Monday, September 29, 2014

Gear experiments

Before I post details of the actual hiking in the Uintas that I did, I thought I'd take stock and talk about some of my "gear experiments" and how well they worked--or didn't.

  • Cheap vs. expensive specialty.  For the most part, I avoided expensive specialty gear from pricey brand-names like Mountain Hardware, REI, First Ascent, Marmot,  etc.  I bought my backpack in the Meijier sporting goods section for $50 fer cryin' out loud.  My conclusion, primarily, is that brand doesn't matter.  I was perfectly happy with my pack, my headlight, my sleeping pad, etc. even though they cost only a fraction of the expensive gear recommended by Backpacker Magazine (who, of course, pays their bills by advertising for backpacking gear suppliers.)  There were, however, a few notable exceptions.
  • 50L backpack plus a "fanny pack" for items I wanted to have more on hand--a lot of folks will tell you that a 50L pack for a longish expedition is pretty small.  I did OK, though--and I really liked the fanny pack addition to keep stuff handy.  I will admit that if I'd been backpacking in an area where I needed a bear canister, I'd probably have been in trouble without a 65-70L pack, though.  I kept my needs a little light by never planning on spending more than 4-5 nights out without returning to my car and moving to a new trailhead--conveniently reloading my pack while I'm at it.
  • Permethrin treated clothes.  Not sure.  I didn't get bit by any mosquitoes or ticks, certainly, but that may well be because I was there when the mosquito season was more or less over, too.  I'd like to try this experiment again.  I brought some 100% DEET spray in a pump bottle as a backup.  It ended up leaking in my pack and ruining some of my gear, by essentially starting to dissolve and destroy the plastic.  I'm not keen on bringing more again.  I'd also like to get the "real" Permethrin treated clothes; the way that bug-proof clothing actually does it, instead of the backpackers permethrin, which wears off quickly.
  • No cook food.  I'd make a few changes to my food, but not many.  This worked out well.  I was certainly tired of eating the same stuff day after day, but then again, I appreciated not having the weight of a backpackers stove, or worrying about having to prepare anything.  Most likely I will by a Jetboil Zip cooking system before I go backpacking again, but not because this particular experiment was a failure.
  • Lightweight sleeping bag with hat and base layers.  This didn't work out as well as I'd hoped.  Not because the concept is bad, but because I should have known that a 40° bag for $35 that actually performed as advertised was too good to be true.  I was cold every night; at least a little.  Next time around, I'll pick up a Kelty Cosmic Down sleeping bag--about the cheapest of the "nice" sleeping bags, and use that.  It'll probably take up a little bit more space, but not much, luckily.  Having a small sleeping bag is an important consideration.  Speaking of sleeping well, I'll also bring sleeping pills and some kind of inflatable pillow.  The worst part of my trip was not sleeping as well as I'd want, and not feeling rested the next day.  Without that, I could have had fun for several more days than I actually ended up doing.
  • Athletic shoes instead of hiking boots.  This was another mixed success.  For the most part, I enjoyed having lightweight, comfortable shoes that didn't need any breaking in.  However, it's important to note that this hiking advice was developed in the Pacific Crest Trail by through-hikers.  The PCT is famously a smooth, easy trail for walking on.  The Appalachian Trail, by contrast, is notoriously rocky, which leads to more sore feet if the soles of your shoes aren't sufficiently hard, and more possibility for turning or twisting an ankle in low-cut shoes.  Start wandering off-trail, especially in a place like the Uintas where above tree-line has a mass of loose rocks, and your possibility for an ankle injury goes up dramatically.  I spent some time on steep scree slopes, and I did not feel secure in my ability to withstand ankle injuries.  My shoes ended up being a limiting factor that contributed to my lack of success (and later, lack of attempts) on any of the summits in the Uintas.  Of course, it's not a false binary--$35 athletic shoes at J.C. Penny's (what I ended up spending) or $300 Asolo boots, of course.  For my next excursion, I'd like to split the difference, and get some high-top hiking shoes of an athletic variety.  I mentioned earlier some Cabela's XPG mid-hikers as a strong contender for what I'd like.  New Balance also has some that are about the same price, and another pair that are even cheaper (albeit also lower--but probably high enough to protect my ankles if they start to roll a little.)
  • I'm also going to ditch the rain pants.  I didn't get any really hard rain, but even if I had, I think the Frog Toggs jacket would have been sufficient.  My hiking clothes are sufficiently quick drying that I'm not worried about sitting around wet and catching hypothermia or anything like that.  To be honest with you, I didn't even use the jacket except for a brief moment the first day--it was sprinkling when I started out.  I ended up putting the jacket away after about 45 minutes or so of walking and never got it out again, even when I got caught in some other rain storms.  But like I said, I never ended up hiking in any really strong, hard rain either.


  1. The Merrell Moab Mid Ventilator hiking boot weighs less than two pounds a pair, is available at almost every sporting goods store (at least I checked Cabela's, REI and Dick's and it's at all three, although only in one color) and costs $100. Highly reviewed, and among the most popular of Merrell's offerings. For $20, I can get a GORE-TEX version of it, although I don't know that I would want to. I like a good "tennis shoe" like feeling boot that breathes and dries fast, but which has better ankle support than the shoes I wore this last summer.

    1. Keen Koven too; same price, a little lighter.