Cerro Castillo Trek Guide

2019 Smart and Light Gift Guide for Hikers and Backpackers

This gear is smarter, lighter and more thoroughly tested than your typical buyer’s guide. Enjoy our picks of the best light and practical gear in our Smart and Light Gift Guide for Hikers and Backpackers.

2018 Lightweight Hiker’s Guide to the REI Sale

The vast inventory at a REI Sale can be overwhelming. I’ve done a bunch of research to help you select the best lightweight gear at the sale.

Best Satellite Messenger inReach vs SPOT?

Last year we had a local backpacker freeze to death. They’d likely be alive today if they had brought a Satellite Messenger & activated its emergency signal (by the time they were reported missing and the search crews went out, they had frozen to death overnight). Of course, there are many other good reasons to carry a Satellite Messenger. With newer, 2-way Satellite Messengers you can get interactive help like medical advice (assessment & treatment), other information like helicopter landing sites, best evacuation routes, etc. In fact, you may get enough information to help yourself and not even need a rescue—the best possible outcome.

The older inReach SE is highly capable & a deal for only $250

Updated 2018

The the unit I use, the older but still highly capable (Amazon’s choice) DeLorme inReach SE, is still available for only $250 on Amazon. This is $150 less than the new Garmin inReach SE+. The older DeLorme inReach SE is the unit I continue to use each year with great satisfaction. But I’m not sure how long it will be available. If you are intersted in a discounted unit you might want to grab one while they are still around.

As of now the small difference in price between the older $250 DeLorme inReach SE vs the $150 SPOT makes the inReach SE as a better deal for price to performance. That is, you get significantly more fictionality and safety for only a $100 more in purchase price. And you have to spread that $100 over the number of year of serviceable life which makes the price difference even smaller on a per/year basis.


This is part 2 of a 3 part series

  1. Why You Should Make a Trip Plan – how to create one. it might be faster and simpler than you think!
  2. The Best Satellite Messenger inReach vs SPOT? – what’s the best Satellite Messenger. And how to best use both the inReach and SPOT
  3. Five Good Reasons to carry a Satellite Messenger (besides sending out an SOS) coming soon

What is in This Article?

  1. Best Satellite Messenger inReach vs SPOT – A comparison of the pros and cons of the Garmin inReach and the SPOT Satellite Messenger. And yes, I have a strong favorite
  2. Tips on How to Best Use an inReach or SPOT – Especially how to get reception in difficult areas, setup messaging, and how best to configure/use their tracking modes
  3. The limitations of Satellite Messengers – what they can’t do for you

a) Best Satellite Messenger inReach vs SPOT

inreach-spot-1200

Both of these Satellite Messengers can call for a rescue and track your route, but the iReach can do far more…  Pictured L to R

The current inReach versions are the Garmin inReach SE+ (pictured) and inReach Explorer+.

The current inReachs are the Garmin inReach SE+ & inReach Explorer+.

Both SPOT and inReach Perform Well – either is far better than not carrying anything!

I have used both the Garmin inReach and the SPOT Satellite Messenger extensively over years. Both of these units will do the job. They will send out location and emergency messages as well as record tracking waypoints along your route. Either of these units is way better than not carrying anything at all. And they are the perfect complement to your Trip Plan.

Comparison Table – Best Satellite Messenger inReach vs SPOT

Advantages of SPOT Satellite Messenger

  • The SPOT Satellite Messenger is less expensive* than the inReach, $150 vs $250
  • It is lighter at 4.8 oz vs 6.9 oz
  • A single set of lithium batteries lasts a long time—about 120-150 hours of tracking/use in my field experience. The batteries can be easily replaced mid-trip with a spare set. In comparison, the inReach has less tracking time and a non-removable battery that has to be recharged via an external USB battery.
    • But this battery efficiency comes at a price. The SPOT’s low 0.4 watt transmission power, based on my field experience means fewer successful waypoints/messages sent in difficult receptions areas.
  • Depending on how much you use your unit, the annual service plan for the SPOT may or may not be less expensive than the as-needed Freedom Plan for the inReach.

* Note: Over time the service plan is far and above the major cost for both the inReach and SPOT

Advantages of Garmin inReach

  • The Garmin inReach has 2-way communication similar to a Sat. Phone, but the device and service plan cost a lot less than a Sat Phone. Garmin calls it “The satellite communicator that allows you to type, send and receive, track and SOS all from the palm of your hand.”
  • Better emergency options:
    • 2-way communication is a BIG DEAL! You can send and receive text messages. As such, you can get interactive help like medical advice (assessment and treatment) and a ton of other useful information like helicopter landing sites, best evacuation routes, etc.
    • And you might even get enough information to help yourself and not need a rescue
    • If you do need a rescue, the authorities will know what the problem is and therefore show up with the right personnel and equipment. [vs. a “blind” SOS message from a SPOT where they have no idea what the emergency/problem is.]
    • Finally, you’ll get some peace of mind knowing that help is on the way, and where and when they will arrive
  • More reliable messaging:
    • 4x higher transmission power, 1.6 watts vs 0.4 watts for the SPOT. In my experience this gives you a higher percentage of successfully sent messages vs. SPOT. This is especially true in difficult transmission areas like dense tree cover and/or tight canyons
    • Better satellite network (Iridium) equals faster and more reliable message transmission
    • You get confirmation that your tracking points have been sent. Again, especially helpful if you are a difficult transmission area
  • You can request and receive a weather report for where you are hiking/climbing
  • Ease of use: Compose and send/read messages via your smartphone. It’s pretty much the same as regular texting. (You can send them via the unit too, although the typing is tedious).
  • Cost: There is an option for a month-to-month service plan which might be less expensive than SPOTs annual plan

Note: skip the Garmin inReach Explorer+ and use the Garmin inReach SE+. Your smartphone with GAIA is far superior for the GPS mapping functionality then anything the Explorer adds. See How to use your Smartphone as the Best Backpacking GPS.

Conclusion – so which is the Best Satellite Messenger inReach vs SPOT?

The Garmin inReach SE+ is by a large margin the better device. The SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger’s lack of 2-way messaging, lower transmission power, difficulty to carry in the optimal antenna orientation, and no confirmation that messages or waypoints have been successfully sent are problematic. Especially since there is an alternative unit with similar cost that outperforms it (the inReach).  And there just are times when you need to send out a message but are in a crappy reception location (like a deep forested canyon). It’s good (possibly critical) to have higher transmission power and know that your message actually went out!

In summary: you might pay a slightly higher annual price (unit and service plan) for the inReach vs. SPOT, but you get far more functionality, safety, and peace of mind from the inReach. That being said, the SPOT is still a valid Satellite Messenger and is way, way better than not carrying anything at all.


b) Tips on How to Best Use an inReach or SPOT

Best Satellite Messenger inReach vs SPOT

Tip: Do a quick pre-trip test to make sure make sure your emergency contacts can see both your “location messages” and “tracking waypoints.” The best way to do this is on a quick hike with tracking on and sending out a few location messages along the way. Your contacts should be able to access the web page (e.g. https://share.Garmin.com/xx) and see information like this.

Make a Trip Plan

Pre-Trip Testing

Test your unit with your emergency contact(s) before leaving for your trip:

  1. Do a quick pre-trip, test hike and make sure your emergency contacts can see both your “location messages” and “tracking waypoints” on the tracking webpage like the picture above
  2. Send out your basic message types, like OK, Custom and Help (SPOT and inReach) and make sure that each of your emergency contacts receives them
  3. InReach only, make sure your emergency contacts can reply to your text messages and independently send texts to you. Again this is best done with test texts before you leave on your trip
  4. InReach battery drain test. Put your inReach in tracking mode and take it for a 4-8 hour hike on the weekend. Send a few locations and messages along the way. After the hike, check the remaining battery percentage do the calculations on % battery drain per hour. Use this to estimate whether you’ll need a recharging battery on your trip. See Batteries and Recharging below.

Agree on Meaning of Messages and What to Do

  • Make sure that you and your emergency contacts know/agree on the meaning of the basic message types, like OK, Custom and Help (SPOT and inReach). And that they know what to do for Custom and Help messages. See Trip Plan for examples.
  • Have an agreement on what to do when tracking points stop and do not resume in an agreed upon time (i.e. within a 12-hour time period).
  • Have an agreement on what to do when the unit “goes completely dead,” i.e. no tracking points and no messages. See Trip Plan for examples.

All of the above is best done in a Trip Plan. Here is a  link to Template Trip Plan Document that you can fill out and use: Full Trip Plan for Backpacking.

Tracking Mode

  • My suggestion is to use the tracking mode (10 minute interval seems about best). If nothing else, at the end of your trip you’ll have a nice map of your route and your friends may enjoy following your progress and adventures real-time.
  • Most important, Tracking Mode can alert your emergency contact of a problem even if you can’t. In a bad accident (especially when off-trail and solo), you may be severely injured (i.e. a serious fall, getting struck by a tree limb, etc.) such that you can’t activate the SOS function of your device. Your tracking (bread crumb trail) will let your emergency contact monitoring the trip (and SAR personnel) know your last known location within 10 minutes. And 1) your lack of moment will tip off your emergency contact that something is not right and 2) it will greatly accelerate locating and getting help to you.
  • Avoid turning the unit off at breaks (my experience is that I inevitably forget to turn it back on).
  • When in tracking mode, carry your inReach or SPOT in the correct position for best transmission (see owner’s manual).
    • For the inReach this is with the antenna pointing towards the sky and free of your body or other obstructions.
    • The SPOT device should be oriented so the face is pointing to the sky (unit horizontal). This is difficult to do while hiking. If you use the clip provided with the SPOT, it usually ends up hanging vertically (face of the unit pointing away from your pack/body). While not optimal, it seems to work for many people.

Good antenna orientation: The Mountain Laurel Designs Shoulder Strap Pocket  is an excellent way to carry an inReach with optimal vertical antenna orientation. It’s also very easy to access while walking.

Improving Performance in Difficult Reception Areas

Improving performance in difficult reception areas all boils down to increasing your view of the sky. That is, increasing your line-of-sight/unobstructed-sky to the satellites you are trying to reach, along with proper antenna orientation. In other words, your transmission reliability may be impaired if you can’t see a good portion of the sky (e.g. heavy trees, deep canyons, etc.).

  • This is especially important for SPOT use because in bad reception areas, you will get no indication of whether you have successfully transmitted messages.
  • Make sure your antenna is properly oriented (see end of Tracking Mode above). This is especially important in difficult receptions areas!
  • Physically move to where you can get a larger, unobstructed portion of the sky. Try walking to a large clearing in the trees. Or moving to a wider point in a canyon with more view of the sky. You may even need to hike up the canyon wall some to increase the percentage of sky you can see. I had to do this once in the Grand Canyon to initiate a helicopter rescue.

House Keeping

  • For both SPOT and inReach, delete all pre-trip/at-home messages and tracking points. This will make tracking the trip a lot easier than having a thousand(s) mile long track line from your home to the start of your trip.
  • inReach only: If you have a limited text plan, know that all incoming messages count towards your plan total—none are free. So let your contacts know to only reply to text messages when needed, like when you ask for a weather report. If 2-3 people reply to each message it can quickly add up.
  • Consider giving a trusted person (knowledgeable about the account) access to your account. See Trip Plan for an example.

Batteries and Recharging

See Best Lightweight Backpacking Electronics Gear for more detail on lightweight batteries and recharging.

  • For the SPOT carry a spare set (4) four AAA lithium batteries. Note: once the SPOT starts to blink red you don’t have a lot of operational time left.
  • For the inReach consider carrying an external USB battery in the range of 6000 to 100o mAh. (This can be also be used to recharge most of your other electronics.)
  • See lead picture of SPOT and inReach for a visual on these battery options.

Always Bring a Backup Battery!

It’s critical safety precaution to make sure your inReach is always available for use (especially if you are using it in tracking mode during a trip). My three favorite lightweight and high capacity backup batteries are:

  1. Jackery Bolt 6000 mAh USB Battery (pictured right)- With two built in cables (lightening & micro-USB) it will charge just about any backcountry electronics. It has a faster charging rate than the EasyAcc below but has slightly less overall capacity.
  2. EasyAcc 6000mAh USB Battery This has slightly more capacity (tested) than the Jackery battery but has a slower charging rate & only a built micro-USB cable (altho you can attach your own lightening cable to charge an iPhone). It can charge a large phone like a Galaxy S7 about 1.4x and a smaller phone like an iPhone 7 2.3x.
  3. Anker PowerCore 10000 (only 6.4 oz) this is the lightest option f you need to recharge your inReach a lot.  It can charge a large phone like a Galaxy S7 ~2.5x and a smaller phone like an iPhone 7 ~3.5x. Its limitation is that it only has one USB port for a cable.
  4. And of course for the SPOT a spare set of lithium AAA batteries.


c) The limitations of Satellite Messengers

Sometimes a timely rescue is not possible. A Trip Plan and/or a Satellite Messenger like the Garmin inReach and the SPOT Satellite Messenger is not the solution to everything. I have been in some extremely bad situations where rescue was not feasible even if I had sent out an SOS. As they say, the best rescue is self-rescue. And to state the obvious, Goal One is not needing rescue in the first place. So be sensible and safe out there.

Finally, a Satellite Messenger should never be considered a license to do silly things or take unnecessary risks.

Review of Dutchware Chameleon Hammock – Light & Superbly Versatile

One hammock can do it all—and well! The Chameleon, works in all conditions from hot, bug infested jungles to bitter cold winters of the Northeastern US. In the following “Review of Dutchware Chameleon Hammock,” I discuss what makes it possibly the best multi-season hammock. The review concludes with a Comparison of the Chameleon Hammock to its nearest Competitors.

Overview

Over the past few months my wife and I tested a near-production model of the new Dutchware Chameleon Hammock (currently on Kickstarter) in a wide range of environmental conditions: from the hot buggy, disease infested tropical jungles of South america to camping in the snow at 15° F in the Mid-Atlantic winter.

Why we (and possibly you might) prefer hammock camping

For those of you unfamiliar with hammock camping, know that it is our preferred method of camping in areas like the Appalachian Trail. See more on “Why hammocks are best for the East Coast and other wooded areas.” And more on this in our 9 Pound Lightweight Backpacking Gear List.

SECTIONTOTALSLbs
Clothing in Pack (not usually worn)2.4Rain jacket, warm jacket, gloves, etc.
Backpack and Gear Packaging1.9Backpack, stuff sacks
Sleeping Gear & Tent/Shelter (conventional tent)2.8best in high Western Mountains & treeless areas
Sleeping Gear & Shelter  – (hammock) 2.8 best in East Coast and other wooded areas e.g. AT
Click here to see the complete 9 pound Gear list

What’s Good About the Dutchware Chameleon Hammock

  1. The modularity/versatility of the hammock. The Dutchware Chameleon Hammock works in almost all environmental conditions by easily mixing and matching components. All without a weight or functional penalty.
  2. New (patent pending), 2-way separating zipper that opens in the middle on both sides in any location.  This innovative zipper is the key to the Chameleon’s modularity and versatility.
  3. Low wait times (less than a week?) for a custom made hammock to your spec. with your choice of fabric weights, colors, widths, covers, parts etc.

Oh, and it is very light. My version of this hammock is a smidge over a pound (17.5 oz) including suspension!

Review of Dutchware Chameleon Hammock

Swap in the bug net top cover for the solid cover and you have an excellent hammock for hot buggy weather. [Picture in South America along the Colombian coast at the end of a 4-day trek into the jungle.]

The Details: Review of Dutchware Chameleon Hammock

Specifications

17.5 oz (500 g) Hammock body in Hexon 1.0 fabric, bug net cover, and my personal 2.5 oz Kevlar suspension
22.5 oz (640 g) same but with included Dutchware Beetle Buckle Suspension (7.5 oz with two carabiners)
24.0 oz (680 g) same hammock but with solid top cover in Hexon 1.0 fabric
(Bug net cover is 4.0 oz. Solid top cover in Hexon 1.0 fabric is 4.7 oz.)

1) Modularity and Versatility

The Chameleon has three separate and interchangeable parts

  1. Main hammock body (huge choice of fabrics!)
  2. Interchangeable top covers; a mesh cover for hot buggy weather and a vented solid cover for colder weather. And unlike other hammocks, you do not have to pick a right-hand or left-hand lay! Just flip your top cover and you instantly change the lay direction
  3. New buckle suspension system with an optional spreader bar for hanging hammocks side-by-side from the same tree.
Review of Dutchware Chameleon Hammock

All top covers can quickly be exchanged, rotated and/or flipped to meet your needs. Almost any of a huge selection of fabrics can be selected in any combination for both the body and the solid top cover of your Chameleon. [Back to front: mesh bug cover, orange solid cover, and camo solid cover. The solid top covers retain heat, block wind and essentially turn your hammock into a warm, winter bivy sack with a face vent.]

Mix and Match Component to Meet your Needs

To adapt in different environmental conditions, all of these parts can be purchased individually, or in any combination. If you purchase additional components later, they will fit perfectly with your current components. Even if you buy a wider hammock body it will still mate with your original top covers!

  • Dutchware might also be called “House o’ Outdoor Fabrics,” for their huge selection of colors and weights — all high quality fabrics. Almost all of these fabrics can be selected in any combination for both the body and the solid top cover of your Chameleon.
  • You can buy a Chameleon with a netting top cover in the spring. And in the fall purchase a vented solid cover for the colder weather of late fall and winter.
  • In my case, I have one bright orange solid cover for fun when camping with my wife, and another camo cover for stealth camping by myself (it mates to my camo hammock body).
  • Finally, you can use the hammock without a top cover, my favorite option for most spring and fall camping in the Mid Atlantic!

Solid Top Covers are Great in Cold Weather!

Most people are familiar with mosquito netting hammock covers for bug protection. But many are less familiar with the reasons/advantages of using a solid top cover in winter.

  • The solid top cover retains heat and BLOCKS WIND, essentially turning the hammock into a winter bivy sack with a face vent.  This retains your body heat in a sheltered envelope formed by the hammock body and top cover combination.
  • The top cuts down on convective (wind driven) heat loss. But the mesh vent, located where you breathe out humid air, also vents excess moisture that might condense inside the hammock and get your down quilt wet. Finally the top cover is itself breathable, also reducing condensation in cold weather.
  • A solid cover also means that in below freezing conditions I rarely, if ever setup my tarp. This saves the time and hassle of setting up and taking down a tarp. And possibly more important for someone with cold hands, it is one less chore to do that requires the dexterity of ungloved hands. (It only takes a few minutes working ungloved at 20° F to wreck some major hurt on my hands!)

 2) New 2-way, toothed, separating zipper (patent pending) designed by DutchWare

This zipper is two directional. You can both rotate it 180 deg and flip it 180 degrees and it still works.  This is a big deal! Overall, my favorite parts of this new and unique 2-way separating zipper are:

  • I can get out of whatever side of the hammock I want. It opens on both sides (and at the same time) and in any position along either side.
  • I can slide my hands down either side of the hammock at night to check-on/adjust my under-quilt.
  • Chameleon toothed zippers mate perfectly with other zippers, e.g. other Chameleon components. [*Coiled zippers (used for almost all backpacking zippers) do not pair well, even with identical zippers.]
  • Finally, this zipper allows me to flip the top cover to change the lay of the hammock. This is nice when my wife and are hammock camping side by side and want to coordinate lays.

*Virtually all zippers on backpacking gear are coil zippers. If you try and mate coil zippers, for example, to zip together two identical sleeping bags, they won’t mesh well. As you zip, you’ll get a bit of warping and strangeness. This is because the coiled zippers come in matched pairs, and were never intended to be mated with other zippers, even if they are exactly the same type.

3) Low Wait Times for Custom Gear

It often seems like you have to pick your poison with backpacking gear.

  1. You can custom order the exact gear you want from a cottage manufacturer but then wait 4-8 weeks for it to be made and delivered.
  2. You can pick an off the shelf item (usually some compromise/deviation from your ideal choice) and get it in around a week.

With the Chameleon you can have both custom gear and quick delivery. This is assuming that Dutchware continues to deliver Chameleon Hammocks with similar speed as its Netless and Half-Wit Hammocks. [In early February, I talked with Dutchware and they estimate that once in production they should be able to finish and ship a Chameleon in less than a week.]

4) Comparison of the Chameleon Hammock to its nearest Competitors

There are other manufactures of similar hammocks. Some of these hammocks also have an interchangeable mesh and solid covers. But  before I start comparing I want to be very clear that all the hammocks below are great hammocks with established performance and dependability. You would not go wrong buying from any of the three companies below.

I own and like hammocks from all three companies. I know Brandon Waddy of Warbonnet and Tom Hennessy. They both produce excellent hammocks that have widespread use and great reputations. And Tom is rightfully considered the man responsible for modern asymmetrical backpacking hammocks as we know them (and has the patents to prove it).

Hennessy HammocksHammock includes rainfly.  Available off the shelf from retailers like REI.
No solid top cover option. Integrated bug net cover only opens on one side. Bug net not removeable. No color choice.
Warbonnet Blackbird XLCSolid top cover option. Integrated “storage shelf” on one side, and “extended footbox” on the other. 1 week wait.
Single zipper only opens in only one location. RH lay only. Limited color choices.
Dream Hammock SparrowZipper opens on both sides of the hammock (but only in center). Solid top cover option. Many fabrics and colors.
4 week or longer delivery time.

The main difference between the Dutchware Chameleon and these hammocks

None of the other hammocks offer a 2-way, separating, toothed zipper that both rotates and flips 180 degrees, mates perfectly with other zippers and opens anywhere on both sides. This is what allows fully interchangeable components, allows you to open the zipper on both sides in any location, and to change from Right Hand to Left Hand lay in the field, in just a few minutes. The Dream hammock Sparrow comes closest to the Chameleon with a coil zipper system that opens on both sides of the hammock, but only in the middle. Actually it has four zippers (two on each side that meet in the middle).

Lightweight Down Jackets

Guide to Lightweight Down Jackets and Pants for Backpacking

Forget synthetics! Down rocks. A lightweight down jacket is the most weight and cost effective way to stay warm. Lightweight down jackets are less expensive than synthetics,* they weigh less, but most importantly they are so much warmer! It is true that down jackets may be one of the most expensive items in your kit. BUT, if you want to stay warm and happy, nothing else comes close.

Nov 21 2017: Just added a down jacket that blow the hubcaps off of previous ultralight contenders! It’s the puffiest most insane Michelin Man look of ultralight down jackets. The GooseFeet Gear – 1/2 zip Custom Jacket: At only 9 oz, and with 61% down, this jacket trounces former top warmth-to-weight efficient ultralight down jackets like the Mountain Hardware Ghost Whisperer.

See jacket comparison table below for full spec’s. And to see many other high value off-the-shelf down jackets and pants that will save you $ and keep you warm!

 

Debunking a Few Myths About Down Jackets

  • Don’t believe the dire warnings about getting down wet—it’s hard to do. In over 40 years of backpacking all over the world in all conditions, I have yet to get my down so wet that it didn’t do a good job of keeping me warm. New water resistant shell fabrics and water resistant down only improve your odds.
  • And make no mistake, a wet synthetic jacket is no joy! Keeping your jacket (down or synthetic) dry in the first place, is a better strategy. (See more on this below)
  • *Down is the better long term value for staying warm. The only advantage to synthetics is the price. From there it’s downhill. I find synthetics usually lose loft after less than a season of use. This makes them a poor long term value. A good down jacket can easily last you 5 to 10 years.

Go for Down – Skip the extra shirts, pants, and base-layers

If you really want to be warm, Lightweight Down Jackets are where it’s at. That is, your money and gear weight is better spent investing in a warmer down jacket—or even down pants, down hat and down booties. All are far warmer per ounce than extra shirts, pants, and base-layers. You’ll be warmer, pack lighter and save money in the long run.

What’s in this Guide

I own, or have extensively field tested the vast majority of the jackets (and pants) below.

  • Down Jackets
  • Down Pants and Down Booties
  • Note1: All garments below use Ethically Sourced Down (or something very close to it)
  • Note 2: We only include garments where the manufacturer provides oz. of down fill. Unfortunately, some major mfrs have stopped providing oz of down fill even upon request—essentially stating “trust us, it’s warm enough.” We are from Missouri…
Lightweight Down Jackets

Sometimes you need down and lots of it. Like jacket, pants, and booties. Author on a winter backcountry trip in Montana and Wyoming’s Bearthooth Plateau.

Lightweight Down Jackets in this Guide

* NOTE: “down volume in liters” is a rough approximation of jacket warmth. See more on this below.

The table above gives you a lot of ways to look at down jackets and their specifications since different aspects are important to different people. E.g. someone may be interested in getting the best value down jacket, while another is looking to get an ultra warm jacket for a cold trip.

  • What’s the lightest?
  • * What’s the warmest? Use “down volume in liters” as a measure of warmth. While “down volume in liters” is the most significant factor, there are other factors that contribute to warmth. A such, down volume is only a crude approximation/starting point for warmth. [Down volume in liters = 0z-down x fill-power-of the-down x 0.016 liter/in3]
  • What’s the warmest for its weight? Take a look at “% down” and “down vol. to weight”
  • What’s a good value? Take a look at “price,” when compared to “down volume in liters.” And finally, look at “down vol. to price,” which is a crude approximation of the warmth per dollar.
  • How durable is it? All of these jackets are fine for use around camp and for rest stops. But note that jackets with 10D or below “shell fabric” should be treated with extreme care. These might not be good candidates for bushwhacking.

Introducing the Lightweight Down Jackets


new GooseFeet Gear – Custom Down Jacket – $330  (as shown)

The new warmth to weight king. At 61% down for its weight, the GooseFeet Gear Jacket trounces former top warmth-to-weight efficient ultralight down jackets like the Mountain Hardware Ghost Whisperer or Montbell Mirage. Pictured is a custom 1/2 zip jacket made for me by Ben at Goose Feet Gear. Weight is 9 oz with 5.5 oz of 950 fill power down. It has a deep kangaroo pocket that is great for warming hands and has shopping basket size room for storing stuff in camp.

This is custom work so expect 6 weeks or so wait time. The upside is you get exactly the size and features you want! Note: that I purchased this jacket with my own funds and receive no commissions from sales.


new MyTrail 850 Fill Hyperlight Hooded Jacket – $249

At 44% down for its weight, it’s second only to the GooseFeet Gear Jacket for warmth to weight. The MyTrail HL Hooded is one of the best values in a super warm, fully featured UL down jacket. At 10.5 oz it’s light for its warmth with a generous 4.6 oz of 850-fill-power down. But best of all, it costs significantly less than jackets of similar warmth and you can get it on the shelf.

Pedigree:  This jacket was designed by Demetri Coupounas (Coup) founder/owner of GoLite, creator of the legendary GoLite Bitterroot down jacket, likely the best, high performance UL down jackets of its time. And until the closing of GoLite it was the best value on the market! And while the MyTrail 850 Fill Hyperlight is short of the amazing loft of the Bitterroot, it’s still a super warm and light jacket.


feathered-friends-eos-mens-ultralight-down-jacket_1-1Feathered Friends Eos Down Jacket – $290

This is Feathered Friends’ lightest weight down jacket, but don’t let that fool you. Though this clocks in at only 10.6 oz, it has 3.7 oz of 900+ fill goose down. That’s more than 30% more down fill than the popular, but more expensive Mountain Hardware Ghost Whisperer. More down fill means more warmth! With a hood, and sinchable waist, this jacket can tighten down to keep all your precious heat in if things get cooler than expected, but the jacket is light enough to take with you on any 3-season outing. There are Men’s and Women’s versions, and as with all Feathered Friends’ goods, it’s made in Seattle, USA.


Mountain Hardware Ghost Whisperer Hooded  – $350

Mountain Hardwear touts the 7.7 oz Ghost Whisperer as “the world’s lightest full-featured down jacket.” For 1.2 oz more than the Montbell EX Light Down Anorak you get a full front zipper and pockets. MH uses a unique “Whisperer 7D x 10D Ripstop” fabric that is light, tough, down proof, and fairly water resistant. Oh, and the Mountain Hardware Ghost Whisperer has won a ton of awards.

 


new My Trail Co – Men’s 800 Fill Ultralight Hooded Down Jacketd Down Jacket – $149

New this year or possibly an improved version of the the “Down Light Hooded Jacket.” Either way it’s filled with a generous 5.1 oz of 800 fill power down (up 1.5 oz!) but at 12. 5 oz, weighs less. At 40% down for its weight the this jacket is close on the heels of its more expensive brother the 850 Fill Hyperlight Hooded Jacket. Best of all, like other MyTrail products it costs significantly less than jackets of similar warmth.


Gift Guide for Hikers and Backpackers - ExpensiveMontbell EX Light Down Anorak – $269

At only 6 oz, this is about as light and as WARM as it gets!  The Ex Light Down Anorak is 2 oz lighter than the highly regarded and more expensive Mountain Hardware Ghost Whisperer.  It achieves this low weight in part by not using a full zipper. Instead, you get a hood and a kangaroo pouch pocket! These great pockets let you really keep your hands warm by putting them in the same space against your abdomen. Truly lightweight warmth, this is a perfect puffy layer to bring on high alpine adventures like the South Sierra High Route, or Wind River High Route. The only downside is that there isn’t a Women’s version yet.


Gift Guide for Hikers and BackpackersMontbell Mirage Parka – $379

Weighing less than 14 oz, this is the lightest fully-baffled (a warmer but more expensive construction method) jacket we know of. Montbell has pulled this feat off by using 900-fill down and a very thin 7-denier ballistic nylon shell. Down accounts for over 40% of the garment weight—an incredible feat of design engineering! If you like to bushwhack through dense evergreens, this might not be durable enough for you, but for most backpackers, this will allow pushing shoulder season or even through winters in much of the country (although you may need more in the deep north, see the Helios below). Unfortunately, this jacket doesn’t come in a Women’s version.


 image_feathered-friends-helios-hooded-down-jacket-ash_1Feathered Friends Helios Hooded Down Jacket – $340

If you need ultra warmth, this is the jacket for you! The Helios jacket is insane puffy and warm with 3x the down (warmth) of the lightest jackets here.

The Helios packs 2 oz. of high-fill down over the Mirage, and uses a more durable outer fabric. (It also weighs 4 oz more.) It’s made in the USA, and is purpose built with mountaineering in mind, so you know it’s warm! Feathered Friends is known for their high quality down and weight-conscious products.


 b0a7e9f1-e647-468c-8432-750385958f5a REI Co-Op Down Jacket – $99

If you don’t want to spend a lot of money on a down jacket, REI has you covered. Their Co-Op Down Jacket weighs in at only 10.2 oz (in a non-hooded version). And while the jacket sets no records for warmth to weight ratios with 650 fill power down, it likely has enough warmth for most 3-season purposes. It comes in Men’s, Women’s, and children’s cuts. If you have an extra $20 to spend, we recommend the hooded version, because all jackets are substantially warmer with one!


Tip – Keeping your Lightweight Down Jacket Dry

The best way to keep your gear dry is not to get it wet in the first place. This means keeping the gear in your pack dry (especially your down sleeping bag, and down jacket).

  • Pack contents dry: A trash compactor bag inside your pack is lighter and works considerably better than a pack rain-cover. Inside that, put your down bag and down jacket in their own waterproof or highly-water-resistant stuff sacks or more expensive but drier Cuben Fiber stuff sacks. I like a stuff sack of around 6-9L for my down jacket and 20L or larger one for my down sleeping bag/quilt.
  • Waterproof backpack: Even better but a lot more expensive, get a Cuben fiber backpack, with a roll top closure and sealed seams along with stowing your sleeping bag/quilt and down jacket in Cuben Fiber stuff sacks. This is a great way to keep your gear truly dry and is less complicated and time consuming than pack rain-covers or liners.

Montbell Superior Down Parka – $209
8.5 oz, 2.5 oz 800+ fill power downAt under 9 ounces this is another great value in an ultralight, fully featured jacket. As Montbell says, “Prized by budget conscious backcountry enthusiasts around the world, the Superior Down Series is “what you need” when a versatile warm layer is critical, minimal weight is paramount, and space in your pack is at a premium.” While not the warmest jacket in the group, it should be more than sufficient for 3-season use.


Patagonia UL Down Jacket or Hoody – $349 at REI

This jacket has been a staple of the ultralight crowd for years. My wife and I both own one. It’s not the cheapest jacket but it’s light, and uses a generous 3.5 oz of 800-fill-power traceable down. It comes in Men’s and Women’s, as well as hooded versions for a little more money. The hooded version is hands-down our favorite!


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Patagonia Down Sweater Jacket – $230 at REI

At $100 less than their UL jacket, this is a great warm layer for backpacking or any outdoor activity, really. It’s reasonably light (2.8 oz, non-hooded), and uses 800-fill-power traceable down. It comes in Men’s and Women’s, as well as hooded versions, for a little more money. Of course, there are adorable kids versions as well! Patagonia’s quality, warranty, and customer service  are legendary, ensuring you’ll keep this jacket for a long, long time.


Western Mountaineering Men’s Flash Jacket – $375

Western Mountaineering has been making some of the finest and lightest down products since forever. And they are legendary for their immaculate construction and their long term durability. This jacket has been a staple of the ultralight crowd for years! Made in the USA.


Western Mountaineering Men’s Flash XR Jacket – $375

This is a warmer version (3.5 oz of down) of the Flash Jacket with a highly water-resistant shell. This jacket was my choice for a climbing trip to the Andes in Peru. I summited a couple of 20,000+ foot peaks in this jacket. And yes, that’s a steep price tag but it’s made in the USA.


Lightweight Down Pants and Down Booties


image_featheredfriends_black_heliospant_1_3Feathered Friends Helios Down Pants – $240
13 oz, 4.4 oz 850+ fill power downThese pants are the real deal. Made with Feathered Friends’ legendary high quality down, these pants offer 4.4 oz of fluffy down, and weigh in at 13 oz. These pants are great for backpacking, but are meant for even more serious high mountain endeavors and offer full-length zips so you can put them on and off over crampons… or, if you’re just too lazy to take off your boots.

Montbell Superior Down Pants – $169
8.4 oz, 1.9 oz 800+ fill power downThese are one of the best values in insulated pants on the market. They are warmer and more windproof than fleece pants. As Montbell says, “Prized by budget conscious backcountry enthusiasts around the world, the Superior Down Series is “what you need” when a versatile warm layer is critical, minimal weight is paramount, and space in your pack is at a premium.”

wmflashpants1Western Mountaineering Flash Pants – $250
6.5 oz, 2.0 oz 850+ fill power downThese are probably the lightest insulated pants on the market. Weighing only 6.5 oz, these are packed with 850-fill down and are built with Western Mountaineering’s standard-setting quality. Don’t get cold, and cranky in camp. Put on your Flash Pants and hang out – enjoy the outdoors, deep into the fourth season.

 feathered-friends-assorted-down-booties
Feathered Friends Down Booties – $99
9.3 oz, 4.0 oz 800+ fill power downThese booties are the industry standard. With waterproof removable shells, you can take these with you as camp shoes, then remove the shells keeping the warm down socks on to keep  your toes warm all night! These are a toasty-toe delight that will help keep you comfortable deeper into the shoulder seasons and make winter camping much more manageable!

Disclaimer

This post contains affilate links. If you make a purchase after clicking on the these links, a portion of the sale helps support this site at no additional cost to you. I do not receive compensation from the companies whose products are listed. For product reviews: unless otherwise noted, products are purchased with my own funds. I am never under an obligation to write a review about any product. Finally, this post expresses my own independent opinion.

Best Lightweight Backpacking Electronics Gear

Best Lightweight Backpacking Electronics Gear

This best lightweight backpacking electronics gear is supremely functional, but is also light, low-cost, practical, and durable. It is the gear I take backpacking. This post has many Tips on How to Effectively Use this Gear.

This is part 1 of a 3 part series

  1. On Trail – Best Lightweight Backpacking Electronics Gear (this article)
  2. Best SOS/Tracking/Satellite Communication devices and their use
  3. Off Trail – Best Lightweight Electronics for before/after your trip—town, hotel, airports, plane etc.
    and options for a light “Mobile Office” as well as electronics for International Trips (coming soon)
    See section below for a quick summary of Travel Electronics For Use in Hotels and Airports Etc.
Best Lightweight Backpacking Electronics Gear

This is the gear that I take backpacking. Clockwise from bottom left: iPhone 6 Plus with light protective case, DeLorme inReach SE, Apple headphones, Amazon Lightning cable, *Sony a6000 camera with spare battery, and backup USB Battery.

*Note: I cover cameras like the Sony a6000/a6300 in a my post, Best Lightweight Backpacking Cameras.

On Trail – Best Lightweight Backpacking Electronics Gear

Here is a summary of the key components of the best lightweight backpacking electronics gear list.  A detailed table with all the components and weights is further down in this article.

  • $0* Smartphone – 7 oz with case (*cost is zero since I already own a smartphone)
    A large screen smartphone is the premiere, lightweight,  multi-functional device. It’s easily the best mapping GPS and navigational tool. A large screen smartphone (iPhone 6 Plus or Samsung Galaxy s6/s7) running an app like Gaia GPS is superior to conventional GPS units in almost every way. I get around 7 days normal trail use out of my iPhone 6 Plus before recharging. See: How to use your Smartphone as the Best Backpacking GPS.
    As a multi-functional tool, my iPhone has electronic maps (more functionality & covering far more area than paper ones), electronic trail guides, waypoints & mileage tables, field guides for birds and plants (e.g. Sibley Birds). It’s also a decent camera and video recorder, trail note journal, e-book reader, audio book and music player for relaxing and getting to sleep at night.
  • ~$20 USB battery – 5 to 6.5 oz (see below for options)
    Forget solar chargers, take a high-capacity USB battery to recharge your electronics mid-trip. (Note: For most trips of one week or less, a USB battery is lighter, less expensive and less fuss and bother than a solar panel.)
  • (optional) $150-$280 +service, SOS/tracking device – 5 to 7 oz
    Take a SOS/tracking device like a 6.9 oz DeLorme inReach or the 4.8 oz SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger. (I use inReach on most trips.) I will discuss SOS/tracking devices and their use in more detail in a future article.
Best Lightweight Backpacking Electronics Gear

Yes, a Smartphone is the best backpacking GPS out there! Pictured is the iPhone version of backpacking electronics. The USB battery on the right will recharge the iPhone 6 Plus two times. (The wall charger and micro-USB cable [top center] are only needed if you’ll have access to electricity mid-trip)

Always Bring a Backup Battery!

It’s critical safety precaution to make sure your electronics are always available for use. My three favorite lightweight and high capacity USB backup batteries are:

  1. Jackery Bolt 6000 mAh USB Battery (pictured right)- With two built in cables (lightening & micro-USB) it will charge just about any backcountry electronics. It has a faster charging rate than the EasyAcc below but has slightly less overall capacity.
  2. EasyAcc 6000mAh USB Battery This has slightly more capacity (tested) than the Jackery battery but has a slower charging rate & only a built micro-USB cable (altho you can attach your own lightening cable to charge an iPhone). It can charge a large phone like a Galaxy S7 about 1.4x and a smaller phone like an iPhone 7 2.3x.
  3. Anker PowerCore 10000 (only 6.4 oz) this is the lightest option f you need to recharge your electronics a lot.  It can charge a large phone like a Galaxy S7 ~2.5x and a smaller phone like an iPhone 7 ~3.5x. Its limitation is that it only has one USB port for a cable.
  4. And of course for a SPOT messenger and many headlamps a spare set of lithium AAA batteries.


Gear List Table – Best Lightweight Backpacking Electronics

Note: all blue text in the table below is a link to more detail for the item.

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Best Lightweight Backpacking Electronics Gear

The Samsung Galaxy s6/s7 version of backpacking electronics. The USB battery on the left will recharge a Galaxy s6/s7 two times. For most trips, all you need is the battery and your Galaxy Phone—no extra cables needed! (The wall charger and micro-USB cable [top center] are needed when you’ll have electricity mid-trip.)

Tips for Selecting a Battery

Quick Review: If you take an iPhone 6, or iPhone 6 Plus and replicate the gear in my kit including the USB backp battery, you should get around 7 days of on-trail use. This assumes “smart use” of the gear, i.e. use it but don’t over-use it. See article on iPhone battery conservation.

  1. How long can your electronics go without charging? Pre-trip, you’ll need to do a bit of testing to see how long each one of your backpacking electronics will last with your normal use on trail. E.g I know I get about 6-10 days normal use from my iPhone 6 Plus. That’s daily “smart use” of the GPS, reading electronic maps and trip info/guides, etc. along with some listening to Audiobooks at night. See article on battery conservation for using an iPhone on-trail.
  2. Find out how many mAh it takes to charge each of your devices—Smartphone, inReach, Kindle, etc. E.g. an iPhone 6s Plus or Samsung s6 takes approx. 2,750 mAh (milli-Amp-hours), a Delorme inReach 2,450 mAh, and a Kindle Paperwhite 1,420 mAh.
  3. Select a proper capacity (mAh) battery. Using the information from 1 and 2 above, calculate how much mAh of battery capacity you’ll need for your trip. For example, the EasyAcc USB Battery (5,500 mAh, tested capacity) will charge an iPhone 6s about three times, an iPhone 6s Plus or Samsung Galaxy s6 about twice, and a DeLorme inReach about twice. For me, it has enough capacity to keep my entire lightweight backpacking electronics gear going for about a week. (My iPhone 6 Plus might/or might not need a partial charge, and my inReach may need a full charge mid-trip if I run it in tracking mode while I hike. That will still leave me some battery to spare.)
  4. See “Always Bring a Backup Battery!” box (above) for some specific battery recommendations.
Best Lightweight Backpacking Electronics Gear

Recharging opportunity for the Pacific Crest and John Muir trails at Tuolumne Meadows, Yosemite: Want to see just how many people actually take electronics in the backcountry? Check out any recharging station along a major trail. Clustered around every available outlet will be a rats nest of tangled wires, phones, USB batteries, and cameras. Next to that will be a bunch of trail-gritty backpackers eating ice cream and drinking coffee, beer or cokes waiting for their electronics to charge.

Tips for Selecting Cabling and Wall Chargers

  1. Figure out your cabling needs
    No apple products – you may get by with just the micro-USB cable already attached to the many USB batteries. (Note: a longer, 3ft u-USB cable may be more convenient. e.g. you can use your electronics more easily while they charge.)
    Yes Apple products – you’ll need a USB to Lightning cable like this AmazonBasics Lightning Cable.
  2. If you will have opportunity to recharge mid-trip, you’ll need a USB wall charger  and a cable to connect to battery/electronics. For most USB batteries you’ll need a micro-USB cable to recharge it (either the usually short one provided with it, or preferably a more useful 3ft u-USB cable).
  3. If recharging opportunities are frequent (e.g. hut to hut trips), you may be able to get by with a smaller capacity battery. With frequent enough access to electricity a Generic 1.5 USB wall charger and cable will recharge your electronics.

Why is this the Best Lightweight Backpacking Electronics Gear?

Large Screen Smartphone

  • For starters, a Smartphone running GAIA GPS just works. It’s better and less expensive than traditional backpacking GPS units like a Garmin.
  • My friends and I have taken iPhones (as a mapping GPS) on numerous pack-rafting trips in Alaska, winter rafting down the Grand Canyon, technical Canyoneering in Utah, climbing in the Wind Rivers and the Sierras, long hikes in the U.S.A, Turkey, Australia, Europe, and a canoe trip down the length of the Mighty Mississippi River. In almost every way a smartphone running GAIA GPS is superior to traditional mapping GPS units such as the Garmin.
  • iPhones can operate 7 to 10 days of “normal trail use” before needing a recharge.
  • As a multi-functional tool, a smartphone also has electronic maps, electronic trail guides, waypoints & mileage tables, field guides for birds and plants (e.g. Sibley Birds). It’s also a decent camera and video recorder, trail note journal, e-book reader, audio book and music player for relaxing and getting to sleep at night.
  • Finally, a large screen Smartphone like the iPhone 6 Plus or Samsung Galaxy s6/s7 are more useful than smaller screens. You can see a lot more of your GPS map, guide book pages, etc., making it easier to use and far more practical than a smaller phone screens or smaller tradtional GPS unit screens like a Garmin.
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A LIGHT CHARGING KIT: Pictured from left to right: micro-USB cable for both charging micro-USB devices and your USB backup battery; 1 amp Apple USB wall charger; Apple Lightning cable, a lime green USB Backup battery (not a current model tho), and underneath a Pint Ziplock Freezer Bag to stow everything.

SOS/Tracking Devices and Sat Phones

Best Lightweight Backpacking Electronics Gear

Satellite Com Devices: For most trips, the DeLorme inReach is easily the best value. From left to right: Iridium 9555 SatPhone, DeLorme inReach, Iridium GO! and lower right SPOT Gen3. All of these devices have 2-way com with the exception of the SPOT.

Let me preface this by saying that in the last 5 years I used 2-way Satellite Com devices to:

  1. Initiate an urgent and immediate evacuation (less than 2 hours) via helicopter for a life-threatening medical situation. I was in satellite communication with park personnel to assess the situation, and provide first responder care.  During the course of our communications, the Park made the decision for the medical evacuation via helicopter.
  2. Receive medical instruction on how to lance a horribly abscessed tooth via the gum with a pocket knife (from an Emergency Medicine Doctor and a Dentist)

So my personal take on this issue is that stuff can and will happen. I cannot begin to predict what will happen, where it will happen, or to whom it will happen. Who would expect that a healthy trip member would start having a heart attack or a horribly abscessed tooth in the middle of a 10 day trip? What I do know is that my carrying one of these devices potentially saved at least one life and one tooth and as such, I will continue to carry one.

I realize tracking devices and sat phones can be a contentious topic.  As such, I am not suggesting to know what is best for others. I leave it up to each backpacker to make their own decisions.

all-electronics-1200

See also: “Best SOS, Tracking, and Emergency Communications Devices for Backpacking

Travel Electronics For Use in Hotels and Airports Etc.

Key items are a $2 extension cord that when combined with a cheap 2-prog travel adapter gives you 3 US style outlets. I find that the Anker 2 port (2 amp each) charger is fast and dependable. And in truth, the QIBOX charger is not as good as a 2 amp US charger with the cheap 2 prong travel adapter.

Key items are a $2 extension cord that when combined with a cheap 2-prog travel adapter (Ceptics USA to Europe Asia Plug Adapter) gives you 3 US style outlets. I find that the Anker 2 port (2.4 amp each) charger is fast and dependable. And in truth, the QIBOX charger is not as good as a 2 amp US charger with the cheap 2 prong travel adapter. [On the far left is batter charger for my Sony a6000 camera and two camera batteries.]

Best Cheap 25 cent Backpacking Gear

Best Cheap 25 cent Backpacking GearThe Best Cheap 25 cent Backpacking Gear is a Pint Ziploc Freezer Bag. These bags are a perfect size and have a ton of uses. I’ve used them to protect my iPhone and other expensive equipment packrafting in Alaska, rafting down the Grand Canyon in winter, and trekking in Patagonia and the rain forests of New Zealand. Surprisingly, they are virtually unknown and you won’t find them on grocery store shelves. But you can purchase Pint Ziploc Freezer Bag here

Pint Ziploc Freezer Bags are nearly as effective as ALOKSAKs, but far less expensive. At $0.25 each, it’s easy to carry a few spares and replace between trips as necessary.  The thick plastic and double zip work well to keep water and dust out while preventing minor scratches. Unless you plan on having your gear submerged for long periods*, they are lighter, and easier to get gear in and out of, and less expensive than fancy waterproof bags or cases that weigh and cost far more. (*Note: If you really need submersible protection; i.e. your phone will be completely under water for some time, then you will need to get a fully submersible rated bag for your phone.)

Best Cheap 25 cent Backpacking Gear

Just a few of the many uses for a $0.25 Pint Freezer Ziplock bag. Clockwise from upper right: 1) store meals, cook in bag & eat from the bag, 2) keeping TP dry in an outside pocket of your pack [normal sandwich baggies are too fragile and leak], 3) protecting expensive cameras/electronics from dust and rain like this $800 Sony RX100 Camera, 4) and my favorite use, protecting my iPhone. Photo shows the proper way to fold the bag for the iPhone for best visablity and touchscreen use.

Many uses for the Best Cheap 25 cent Backpacking Gear

Here are some my uses for $0.25 Pint Ziploc Freezer Bags but there are a ton more. Tell me your uses in the comments!

  • Protect my iPhone: see more detail on how I do this below
  • Keep the fiddle factor down: Putting like-gear in Pint Ziploc Freezer Bags organizes “gear-chaos.” Quickly finding gear saves time and sanity. E.g. all my first aid kit fits in one baggie. My cables and electronics, spare batteries go in another. My camera stuff, spare SD cards, batteries, bubble level go in another.
  • Snacks: One day of snack food goes in one baggie (Pint or Quart size, depending) and is put in the side pocket of my pack for quick access.
  • Meals: A Pint Ziploc Freezer Bag is perfect for individual meals. Just re-hydrate in the bag and eat out of the bag. When done, zip it shut and your KP is done. (I use Quart size when Alison and I share meals.)
  • Perfect for storing cheese and dried meats like salami, or a potentially leaking bottle of olive oil.
  •  Protect other electronics and optics, including small cameras, binoculars etc. My Sony RX100 Camera is a bit on the delicate side. I put it in a Pint Ziploc Freezer Bag if it is wet or very dusty (e.g. a windy day in the deserts of S. Utah). I usually leave the bag unzipped and folded over unless conditions are bad.
  • My standard travel electronics kit (when trekking worldwide) and even on extended trips in the US—spare charging battery, cables, wall-chargers, outlet adapters all fit neatly in one baggie.
  • Map & documents case. I generally don’t use heavy and bulky waterproof mapsets. I normally print my own custom maps and a time and mileage tables on non-waterproof paper. When arranged properly in a Pint Ziploc Freezer Bag or even a quart size, I can keep these in my right hip pants pocket for rapid reference—even in the rain.
  • Waterproof TP and hand sanitizer bag. Allows you to keep this easily accessible in an external pocket, even in wet conditions.

How I use the Pint Freezer Ziplock bag to protect my iPhone

I carry my iPhone in my left hip pants pocket about 95% of the time. Here’s how I keep it protected but quickly usable. First, I use a simple and Light Protective Case with a Screen Protector. Then I put my iPhone in a Pint Freezer Ziplock bag with the phone display on the clear/non-printed side and then fold the extra over so that the display is easily readable and fully touch functional (except fingerprint recognition of the home button). I put the phone in my pocket with the phone display facing against my leg so that it is protected from getting damaged if I bump into something. [Note: make sure that you fold extra bag away from the face of the phone. This prevents the bag from getting hazed by the ziplock closure rubbing against the display side of the bag.] In normal use, I usually don’t zip the bag shut since I am just interested in is protecting the phone from perspiration from my leg and dust. Folding the bag over does just fine for this. The additional benefit of folding and not sealing the bag is that I can quickly extract my phone from the bag to take a photo. Only in heavy rain or when I think I might get a brief dunking, like crossing a stream will I actually zip the bag shut.

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Some of the elements for my light travel electronics kit:  A substantial 6400 mAh external charging battery and a lightening cable and a micro USB cable. If traveling, I would add a wall charger (pictured) and a combo Power Adapter Travel Wall Charger (not pictured). All are well packaged and organized in a durable Pint Ziplock Freezer bag.

Field use kit: The iPhone 6 in a light but protective case sitting on top of a Pint Ziploc Freezer Bag used to protect the phone from dust, scratches and water (effective, lighter and less expensive than elaborate waterproof cases!). Right: a substantial 6400 mAh external charging battery and a lightening cable.

dinner-900

Freezer Ziplock used both for in bag cooking (re-hydration) and to eat from. Zero clean-up after the meal. Zip the bag shut, put it with your trash and you are done. This is especially useful at dry camps or when it’s really cold when washing pots at below freezing is not fun.

Practical Light Gear List Appalachian Trail

Update April 2016: I successfully completed this hike in 3 days.
See my trip report 10 Pound Backpack to Hike 100 Miles.
That’s the total weight of everything in my backpack—gear, food, water, and stove fuel. I used that 10 pound backpack to hike 102 with 22,000 feet of elevation gain of the Appalachian Trail through Shenandoah National Park in 3 days. No fair weather hiking, it was more late winter than early spring conditions—rain, sleet, light snow and hard freezes at night. I think I am very close to dialing in a Light Pack that is also supremely efficient at covering long trail miles. I used most of the gear listed below.

Practical Light Gear List Appalachian Trail

Practical Light Gear List Appalachian Trail
Just how light can you go on backpacking gear for the AT and still be an efficient hiker…

I believe this “5 Pound Practical Ultralight Backpacking Gear List” is very close to the lower weight limit of gear to efficiently walk long days on the AT (section hiking or through hiking) without sacrificing comfort, functionality or miles hiked per day. For me Practical Light is sub 12 pound total pack weight (gear, food, water & fuel) to do a ~100 mile section of the AT without resupply.

Overview of Practical Light Gear List Appalachian Trail

2016 Sequel to 2.4 Pound Extreme Ultralight Backpacking on the AT
This spring I am going test my “Practical Light Gear List Appalachian Trail” by re-hiking my 2.4 Pound Extreme Ultralight Backpacking on the AT in Shenandoah National Park. The objective in 2016 will be to answer the question, “*What is Practical Light on the Appalachian Trail?” Well, at least answer the question for me. I am already close to dialing-in this final kit. I tested a beta version of this new kit last Fall on an AT section hike from Harper’s Ferry WV to Pine Grove Furnace PA. I was very happy with the results. I was pulling 25 to 30 mile days without a lot of effort, and I was not lacking in either comfort or functional gear. Stay tuned for a a post hike trip report this Spring…

Summary of changes from ‘07 to 2016

  • Pack under 12 pounds to hike 100 miles with food, water and fuel included. This should not compromise comfort or happiness. But also, my gear should maximize trail miles covered per day. That is, the lightest pack is not the only factor to efficiently hiking the most miles per day. For my other considerations see: *But what exactly is Practical Light on the Appalachian Trail?
  • More durable pack – less time fiddling around trying not to rip pack. More pockets to minimize hiking time lost when diving into the main pack body for something in the middle of the day. Inherently near-waterproof = less time dealing with rainproofing pack and gear in iffy weather.
  • Warmer quilt – to assure a good night’s sleep and full recovery from a long day of hiking. Trimmer dimensions, lighter fabrics keep weight similar to ‘07 quilt.
  • Hammock Camping = more miles per day than ground sleeping. For my rationale on why hammock get you more miles per day see: Hammock Camping Part I: Advantages & disadvantages versus ground systems
  • But! I realize that there is nothing wrong with ground sleeping—it’s a great and very light system. And I know that I am unlikely to convince many (most?) backpackers to depart from traditional camping on the ground. So I’ve included excellent, light ground sleeping gear on the list below.
  • Upgrades to new lighter/better equipment not available in ‘07. Sprinkled in a few more (light!) creature comforts – to keep me sane and happy on the trail.

5 Pound Practical Light Gear List

Click here see it full page, as a Google Sheet

5-lb-practical lighweight

. Click on gear list table image to see full gear list sheet

Why we hike the AT. Glorious sunset from MacAfee Knob. [Photo Karan Girdhani]

Why I hike the AT. To view glorious sunsets like this one from MacAfee Knob. My primary goal is not to cover the most miles per day. [Photo Karan Girdhani]

Discussion of Practical Light Gear for the Appalachian Trail

It’s been almost nine years since I wrote 2.4 Pound Extreme Ultralight Backpacking on the Appalachian Trail in ‘07. Now when I look to optimize my gear, my primary objective is to maximize trail miles with the minimum of effort—not to get the lowest possible pack weight. I call this “Practical Light.”

*But what exactly is Practical Light on the Appalachian Trail? Obviously the interpretation of “practical” is key. We’ve all heard the term “Stupid Light” bantered around but what is the opposite? Smart Light would work as an opposite but it implies a level of hubris some not want to take on. Practical seems a more humble word. Nobody is going to say you are arrogant for just being practical.

For me “Practical Light on the Appalachian Trail” is:

Practical Light on the Appalachian Trail is the gear and food that will maximize trail miles (dawn to dusk hiking) with the minimum of effort for an AT section hike or through hike. (Emphasis on efficient.)

 

Obviously a very light pack is still a significant contributor towards that goal, but it’s not the only one. Other factors that I consider for maximizing trail miles are:

  • This is not a suffer fest! My first priority is to enjoy myself—that’s why I am out there—not just to cover trail miles. It just turns out that I really enjoy hiking dawn to dusk (as long as I am hiking at my own moderate pace).
  • How well can I sleep and recover from a dawn to dusk day of hiking?
  • Will my gear allow me to camp where I want when I reach the end of my optimal hiking day? I.e. I do not want to be being tied to camping at just AT shelters or the few other areas with flat campable ground.
  • Carrying enough food and the right food to sustain dawn to dusk hiking. 1.7 lb per day of nutritions, high calorie food.
  • Minimizing water carried (while still staying well hydrated). Key here is to filter and drink at the source.
  • No “high-futz/fiddle factor gear” that would reduce my available hiking time

If I compromise any of these to lighten my pack, my gear is no longer practical. That is, I am likely to hike fewer miles per day by cutting weight in this manner.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

While my 2.4 pounds of gear worked fine on ’07, I believe that a few more pounds of gear and food would have allowed me to hike even further and enjoy the trip more.

A change in perspective: In ‘07 I only covered gear but did not include the food and water I carried. In this iteration I will include considerations on food and water and include their weights—since this is what will actually be on my back . E.g. I will carry a 3 oz water filter. While that will increase my base pack weight over ’07, my total pack weight will be less since the filter allows me to drink immediately from water sources. I do not intend to carry a drop of water on the trail.

Dutchware Half-Wit Hammock

For my 2016 Hike I will be taking a hammock very similar to this Dutchware in 1.0 Hexon but less the bug netting. It’s incredibly comfortable, ensuring a good night’s sleep. The drab hammock colors, and camo Hammock Gear under-quilt keep me unobtrusive. If I am 100 feet off the trail, I am essentially invisible. [Photo: beta version of this my AT kit last Fall on an a section hike from Harper’s Ferry WV to Pine Grove Furnace PA]

Highlights of Gear Changes for 2016

Sleeping  To: Hammock camping  From: on the ground with a foam pad

NewOldRationale
Dutchware 11 ft. Single Layer Hammock – Hexon 1.0 fabricN/AHammock camping = more miles per day & more comfortable! See advantages of hammocks
Hammock Gear Phincubator Under-Quilt, (60″ no need for pad under feet) 800fp down, 0.67 oz fabricGossamerGear Foam Sleeping Pad (Torso)Underquilt serves same purpose for a hammock as pad for ground sleepers. More comfort than a full-sized NeoAir
Hammock Gear “+30” Burrow Top Quilt. Trimmed dimensions, 800fp down, 0.67 oz fabricJacks R Better Stealth (down quilt)Jack’s is still a great quilt. HG is a bit lighter, and I can wrap it around me in camp. I also spec’ed the HG quilt to be warmer so I’d sleep well.
Hammock Gear Cuben Hex TarpOware 1.5 cuben Cat TarpMore coverage to keep gear dry in the rain and cut optimized for hammock use

 

Bottom line: For me hammock camping equates to more miles hiked at the end of the day vs. sleeping on the ground. Why? Sleeping in a hammock dramatically increases suitable campsites on the AT. With a hammock all I need to camp is two trees—the ground below is largely irrelevant. That means I can hike until dusk without the risk of being in un-campable terrain. (Since much of the AT is sloped and rocky it’s not suitable for ground camping. So if I were ground sleeping I would likely need to stop hiking sooner than dusk to camp. I.e. I need to stop at the last shelter or campground that I could comfortably make before dark. Thus I might miss an hour or more of available daylight to hike.) There are many more advantages to hammock camping like a great sleep each night that allows me to more fully recover from a long day of hiking, and the option to avoid crowded, noisy, and heavily impacted campsites. Read more here: Hammock camping article. Hammock Camping Part I: Advantages & disadvantages versus ground systems

And there is nothing wrong with ground camping! If I were to ground camp, my sleeping system would remain quite similar to my ‘07 trip. Although I would use some model of NeoAir for a ground pad. Just getttin’ too old to get a great night’s sleep on a thin foamie! And as with the hammock camping, I would spec’ out a warmer quilt so that I would be guaranteed a good sleep. But with newer, lighter fabrics and trimmer dimensions that warmer quilt weighs less than my ‘07 one. Oh, and I would also take a down vest to wear around camp.

mld burnPack
To: 11 oz Mountain Laurel Designs Burn in Cuben. More durable, more pockets, inherently waterproof
From: 3.8 ounce spinnaker fabric pack: Gossamer Gear Whisper

While the Gossamer Gear Whisper Pack performed fine and I didn’t rip in ‘07, there were a few things that made me look for a similar pack but with more durable fabric and more pockets. 1) the Whisper’s pack fabric was so delicate that I was always looking out not to snag it on something; locating a soft, non-sharp place to put it down and sometimes resting it on the top of my feet when I couldn’t quickly find one. This fiddling takes away hiking time and distracts me from enjoying other things. 2a) while still light, the two quilts for hammock camping (top and bottom) takes a bit more volume in a pack than a single quit/sleeping bag–the Whisper is not quite up to that storage. 2b) even with sufficient volume, I would have my reservations that the seams will hold with such delicate fabric when I stuff two quilts into a pack. 3) the pack had no side pockets to store food and a water bottle, etc. in a more accessible location. Digging into the main pack added fiddle time that took away from hiking time. 4) the Cuben Fiber on the MLD Burn is inherently near-waterproof = less time dealing with rainproofing pack and gear in iffy weather.

NB. Gossamer gear now makes the 9 oz Murmur pack which addresses most of these issues except for pack volume. Altho the volume is fine for ground campers with a single quilt, it’s a bit small to store two quilts for hammock campers. And it is not as waterproof or durable as a cuben fiber pack.

pat-down-vestWarm Camp Clothing  To: a down vest From: nothing! (or rather a quilt worn in camp as a poncho)

Since my quilts are now non-poncho versions (although I can still wrap it around me in camp like a blanket). I have have added a down vest for walking around/being more mobile in camp and for early starts on cold mornings.

AT-midpoint-sm

Midway on the AT. From my section hike last fall where I evaluated a beta kit of Practical Light Gear for the AT. With a few exceptions, I will use most of that gear this Spring.

Sunrise from my hammock, Shenandoah National Park.

Sunrise from my hammock, Shenandoah National Park.

Best Backpacking Stove System – Trail Designs Caldera vs. JetBoil

best backpacking stove

Excellent engineering: Trail Designs Caldera, the best alcohol stove system, and the JetBoil, the best canister stove system. What makes these systems “best” is that they are fuel efficient, wind-resistant, stable and stow into a small package.

To keep things short and simple, here are the two best backpacking stove systems:
The best alcohol stove system, Trail Designs Caldera, and the best canister stove system, JetBoil. What makes both these systems “best” is that the stove, pot and windscreen/heat exchanger are an integrated unit, thoughtfully engineered for:

  • Fuel efficiency (they both have heat exchangers to increase the percentage of heat actually transferred to the pot to boil water). For JetBoil this is a ring of fins on the bottom of the pot, FluxRing®. This increases the surface area for heat transfer—similar to a car radiator operated in reverse. For the TD Caldera, the entire pot and stove are enclosed in the heated Caldera cone. Thus the whole surface area of the pot, including the sides transfer heat. The cone also reduces convective heat loss (chimney effect) by trapping the heated air in the cone and a slowing the heated air from rising away from the pot.
  • Stability (you can’t knock the pot off the stove, or easily knock the whole shebang over). Both systems lock the pot to the stove system so it can’t be knocked off the stove (a big problem with standard canister stoves). The wide base of the Caldera cone, and low height makes the entire system almost impossible to knock over. JetBoil provides a plastic “stabilizer tripod” that fits onto the base of the fuel canister, making it harder but not impossible to knock the the whole system over.
  • Wind resistance The TD Caldera is the most wind resistant. The stove is completely protected by the Caldera cone. The JetBoil stove burner is partially protected by the FluxRing and a metal shroud at the base of the stove burner. In a strong wind it will loose efficiency.
  • Compact Storage both neatly nest into a small compact unit for storage

Best Backpacking Stove – Comparison Trail Designs Caldera vs. JetBoil

Below are the essential Pros and Cons for each system. While I clearly prefer the Trail Designs Caldera alcohol system, there’s no wrong choice. They are both good cooking systems. Systems compared are for two people for a long weekend. See below for all the gritty details.

caldera-toaks900

Trail Designs Caldera Cone system. The entire pot and stove are enclosed in the extremely wind-resistant and heated Caldera cone. Thus the whole surface area of the pot, including the sides transfer heat. The cone also reduces convective heat loss (chimney effect) by trapping the heated air in the cone and slowing the heated air from rising away from the pot. Clockwise from bottom left: Zelph “StarLyte Burner with lid,” fuel bottle with measuring cup, 900 ml titanium pot sitting on the Caldera cone, camp spoon and matches.

Trail Designs Caldera – alcohol stove JetBoil Zip – canister stove
  • 9.7 oz – $120 tested – *options to $55 available
  • Pros: light, exceptionally stable & wind resistant, fuel efficient, can easily get cheap alcohol fuel almost everywhere in the world, take only the fuel you need, no canister disposal in waste, wide pot easy to cook in and easy to clean. Ti cone has option to burn wood.
  • Cons: more fiddling to set up, slower boils than canister stoves, initial learning curve, not available at major retailers.
  • Comments: Personal favorite for almost 10 years
  • Note: although the TD “12-10 burners” are good, the ideal stove/burner for this system is the Zelph “TD Kojin Stove.” See below for more Caldera options.
  • 19.5 oz – $80
  • Pros: ease of use, much faster boils, appealing slim form factor, built-in insulating pot sleeve—no handle or gloves needed, less expensive, french press option for coffee. Available at major retailers like REI
  • Cons: 2x heavier, not as wind resistant as the TD Caldera, fuel canisters not readily available in remoter areas of the lower 48 or worldwide, end-up taking more fuel than needed since canisters are fixed amounts, disposal of partially used canisters a pain*, deep pot hard to clean
  • Comments: not as “efficient” as claimed when canister weight is considered. About 50% of of the canister weight is the metal can and not fuel.

*  Lower cost Caldera systems with similar weight and performance are available. The system above is the titanium Ti-Tri Sidewinder Cone, which supports alcohol, Esbit, and burning wood fuel. The pot is also titanium. An aluminum dual fuel (alcohol & Esbit) cone and aluminum pot option costs $55 Caldera Sidewinder Solo. If you already have the pot the titanium Ti-Tri Sidewinder Cone is $80 without the pot.

jetboil-zip-big

JetBoil Zip: The JetBoil is the best selling backpacking stove of all time. Most people just take a liking to it at first glance and never look back. It’s easy to use, boils water fast, has an appealing slim form, and has that wow-cool-gizmo! factor going for it. Clockwise from lower left, french press option; JetBoil pot, burner, canister, and stabilizing tripod (orange); pot base cap/cup (black), CrunchIt canister recycling tool.

used-canisters

A friend’s stash of partially used fuel canisters that do not have enough fuel for another trip. It will take hours of outdoor fuel burning and then canister puncturing to keep these out of hazardous waste.

*Note: Dealing with partially used fuel canisters is a pain. And if you use a JetBoil you will likely end up with a boxful of partially filled canisters that do not have enough fuel for another trip. Disposing of the canisters is a  big production. One option is to put them in hazardous waste. The other option, per JetBoil, is to first a) burn all the unused fuel, and then b)  use a CrunchIt tool to puncture the “empty” container. This renders the canister suitable for metal recycle. (Both burning the unused fuel, and puncturing the canister must be done outside.)

stoves-stowe

Both stove systems stow into a small and compact package. The Trail Designs Caldera on the left; the cone is rolled up in a white sleeve and has the fuel bottle stored inside. Stove (green), lighter, spoon and fuel measuring cup all fit in the pot.

Which Stove is Best for You?

Alison and I and most backpackers we know prefer the the Trail Designs Caldera alcohol system. It’s half the weight of the JetBoil and greener with no partially used fuel canisters ending up in waste. Alcohol fuel is readily available worldwide. We have no difficulty using the Caldera. One of the advantages of the Trail Designs Caldera is that I can light it and leave it unattended to boil water while I perform camp chores. It is near impossible to kick over. It is almost impervious to wind—remaining fuel efficient even unprotected from strong wind. In about 7 minutes, when I’m done setting up camp, I come back to boiling water for dinner.

But my guess is that many readers will still end up getting the JetBoil canister system. It is the best selling backpacking stove of all time. Most people just take a liking to it at first glance and never look back. It’s easy to use, boils water fast, has an appealing slim form, and has that wow-cool-gizmo! factor going for it.

Unless you are a details maven, you need read no further. You have all the information you need.


The gritty details for those that care

Cooking for a long weekend for two people

Total weight is: stove, cookset and fuel container + fuel to boil 8 pints. Enough for a long weekend trip for two people. A long weekend trip is three days and two nights = cooking for two dinners and two breakfasts. (90% of backpackers take 90% of their trips for 3 days or less.)

2 dinners @ 16 oz water to hydrate meal + 4x @12 oz for hot drink = 5 pints water boiled
2 breakfasts @ 2×12 oz water for coffee or tea = 48 oz boiled water = 3 pints water boiled
Trip total for two people = 8 pints water boiled

Basic System specs

Trail Designs Caldera – alcohol stove JetBoil – canister stove
9.7 oz – $120 tested – options to $55 available
Boil time for a pint = ~7 min
Stove/pot/cone = 5.4 oz
Fuel specs: 4.3 oz container and fuel = 0.8 oz plastic fuel bottle  + 3.5 oz-wt alcohol fuel
(efficiency ~0.4 oz-wt alcohol fuel to boil a pint)
19.5 oz – $80
Boil time for a pint = ~3-4 min
Weight: Stove/pot = 12.5 oz
Fuel specs: 7.0 oz container and fuel = 3.5 oz metal can + 3.5 oz-wt isopropane/butane fuel (100g)
(*efficiency ~0.2 oz-wt fuel to boil a pint – but doesn’t include wt of canister)

*Note: ~0.4 oz-wt alcohol vs. ~0.2 oz-wt propane/butane fuel for a boil. This is because alcohol has 1/2 the energy per weight of propane/butane. So it takes twice the weight of alcohol to boil a pint vs. propane/butane. Alcohol does not require a heavy metal canister for fuel storage, and has a lighter stove. So in the end, alcohol is the lighter overall system.

Options for the Trail Designs Caldera

zelph

Fuel saving stove with lid”

Zelph burner The best stove/burner for the Caldera system is the Zelph “StarLyte Burner only with lid.” 

Now updated with the better Trail Designs Kojin Stove. This burner eliminates most of the drawback of alcohol stoves:

  • No need to “estimate” how much alcohol fuel to use for a boil. Use a bit more (20-30%) than you’ll need & when the pot boils, blow the stove out & cap it (when cool) to save unused fuel. Brilliant!
  • BTW the Caldera boils a pint on about 15 ml of alcohol fuel
  • Burner will not spill lit fuel if it is knocked over, so safer than the burners without the fibrous fillers
  • Its more compact and fits inside the pot with the Caldera cone
  • It doesn’t require the use of titanium tent pegs that are needed to raise the pot when you use the Trail Designs 12-10 burner

Optional Fuel Container This Twin Neck Fuel Bottle (1.2 oz) both stores and measures fuel.

kleen-strip

Standard quart container of Denatured Alcohol. Available in the paint section of most hardware stores, Home Depot, WalMart, etc.

Alcohol Fuel Sources/Options Denatured Alcohol (aka clean burning marine stove fuel, methylated spirits, shellac thinner,  liquid fondue fuel, chafing dish fuel). It is available world-wide in hardware stores (and in the US at Walmart or similar stores). In many countries like France it is sold in grocery stores as a fondue or chafing dish fuel. First choice in US is Klean-Strip Brand, likely labeled S-L-X “Clean burning fuel for marine stoves.” But I have used many other brands of denatured alcohol with no problems.

In a pinch, you can use HEET (Yellow label, not the Red label HEET) which is sold at all auto-supply stores and many gas stations and convenience stores like 7-11. HEET works fine, but has more residue than plain alcohol fuel.

 

 

pot-cozyPot Cozy Anti-Gravity-Gear Pot Cozys are lightweight and efficient cookpot insulators which allow you to save fuel. The cozy traps heat, so food continues to cook long after you have taken the pot off the stove and will keep it warm for nearly an hour. Especially useful for hydrating meals.

 

 

 

 

td-keg-f

Trail Designs KEG-F. In an essential/stripped-down mode, the whole setup weighs around 3 ounces.

 

For Going Really Light! For soloing I take a stripped down version of the Caldera Keg-F Stove System. The stove, windscreen and pot are around 3 ounces!