AT Backpacking Gear: Backpack

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I’m preparing for an Appalachian Trail thru-hike. In addition to physical and mental preparation, I’m working through what gear to carry. My goal is to have less than 25 total pounds for a week’s hike, including food, water and fuel. To do this, I’ll need to have my base weight (non-consumable items) well below this total. This is key to Ultralight backpacking.

My new backpack, a Jam 70 from GoLite
My new backpack, a Jam 70 from GoLite

Most of the weight comes down to these four things, and I need their total to be under 10 pounds:

  • Backpack
  • Shelter system
  • Sleeping system
  • Cooking system (minus the food)

Backpack

Today I focus on my choice of backpack, which is very key. It determines how much volume and weight you can carry. After a lot of consideration I bought a GoLite, Jam 70L, $120. It only holds 30 pounds, expands to 70 liters, but it’s made of “stronger-than-steel Dyneema® and Ripstop Nylon.” It also sheds water (which is not the same as waterproof, BTW). It weighs more than I wanted, though. The Jam 70L is listed at 31 ounces, but I weighed it at 33. I could have bought the 50L, but that would have only saved an ounce (and $10). With the unique “load lifters controls” at the bottom of the pack, I’ll have more room for bulky, winter gear during the colder months and can easily cinch up the bottom and sides during warmer months when the room isn’t needed. It’s important that I’m able to take up the slack in the pack from the bottom since I want the weight carried high on my body. A consideration that came up later is my desire to pack my down sleeping bag loosely. It’s not the bag that keeps you warm, it’s the trapped air. Keeping the bag loose means you don’t squash down the loft of the insulation every day by forcing it into a tiny stuff sack. But the most important consideration with any sleeping bag is keeping it DRY. It’s doubly important with a down bag.

No doubt, one of the reasons I bought this pack is that I had great experience with an earlier GoLite product, an early Sil-Nylon version. It was a bit fragile, but I’ve managed to patch it successfully (if not attractively)with duct tape. I always hated the orange color, though, so it’s a good thing that backpacking is not a fashion statement. The Jam was named Backpacker Magazine’s 2012 Best All-Around Ultralight Pack. That helped too.

Second Guessing

Thirty three ounces is 21% of my total goal weight for the key four items (10 pounds = 160 ounces). Is that too much?

Here are two thoughts I’ve mulled around:

1). I may have bought the wrong pack. My friend Skittles carries something the size of a day pack. Maybe I need to go back to my ugly orange pack? Or maybe he’s just a more rugged individual than I am? The weight of your pack is a measure of your fear. What am I afraid of? Well, being wet and cold and freezing to death. Yeah, that’s it.

2). Here’s a radical idea: Mike Clelland says in his book Ultralight Backpackin’ Tips to cut away anything you don’t need. “Get the scissors and go to town on your pack. This is one place you can really clear away some significant ounces.” Yikes!

Well, I have to admit that the straps on this thing are exceptionally long, so maybe I can trim them off. And I never use the inner hydration bladder pocket. (Maybe it works for you, but one leak is all you need to soak your sleeping bag and clothes.) Mike recommends deeper cuts—like modifying the opening  or removing the side compression straps—but I’m not sure I can make myself do that. Yet.

The straps on this pack are very long, so I snipped off what I didn't think I'd need, then sealed the edges. This is an ounce of excess.
The straps on this pack are very long, so I snipped off what I didn’t think I’d need, then sealed the edges. This is an ounce of excess in the bowl of my scale.

Modifications

So I got out my scissors and began trimming extra-long straps and tags. I removed one set of the side compression straps that I thought were redundant and pretty useless. I found a few labels to remove. But it only added up to an ounce. Still, it’s an ounce. If you do this, remember to take an open flame to the end of the nylon straps after you trim. Just lightly melt the edge to seal them. Fast and easy with no sewing.

I’ve kept the hydration pocket for now, but it may go later. I’d like to keep it for storage.

Pack Cover

And, though I bought the pack cover that goes with the Jam, my good hiker friend Skittles assures me that no pack cover will keep a pack dry in a serious downpour. He recommends Glad compactor trash bags as a liner for the pack. They are durable, weigh about an ounce and are cheap (a box of 4 cost $3). The white color makes it easy to find things inside of them. Not taking the cover will save 4 ounces (But I spent $15 I didn’t need to).

DSC_0393And there are other advantages of the Glad trash compactor bags. They are large enough to carry my sleeping bag loosely while still leaving room for clothing and other items that must stay dry. It can also double as a small ground cover beneath me in the event of damp ground/flooring. And, though I’ve never tried it, I’ve read that they can go over the bottom of a sleeping bag to help keep it dry and keep you a bit warmer in very cold conditions. That’s a lot to get for one ounce of weight!

TOTAL WEIGHT OF PACK AFTER MODIFICATION: 33 ounces

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Beth

I'm a professional vagabond. I quit my cubical job in January 2014. Since then, I've hiked the Appalachian Trail, The Camino, and taught English in Vietnam, Turkey, Russia, Spain, Mexico and Peru. I'm exploring the world and you can come too!

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