AT Backpacking Gear: Sleep System

I’m preparing for an Appalachian Trail thru-hike next year. 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. One of the key items is the sleep system, since getting a good night’s rest is paramount. Hiking for 6 months across the eastern United States is hard, physical labor and you can’t do it on a couple hours of fitful sleep. As I’ve said before, the weight of your pack is all about what you are afraid of. My biggest fear is being wet and cold and freezing to death, so it’s not surprising that this category is a heavy one, over 4 pounds.

Sleep system

  • Sleeping bag: Big Agnes, Juniper SL 25F, Petite, 34 ounces   $224
  • Silk liner: 5 ounces  $70
  • Sleeping Pad: Big Agnes, Insulated Air Core, rectangular, 20×66, 22 ounces    $85 (THIS ITEM HAS CHANGED. I NOW USE THE Therm-a-Rest ProLite Plus Sleeping Pad, R, 20×72 AT 16 OUNCES)
  • Bivy SOL Emergency Bivy 4 ounces    $17 (NOTE: After a November shake down hike, I ditched this item. With a better tent, I didn’t need it)
  • Pillow Cocoon Hyperlight Air-Core Travel Pillow 3 ounces $30

Sleeping Bf96e7781-662c-483e-96db-d0b603c854afag

I chose a down bag to keep the weight-to-warm ratio high. I upgraded from my Mountainsmith Vision 15F bag (under 2 pounds) because of moisture. The down feathers and the outer cover of the Big Agnes bag are treated to repel water. That adds weight, but a wet bag is worse than useless—it’s heavy and it won’t keep you warm. I also plan to carry the bag loosely in a trash compactor bag inside my pack, rather than forced into a stuff sack. It’s been my experience that I’m colder each successive night of a long hiking trip. I theorize that the loss of loft in the bag is a big part of this issue. It’s the trapped air inside the loft that keeps you warm. If you keep crushing it into a tiny stuff sack the bag simply traps less air.

78536664-aeb1-4bd5-bec2-e0089996a351Silk liner

A silk liner will add 8-10 degrees Fahrenheit on a cold night. And it can keep your bag cleaner, reducing the number of washings (since that will eventually wear off the anti-water treatment). Wear it on the inside to protect your bag from your dirty clothes and body. Wear it outside your bag to protect it from the surroundings (like at a hostel). And in the summer I can use it as a light sleeping cover. This is an item I’ve had for years. Personally, I slip the silk liner over the outside of my bag because it don’t lose it in the dark recesses of the bag. I’ll also slip the foot of my sleeping bag into my backpack (and the trash bag liner) if my feet are still cold. I also keep an extra fluffy pair of socks just for sleeping in and will add my coat, gloves and hat if I need it.)

aa544dd6-8600-4cb8-8c96-b7f06ce7df1dSleeping Pad

This is an area that I could cut some weight on, but at least for the colder parts of the hike, I want the comfort and warmth of a full length air mattress. I sleep cold. The Big Agnes pad gives me some reflective heat AND it will insulate me from the ground. Plus it’s long and wide enough that I won’t have any part of my body on the cold, hard and possibly wet ground. I can switch to a closed cell foam to reduce weight. This pad replaces an older model Therm-a-Rest, which has served me well, but weights too much.

As an aside, I gave the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XTherm Sleeping Pad a very serious look. Though horribly expensive (about $200) they weigh less than a pound and have a shiny, space blanket material inside to reflect back your body heat. But honestly I rejected it because of noise. I don’t want to hear it every time I move. It would be like sleeping on a bag of potato chips. And it looks fragile.

(THIS ITEM HAS CHANGED. I’VE REPLACED THIS WITH THE Therm-a-Rest ProLite Plus Sleeping Pad, R, 20×72 AT 16 OUNCES. Part of the change was weight, but also the amount of time/energy it took to blow up the mattress. The Therm-a-rest is partially self inflating.)

78a4e9f7-6941-4b4c-b066-dc3bc06f2b33Bivy (NOTE: After a November shake down hike, I ditched this item. With a better tent, I didn’t need it. If I were starting my hike in early March or–heaven forbid–February, I’d carry it.)

I’ve had the SOL Emergency Bivy in the trunk of my car for months and I’ve carried it once or twice on a trip, but I hadn’t even unrolled it from the tiny stuff sack until my last trip. At 4 ounces and $17, it’s surprising how nice this is. Totally reflective inside to trap heat so it might add up to 10 degrees F on a cold night. But the material is both tough and stretchy so it doesn’t tear like an emergency space blanket. It’s large enough to fit my sleeping bag, sleeping pad and me inside. And it doubles as a ground cloth. That’s a lot for 4 ounces. I’ll destroy it within a couple months of hiking, but by then it will be warm weather and I won’t need it. And they’re cheap to replace. Most bivys are $150+. Even the SOL Escape Bivy is $50 and double the weight. It’s possible that I don’t need both the bivy and the liner. I certainly won’t need this item in summer.

0cb41cb8-687d-4efc-9a32-36e629397611Call me a wimp….

..but I need a pillow. Lately, I’ve been carrying my clothing in a stuff sack that has a silky feel on one side and a brushed surface on the other (fairly heavy for a stuff sack). I’ve used it as a pillow by stuffing extra clothing into it. That works as long as you have extra clothing to put into it. But the essence of Ultralight backpacking is to avoid  “extra” weight. I’ve just added the Cocoon Hyperlight Air-Core Travel Pillow to improve my sleep. I’ve ditched the stuff sack and will just keep it inside my sleeping bag. According to the advert, it weights 2.4 ounces. My scale says it’s 3 without the stuff sack. Grrrrrr

TOTAL WEIGHT FOR SLEEP SYSTEM: 68 ounces

(With changes, this category now includes a Therm-a-Rest Stuff Sack Pillow, rust at 2 ounces. The total weight is now 60 ounces)

Gear to Hike the Appalachian Trail

This is a food scale that I already own, but a digital scale would allow me to be more precise.
This is a food scale that I already own, but a digital scale would allow me to be more precise.

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. This is called Ultralight Backpacking. I’ve been interested in it for years, and it’s the best way to keep hiking into middle age and beyond. Here’s what’s included on gear list. I need to keep the weight of the top 4 items on this list under 10 pounds to make my goal :

  • Backpack
  • Sleep system
  • Shelter system
  • Cooking gear
  • Water purifying system
  • Clothing
  • First aid
  • Emergency items
  • Food
  • Fuel

Based on the recommendations of Mike Clelland‘s book, Ultralight Backpackin’ Tips, I‘m weighing each piece of equipment. I’m using a food scale I already owned, but if I had to buy new, I’d get a digital one. It’s far more accurate.

This is how Mike C. sees Ultralight Backpacking:

Physical preparations

I’m also preparing myself physically. Part of me thinks that it might not be possible to really get in shape for the challenge. Nothing will be enough! But I have to do what I can. At my age and fitness level it’s important that I don’t move too quickly and try to do too much. Currently this is my workout routine.

Monday-Friday, at least 3 days a week:

  • Walk 2 miles. The walk can be outside (with my pack) or on my treadmill (at an incline that will increase each week).

Saturday and Sunday:

  • Minimum 3 miles, outside, with 25 pound pack
  • Additionally, stretching, sit-ups, incline push-ups, and a couple upper body exercises with weight, at least 3 times a week.

Once a month, I will go on a test hike—Putting in 6-8 miles in the mountains with a pack each day. I’ll also use these trips to test equipment and new techniques.

Obviously, I’ll need to increase the mileage as time goes on, but frankly, with a fulltime job it will be hard to increase the weekday exercise a lot more.

Backpacking the Appalachian Trail, how to prepare

Want to hike the AT? It's easy. Just follow the white blazes....for 2,200 miles.
Want to hike the AT? It’s easy. Just follow the white blazes….for 2,200 miles.

One of my life goals is to backpack the entire Appalachian Trail in one year. I’ve asked for the time off from my job next year in order to accomplish it. Though the odds of getting the time off from work are low, I’m still preparing.

The Appalachian Trail is a foot path, almost 2,200 miles long, stretching from Georgia to Maine. I estimate it will take me 6 months to hike the whole trail (that’s an average of 12 miles a day, 7 days a week). A healthy 18 year old boy could probably do it in 4, but…well…I’m not 18. Why would I want to do this? I wish I could say. It will be physically difficult. I’ll be cold and hot, wet and tired much of the time. I’ll sleep in three walled shelters that leak or my tent set up on ground that is never as level as it seemed before the night started. This is a young man’s game and I am neither young nor male. It doesn’t make a bit of sense. But I still want to do it enough to give up six months of my life toward the goal. Go Figure.

In addition to physical and mental preparation, I need to work through:

  • Gear—all the items I’ll carry with me
  • Food—and how to resupply along the trail
  • Daily Mileage charts—including locations of water and shelters

I’m starting with gear and lots of walking. I’m using several resources to select gear, but I’ve got two main sources. 1. The guidance of my personal backpacking hero, Skittles–who I met on his first long distance hike of the AT(he’s done it twice along with several other major trails) and 2. The advice of Mike Clelland, who has a website and book: Ultralight Backpackin’ Tips: 153 Amazing & Inexpensive Tips for Extremely Lightweight Camping.

backpacking, 2What is Ultralight?

Quoting Mike C: “It defines the base weight of a fully loaded backpack at the beginning of a trip. When you subtract the weight of consumables inside the pack (food, water & fuel) the remaining weight must be under ten pounds to be called ultralight.”

Short version: I can’t carry the 45 pound pack I used to. Ultralight is not just a goal, it’s a necessity. I’m not a kid anymore and I can’t abuse my body and still expect to finish. AND I want to actually enjoy this trip as much as possible. As I go forward, I’ll be posting about my changing list of gear and my goals to reduce the weight to just what I need to be safe, warm, dry and fed.

If you are interested in Ultralight backpacking, I highly recommend that you buy Clelland’s book and you watch all his videos. If you’re on the fence and not sure about the Ultralight idea, this is the video to watch. Mike shows you everything in his backpack:

Review of the Contrail Tarptent

New backpack, sleeping bag, pad and the Contrail Tarptent, set up along the AT.
New backpack, sleeping bag, pad and the Contrail Tarptent, set up along the AT.

I’m preparing for a thru hike of the Appalachian Trail, so I’m mildly obsessed with gear, particularly with the weight and functionality of the gear.

UPDATE October 2013: This review was written before I had to spend a night in this tent in the rain. There is no possible way to stay dry in this tent and one of the stakes broke in use. The netting just invites the rain in and even if you manage to avoid that, you will still roll off the floor of the tent onto the netting and get your sleeping bag wet. In short: POS. Henry Shires would not take the tent back nor replace the broken stake. I DO NOT RECOMMEND THIS TENT NOR THIS COMPANY. I PLAN TO NEVER USE THEM AGAIN.

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 an initial review of the Contrail below, for geeks who care. It cost roughly $200. This is my first use of the tent, a single night along the AT last weekend. I’ll be updating as I learn more.

This shows the netting at the bottom of the tent. It extends on all sides and back. Great ventilation, but can I stay dry? TarpTent website
This shows the netting at the bottom of the tent. It extends on all sides and back. Great ventilation, but can I stay dry? TarpTent website

Review New Shelter System, Contrail TarpTent

My Contrail TarpTent is easy enough to set up, though it took a couple trials at home to get it taunt. It’s advertised as weighing 24 ounces, but frankly that doesn’t include everything. That leaves out the stuff sack, a footprint and a central pole to hold up the tent (you can use a hiking pole but I purchased a light collapsible pole from TarpTent). It does not come seam sealed either (grrrr). When I set it up I quickly realized that in order to be stable in high wind or heavy rain, the tent would need 6 more stakes and guy lines. Obviously the company thought so too because they supply the tie down/attachment points on the tent. For a short backpacking excursion when the weather forecast was good, I might not take all the additional stakes, but for a long distance hike, I’d need them. The additions put the tent at 2 pounds. That’s half a pound more than advertised and on the high end of true Ultralight camping.

From inside the tent, you can see the netting adds lots of ventilation. That flap in the back will fold down. You can see the "bath tub" flooring, but in use the elastic can't keep this taut enough. TarpTent website.
From inside the tent, you can see the netting adds lots of ventilation. That flap in the back will fold down. You can see the “bath tub” flooring, but in use the elastic can’t keep this shape. At all. From TarpTent website. My tent never looked this good.

Pros/Likes

  • Ventilation: Being a single walled, solo tent (There is not enough room for a second adult, though there is room for some gear), my usual concern is condensation. That won’t be an issue. There’s a tremendous amount of ventilation in the form of no-see-um netting. There’s netting in front that zips open and shut. The netting extends along the bottom and back of the tent as well. There’s a small Velcro flap that you can lower to cover most of the back netting section. The supports in back will lower to reduce the side netting exposure.
  • Vestibule: The front flaps close to create a vestibule large enough for a backpack and shoes to stay dry. The flaps don’t quite reach the ground, which probably improves ventilation during the rain. I used my rain gear as a ground cover for the pack.
  • Insect Protection: One of the big advantages this has over a simple tarp is the excellent bug protection while still getting good ventilation.
  • Elastic bands keep ground cover (mostly) in place: There are elastic bands at each corner of the black flooring that lead to the corners of the solid tent wall. The flooring is also sewn all around to the netting at the bottom of the tent. The elastic forms the floor into a bathtub shape, but it won’t hold its shape. It’s still easy to roll off of.
Back of tent. The middle stake is a suggestion, not something it comes with. TarpTent website.
Back of tent. The middle stake is a suggestion, not something it comes with. TarpTent website.

Cons/Concerns

  • Will it hold up in the rain? While this is good protection from insects and excellent ventilation, what happens when it rains? You can “lower” the height of the tent in back, thereby bringing the edge of the solid wall of the tent so that they almost touch the ground. This exposes less of the netting at the bottom and reduces the chance for rain getting in. In theory. The video indicates you can lower the sides too, but it doesn’t work on my tent. Honestly without the extra rope and stakes, this won’t be good enough. Again, I’ll have to have additional stakes and guy lines, but the tent has the attachments already. But will this be enough in a heavy rain since the floor is attached directly to the netting. There are elastic bands at the four corners of the floor to keep it in a bathtub shape, but that’s simply not enough if you roll off the edge. And everyone rolls off the edge sometimes.
  • Warmth With all that ventilation will I be able to stay warm in this tent when it’s cold and windy? Same issues/possible solutions as above.
  • Seams The seams don’t come sealed. I’ll have to do that if I keep the tent. I hadn’t noticed that in the fine print before I ordered the tent and if I had, I might have kept looking at tents or at least have paid extra to have it done. And that will add to the weight.
  • Are the Pros worth the extra weight? That’s really the question, isn’t it? I could use an existing tarp (Silicon impregnated Nylon, but this tarp needs some modification to really work well), existing drop cloth (Tyvek), existing stakes and cord. Using trees and/or hiking poles I could fashion a tent. I could certainly keep the weight at 24 ounces. But it would have almost no protection from bugs, it would be harder to set up alone when using hiking poles, and I’d have huge issues with condensation anytime I shut it up to keep out wind/rain/bugs.
  • Will I roll off the floor onto the netting?: The video shows a bathtub floor, but honestly it held by a little bit of elastic. The floor is small and attached directly to the netting.
  • Do these pockets work at all?: They are attached to the wall at the top of the netting. Looks like anything inside will get wet in the rain.

For now I’m going to keep the tent. Nothing is perfect. But I’m not yet satisfied.

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

 

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.