

Loop Trail in the Superstitions of Arizona

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

Books:

Hiking Arizona’s Superstition and Mazatzal Country by Bruce Grubbs

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

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

 Map:

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

Aaron

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

Hiking During Mosquito Season - Clothing and Repellents

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

Mosquitoes and Flying Insects

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

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

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

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

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

Ticks

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

Hiking Trail During Tick Season

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

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

Sagebrush Trail During Tick Season Hiking


Other Concerns

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

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

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

Aaron

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

Digital Scales for Weighing Backpacking Gear - Best Types and Usage

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

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

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

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

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

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

Using a Scale to Pack Backpacking Food in Pounds a Day

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

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

Aaron

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

Choosing the Best Lightweight Backpacking and Hiking Footwear by Season


Early Spring and Late Fall

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

Waterproof Breathable Hiking Boots for Spring and Fall Hiking

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


Summer

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

Trail Runners and Summer Hiking

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


Winter

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

200 Gram Insulated Waterproof Breathable Boot for Backpacking

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


The Lightweight Big 3

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

Summer Backpacking in Mesh Trail Running Shoes

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

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


One Footwear Option to Rule Them All?

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

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

An All Purpose Waterproof Mid Hiking Boot


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

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

Aaron

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

How to Choose Lightweight Backpacking Tent Stakes


Materials

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

Different Backpacking Tent Stake Types


Design

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

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

Titatanium Ultralight Shepherd's Hook Stakes

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

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


Other Considerations

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

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

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

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


My Approach

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

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

Lightweight Backpacking Tent Stake Selection Guide


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

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

Aaron

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

Dyneema Composite Fabric Backpacking Gear, Types, Comparison with Silnylon
 

DCF vs. Silnylon

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

Dyneema Composite Fabric Stuff Sack and Stake Bag

Dyneema Composite Fabric Stuff Sack and Tent Stake Bag

Common DCF Variants and Types

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

.51 oz. DCF

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

.51 oz DCF Cuben Fiber Tent Canopy and Transparency

.51 Dyneema Composite Fabric

.74 oz. DCF

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

1 oz. to 1.5 oz. DCF

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

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

Hybrid DCF Material Showing Outer Polyester Layer

Hybrid DCF

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

Hybrid Cuben Fiber - Dyneema DCF Inner Layer

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

Specialty DCF

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

DCF - Cuben Fiber Zpacks Backpacking Tent


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

Aaron

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

ZPacks Triplex Tent Review

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

Ultralight Triplex Tent from ZPacks with Sleeping Pads

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

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

ZPacks Triplex - Dyneema - Cuben Fiber Tent

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

Triplex Lineloc 3 Adjustment and Guylines - One Storm Door Open

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

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

Triplex Storm Doors and Original ZPacks Closure

Original storm door closure system

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

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

ZPacks Triplex DCF Tent Packed Size

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

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

Aaron

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

8th LNT

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

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

As well as:

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

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

Sharing Information About Wilderness on Social Media - Ethics and Principles

Protecting Wilderness

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

Wilderness Backpacking Ethics

Relative Impact

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

Getting Specific

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

Proposed Eighth Leave No Trace Principle

The Balance

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

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

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

Aaron

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

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

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

The Criteria

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

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

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

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

Mountain House Biscuits and Gravy Freeze Dried Backpacking Meal Review

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

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


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

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


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

Mountain House Italian Style Pepper Steak Dinner Review

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


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

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


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

Review of Mountain House Breakfast Hash

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


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

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


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

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


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

Backpacker's Pantry Pad See You Review

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


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

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


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

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

Mountain House Beef Stew Review

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

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

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

Aaron

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

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

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

Single Wall and Double Wall Tents

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

Singlewall vs. Double Backpacking Tents - Ultralight ZPacks Hexamid Twin

Dyneema Composite Fabric Tent

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


Do I Need a Freestanding Tent?

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

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

A 4 season, freestanding option

Space and Capacity

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

4 Person Group or Family Backpacking Tent Tarptent Hogback

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

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


Doors, Floors, and Vestibules

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

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

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

Singlewall Silnylon Backpacking Trekking Pole Tent - Tarptent Rainshadow 2

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

Support Methods

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


Materials and Construction

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

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

Trekking Pole Supported Backpacking Tent - Six Moon Design Lunar Duo

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

3 Season and 4 Season Tents

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

Weight Ranges

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

Doublewall 3 Season Backpacking Tent - Tarptent Hogback

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

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

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

Aaron

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

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

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

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

Backpacking Canister Stove Weight and Fuel Usage

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

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

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

Solo Backpacking Trip Alcohol and Canister Stove  Weight Comparions


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

Canister Stove and Alcohol Stoves Average Daily Weight


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

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


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

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


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

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

Alcohol Stove Fuel Weight by Backpacking Trip Length

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

Aaron

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

Hiking and Backpacking Water Filters, Treatment Methods and Considerations


What We Need to Treat and Filter

Microorganisms and Biological Concerns:

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

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


Other Treatment Considerations:

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


Physical Filters and Purifiers

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

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

Backpacking Pump Water Filters - Katadyn - PUR Hiker PRO

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

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

Types of Filters

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

Gravity Water Filter for Backpacking - Platypus GravityWorks System

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

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

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

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

Approaches to Filtering

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

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

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

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

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


UV Treatment

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

UV Water Treatment for Backpacking - Steripen Adveturuer

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

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


Chemical Treatment

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

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

Filtering Downstream and Muddy - Silty Water Sources While Backpacking

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

Boiling

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

Carbon Filtration

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

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

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

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


My Approach

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

Platypus GravityWorks Water Filter Element

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

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

Aaron

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

Hiking and Backpacking Songs -11 Favorite TrailGroove Classics

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

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

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

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

Watching the Wheels – John Lennon, 1981

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

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

Backpacking Trip Music and Classic Playlist


Stairway to Heaven – Led Zeppelin, 1971

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

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

Band on the Run – Paul McCartney and Wings, 1973

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

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

Learning to Fly – Pink Floyd, 1987

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

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

A Forest – The Cure, 1980

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

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

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


Here Comes the Sun – The Beatles, 1969

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

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

Take Me Home, Country Roads – John Denver, 1971

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

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

A Horse with No Name – America, 1971

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

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

Hiking Song Playlist and Classics


Heart of Gold - Neil Young, 1972

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

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


Kodachrome – Paul Simon, 1973

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

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

Wilderness Backpacking Songs


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

Aaron

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

Selecting the Best Backpacking Sleeping Pad - Tips and Considerations

R-Value and Warmth

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sleeping Pad Size

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

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

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

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

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

Weight

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

Closed Cell Foam Pads

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

Closed Cell Foam Backpacking Sleeping Pads - Pros and Cons

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

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

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

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


Inflatable Pads

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

How to Choose an Inflatable Backpacking Sleeping Pad

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

Exped Inflation and Deflation Valves on an Inulsated Synmat

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

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

My System

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

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

Aaron

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

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

How to Carry the Camera

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

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

Carrying a Camera Using a ZPacks Multi-Pack While Backpacking

Carrying a Camera with the ZPacks Multi-Pack

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

The Lightweight Accessory Kit

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

Giottos Small Rocket Air Blaster for Cleaning a Lens While Backpacking

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

Cleaning a Lens on Hiking Trips with a Lens Pen

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

Lightweight and Trail Ready - Lens Filter Wallet and Storage

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

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