June backpack: Testing new gear and methods under the super moon

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Isn't this quite the view? This is what I saw outside my tent this weekend along the AT, in the Blood Mountain Wilderness.
Isn’t this quite the view? This is what I saw outside my tent this weekend along the AT, in the Blood Mountain Wilderness.

I’m preparing my gear and my body for a thru hike of the Appalachian Trail. Right now, I’m fairly obsessed with gear and the weight of everything I’m carrying. As part of this effort, I’m going on a weekend backpack monthly to check out new gear and techniques.

AT hike June 2013, 3This trip I was checking out my new backpack, sleeping bag, sleeping pad and—most importantly—my new tent. I’d timed the hike to coincide with the beginning of Summer and that “Super Moon” that’s been all over the internet. Bonus!

I went hiking last weekend in the Blood Mountain Wilderness area and had a particular spot in mind. The exposed rock outcropping at the top of a mountain gave me a good view and I thought it’d be the best test of the tent if it got windy or started to rain (it didn’t).

Overall experience

The site I picked is about 3 miles from where I park the car, mostly straight up a mountain. I’m in better shape than a month ago when I hiked this same mountain. Plus I’ve dropped my pack weight by almost 5 pounds. Those changes really made a difference. And the moon was lovely! The breezy spot kept down the mosquitos, but the tiny flies were pretty bad. I had to resort to bug spray. Never seen so many Daddy Long Legs, though. And they were really attracted to my tent.

New backpack, sleeping bag, pad and tarptent.
New backpack, sleeping bag, pad and tarptent.

New Gear

The Contrail TarpTent replaces my beloved Hennessey Hammock. With extra-large rain fly, two sets of Snake Skins and Four Season Insulation System, the Hennessy tops out above 4 pounds. I’ve spent a fortune on this system and I’m loath to abandon it, but I must be practical. A tarp tent will almost always weight less than a hammock system made for outdoor camping, and the Hennessey is the top of the line. But the real problem with a hammock is not just the weight of the system. The problem is that you end up carrying redundant gear. I still have to carry a pad and ground cloth for nights I stay in an AT shelter, which I expect to be more than half the time. I also carry tent stakes to convert the tarp into a tent, in the event there are no trees or the weather is just too cold and windy. I hate carrying redundant gear and frankly my body can’t take it. I’ve done a full review of the Contrail, for geeks who care.

Also new this trip is a sleeping pad (Big Agnes, Insulated Air Core, rectangular, 20×66, weight 22 ounces) and bag (Big Agnes, Juniper SL 25F, Petite Rated to 26F for Women, weight 34 ounces). The pad slept comfortably and the bag seemed fine, though late June doesn’t give a real test of the warmth of the bag. I can say that the down bag did NOT soak up the moisture of the air like my existing down bag, which weighed about the same and packs smaller. The Big Agnes is treated to reduce moisture and I think it’s worth the investment. A wet down bag is worse than none at all.

Finally, I’ve got a new backpack, the GoLite 70L. It’s probably bigger than I need and I’ll detail it in another post.

Hiking means enjoying the things you see along the way, like this Indian Pipe.
Hiking means enjoying the things you see along the way, like this Indian Pipe.

What I didn’t carry/replaced

What you leave behind matters too, since Ultralight backpacking is all about taking only what you need. I didn’t carry my MSR Sweet Water filter pump, opting only for a liquid water treatment to kill virus/parasites/bacteria (saving another pound). And I’m using an emergency bivy by SOL to double as a ground cloth (saving a couple ounces).

I also left my fancy water bottles at home (6 ounces each), opting for two, one-liter soda bottles (one ounce each). That’s a total savings of 10 ounces.

Finally, I ditched my pack cover (4ounces). It won’t keep your stuff dry in a downpour. Instead I’ve gone to a simple, white Glad trash compactor bag (1 ounce). If it has to stay dry it goes inside the bag. Total weight savings, 3 ounces.

Another view of the Super Moon, roughly 14% larger than usual and as close as it will get to us over a year.
Another view of the Super Moon, roughly 14% larger than usual and as close as it will get to us over a year.

New Techniques

It’s important to try something new with each hike. In addition to gear I tried these new things.

Pillow: Call me a wimp if you want but I need pillow to sleep well. The usual answer is to stuff extra clothing into a stuff sack. That’s fine IF you have a lot of extra clothing and an extra stuff sack. With Ultralight camping, you don’t have extra anything. What I tried was inflating plastic Ziploc baggies about half way with air and putting them in a stuff sack. It didn’t work for me. They were flat in minutes. Back to the drawing board.

Bear Bag Hanging System: I hang my food well away from my tent at night and don’t cook near the place I plan to sleep. This keeps down all critters, but especially bear. I’ve got a terrible throwing arm, so I’ve focused on just getting foodstuffs away from me. But I have to improve this method. I used a system from Mike Clelland’s book and it worked really well. It’s outlined here, and it’s the PCT method. Easy, lightweight. The drawing in Mike’s book is better than the photos, however.

One less stuff sack: It isn’t really the sleeping bag that keeps you warm. It’s the trapped air. Every time you stuff a sleeping bag into a tiny stuff sack you force the loft down. It may or may not come back. So I’m just putting my sleeping bag into the trash compactor bag loosely. I’ve got a pack with large volume and now that I carry less, I don’t have to worry about everything being forced into such a small space. I think allowing the bag to stay fluffy means it will keep me warmer. This wasn’t the trip to test that theory since June is warm, but I can say that I have enough room to do this.

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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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