Altaplex5

Gear Review 2016

This is a review of the most important or interesting gear that I used on the Appalachian Trail in 2016.

After nearly 1500 miles from southern Virginia up to Baxter State Park in Maine I hiked and camped through one of the wettest Mays on record and then one of the hottest summers ever, up to 95f and 90% humidity which regularly meant a Heat Index (how hot it really feels) of 125-135f or 50c+ even in the shade. Take the findings within that context. For a review of the gear used in 2014 click here.

The Big 3 – Backpack, Shelter and Sleep

Pack

I started in early May with an Osprey Exos 38 (medium torso) and then changed to a 48 in Manchester Center, Vermont, before hitting the White Mountains so I would have extra space for warmer clothes and a sleeping bag liner. My base weight with the 38 was about 12lb and with the 48 it was about 13lb. It’s not publicised for some reason but the fact is that the 48 has thicker foam padding in the hipbelt and shoulder straps which makes it more comfortable as the load increases. Above 20lb and certainly 25lb the shoulder straps of the 38 start to dig in which is painful after a while. With a very hot summer I was sometimes carrying 4 litres of water and if that happened to coincide with a 4 day food carry then it could be hard work. While I had the only 38 I saw, the 48 was probably the most common pack on the AT this year, plus a fair few 58s as well, so keep an eye on your pack when not alone. Like owning a black suitcase on a baggage carousel, perhaps personalise it somehow to prevent other people making off with your pack by accident…

Osprey Exos 48

Osprey Exos 48

Things I liked about the Exos: the trampoline back really worked well to keep my core temperature as cool as possible. The bottle holster side pockets made hydration easy and lightweight (zero-weight actually since no extra equipment at all is needed, just your drinking bottle of choice), and the stretchy mesh front pocket could safely handle way more gear than it first appears but flattens down neatly when empty. The hipbelt pockets worked well enough size-wise – I could fit 4 bars in each plus several small electrolyte sachets. I liked the way the hipbelt itself loops back on itself to avoid the usual problem of two long dangling straps

Things I didn’t like: for me I’d like one of the side pockets to NOT have the holster hole as I can only drink from one bottle at a time and the second side pocket which is not used for drinking cannot then handle small items as they just fall out. Even larger ones like tent poles or umbrellas may partly fall through the hole. And then I’d make that pocket taller so it could store a tent or umbrella or such like easily. In other words, I’d copy the Mariposa pocket design! The hipbelt pockets were fine but they could be a centimetre bigger and the stretch mesh is a bit too fragile. The shoulder strap pockets would be 100% more useful if they were 10-20% larger. Just keeping a small bottle of sunscreen and another of hand sanitizer in one was a struggle.

I actively tested several other packs before settling on the Exos range. I own a Hyperlite Mountain Gear Windrider 3400 which has the best load-transfer-to-hips but was larger than I needed and suffers from SBS (sweaty back syndrome) badly, which would have increased the risk of heat exhaustion in this summer’s conditions. A short trial of a ULA Circuit ended disappointingly when it caused my pinched nerve to flare up, as did the 2015 Gossamer Gear (Robic) Mariposa.

Pro Tip: Don’t put an Exos down on your foot, the thin ridge underneath is rock hard and your foot will be very unhappy. A good way to bond with other Exos owner: ask if they’ve dropped theirs on their foot as well and then all have a good laugh about it.

Rating: 4/5.

Tent

Altaplex5After using a cuben Lightheart Gear SoLong in 2014 (831g) I switched to a Zpacks Altaplex (642g) in camo (which means .51oz cuben plus a .16oz patterned nylon covering). I only ran across one other user of the Altaplex (also in camo funnily enough) and it was amusing that we both immediately brought up and agreed on the principal problems this tent caused us. Anyway, the things I liked about it included the weight saving and smaller packsize over the SoLong which were small but noticeable. The camo fabric provided good light protection (anyone who has camped around full moons will understand how bright they can be) and privacy without the weight penalty of heavier fabric and only a 50g/2oz penalty over white .51oz cuben. And I liked that it only needed one trekking pole to put up, a factor I really appreciated when I broke one of my two. Finally, you do get a lot of space considering the low weight of the tent. Without resorting to qualities present in any average tent (basically waterproof, keeps the critters out, etc.) there aren’t many other standout qualities.

Altaplex1Things I didn’t like: man, it’s fussy to set up. After 1100 miles I got to setup my SoLong again when my girlfriend brought it on trail to use and the ease and speed of set up compared to the Altaplex was amazing. The tent was great except when it rained. That’s not a joke. The first problem is that the doors do not reach low enough to stop rain bouncing off the ground and into the tent. This is A Major Problem on wooden tent platforms. If you lower the fly height (usually ~145cm+ in drier conditions) to 135-140 then this can be greatly mitigated but at the expense of losing the perimeter ventilation so condensation becomes more of a problem. The second problem was what I termed “micro-splatters” whereby any heavy rain caused the condensation on the tent inner to “ping” off onto you and your gear. This would happen almost immediately the tent was up,m it didn’t take hours to start, presumably due to the relative humidity in a summer storm. It’s hard to quantify how much water that is of course but as a guide a smartphone screen would become unusable within 5 minutes as the screen would be too wet. After an hour or two of this your sleeping bag is going to lose loft. I’m glad this was a dry summer and I only had to spend about 15 nights in the rain.

Altaplex4The final issues were that I always found the inner door zip and outer door closing hardware to be fiddly to use. Because the zip is lightweight and the door is light mesh there is no natural tension so you usually need two hands correctly positioned to open it even a small amount or else you risk straining and tearing the door (which never happened). I just never could get the hang of the metal door closers even after 100 nights but that wasn’t really a problem except when there was a bear outside and I couldn’t try and get out of the tent without risking losing my arms, admittedly a niche scenario.

Altaplex2Pro Tip: You don’t need to use all 10 stakes unless it’s very windy; it was a 6-stake tent for me 95% of the time. The 4 higher mid-panel lines can be left dangling or hooked onto one of the other stakes (I attached the end panels to the back corner stake rather than the front corner as that draws out the panel away from your head and foot giving you the most room). Also, I used a full size MSR Groundhog stake for the critical main line and put a rock over it every night so it couldn’t come loose as that would cause the tent to collapse, as reported by other owners.

Rating: 3/5.

Sleeping Pad

This time I used the popular Thermarest NeoAir Xlite (regular size) and after a couple of nights acclimatising to it versus the more generous Exped SynMat UL7, I slept ok. Was it worth saving 100g? Yes. The 450g Exped is more comfortable but I slept just fine on the 350g NeoAir.

TAR_AirTapPumpPro Tip: I used a Thermarest NeoAir AirTap to inflate the pad each night. The tap is a horrendously overpriced plastic nozzle (throw the cap part and the tube part away) which you insert into the corner of any bag (I used my bag liner which was a thin bin liner for half the trip and a random plastic bag for the rest) and then you can gather up air into the bag, close the top and squeeze the air into the pad. It saves time and effort and it only weighs about 2g.

Rating: 4/5.

Pillow

AerosI used a medium Sea To Summit Aeros Premium pillow this time and it was a complete success. It is an air bladder covered with a small layer of synthetic padding for comfort and a fleece side for wicking sweat away (the non-premium model has no fleece coating so you would need to have something always available to cover what is otherwise just a plastic balloon). It is comfortable enough to sleep on directly. Most nights I did cover it in my fleece, both for further comfort and because it’s easy to launder the fleece so I never bothered trying to clean the pillow (though I really should have!). This pillow was 80g well spent. I packed it on top of the sleeping bag storage bag (my sleeping bag is stuffed into a stuffsack rather than a weightier dry bag so there is small gap at the top. Placing the waterproof bottom-side of the pillow facing up at the top of this bag gave me an extra margin of safety against water ingress to my down sleeping bag). Finally, the deflate valve is almost literally instant and silent – can sleeping pads please get this?!

Things I liked: It has sufficient depth for a side sleeper like me. I’ve had some other similar designs which felt good but when I lay down on my side my head hovered actually above the pillow!

Things I didn’t like: Nothing.

Pro Tip: I had no problem with the pillow “squirting” away from me in the night when used loose on top of the sleep mat when I needed to wear all my clothes for warmth but most nights I pulled my fleece over the end of the sleep map to trap the pillow between the back of the fleece (which has no zip or seams) and the mat. Perfect.

Rating 5/5.

Clothing

Shoes

Notorious northern PA

Notorious northern PA

The context to my shoe and insole choices are that I suffer from bad plantar fasciitis (PF) and can usually be seen limping more than walking. I used two pairs of Hoka One One Challenger ATR 2 and two of Hoka One One Tor Ultra Lo. After 450 miles on the first pair of Challengers I was into Pennsylvania so switched to the tougher Tor shoes which have a soleplate to protect your feet from rocks. Having fended off PF pretty well to that point I was reluctant to change shoes but the notorious rocks of northern PA demanded a change. It was a good choice in terms of PF and protecting my feet from the rocky terrain but the shoes really tore up the skin on my feet badly, caused Achilles tendon strains and were too small in the front for my toes so my big toe and little toe on both feet were cramped for space permanently and were very painful for the rest of the trip. In retrospect I should have sized up and dealt with any space issue with thicker socks, but there we are.

After Pennsylvania I switched back to a new pair of Challenger ATRs and 3 days later ordered a new pair of Tors as I could no longer stand to feel the ground that much after 250 miles of soleplate protection. So my Challengers went into the bin after a week and my second Tor pair lasted the final 620 miles. By then my feet had gotten used to the Tors and I had no major blisters unless it was wet for several days and the skin softened up. The toe cramping continued to the end.

Hoka Tor Ultra Lo after 620 miles

Hoka Tor Ultra Lo after 620 miles

Things I liked: the spongy soles obviously. For a PF sufferer this is really essential. I could not have hiked the AT in regular shoes. The grip on both shoes was excellent, especially the Challengers. Also, they both dried well after rain though obviously the open mesh Challengers excelled here while the Tors have an eVent lining so take much longer. All 3 well-used pairs lasted long enough – you can’t expect foam soles to last for much more than 500 miles so I was pleased with how well the final pair fared – there is still good tread on the sole and the upper is still intact. Other hikers reported tearing up the top of their Hokas and the toe rand coming away from the top but I didn’t actually see anyone with that problem or suffer it myself. And other hikers also complained the toe box was too narrow.

Pro Tip: The Tors especially can be laced in many different ways as they have three holes at the ankle end. If you get any aches, pains or tightness try lacing them differently. I used a heel lock technique on my right shoe to keep my toes away from the end as much as possible but tied the left shoe in a normal manner and on both shoes I loosened the lace at the top eyes so they had no effect to again give my toes the most breathing space possible.

Rating: 4/5.

Insoles

active-thin-alt-frontHaving been introduced to Soles insoles by the kind folks at Outdoor76 in Franklin NC back in 2014 I had continued to use them in my daily life ever since, making sure that the right thickness of insole (they offer 3) was teamed with the shoe and sock such that your foot is neither too high and squashed in the shoe, nor too low so it causes blisters due to rubbing. I changed the insoles after 700 miles, just as a preventative measure.

Pro Tip: For PF sufferers you probably want the thickest foam depth that fits comfortably in your shoe, but not so deep that your feet get squashed. I had to use the thin ones that have no foam due to choosing too-small a shoe size.

Rating: 5/5.

Socks

I used two pairs of Cabela’s Insect Defense Low Cut Socks, purchased directly from their website. At $15 a pair plus delivery they are not cheap but a fair price if they lasted long enough. At roughly 2/3 Merino and 1/3 nylon plus arch support these should be just the right constituents for a long distance hiking sock. I used them because they have Permethrin baked in to help prevent ticks getting up my legs.

SocksThings I liked: loved having the Insect Defense baked in to the garment that is in the front line of tick attacks. They felt good, didn’t bunch or crease (which can cause blisters) and dried quickly when wet. They are lightweight so don’t heat up your feet. You have a choice of lengths, I went with low-cut for summer but use the calf length version at home.
Things I didn’t like: they didn’t last long. Considering they were alternated each day they would show serious wear around the ball of the foot and outside of the big toe within 2 weeks which would become a proper hole after 4. Expensive to replace two pairs when delivery is considered. Strangely, the enormous Cabela’s store in Hamburg, PA doesn’t stock them.

Pro Tip: Whatever sock you wear it is a sensible precaution to treat them with permethrin.

Rating: 2/5.

Trousers

Rohan Trailblazers (not the convertibles though that would be fine if you like shorts and don’t mind their baggier cut). A pretty classic lightweight nylon/lycra pant with a good but not excessive number of pockets (all of which are mesh lined for heat dissipation so be careful of storing e.g. keys in them) which have permethrin baked in. They fit me over 1500 miles of thinning body – too tight at first and a bit too loose at the end but it was fine and I didn’t take the belt it came with. They looked good (as stylish as hiking pants can be).
Things I liked: the main material is really tough. After 1500 miles they literally looked as good as new once washed. The pocket design worked well for me though people with large (5″+) smartphones may not be able to store them in the hip pockets. Loved having tick protection over my whole lower body without having to maintain that by spraying every few weeks.

Rohan TrailblazersThings I didn’t like: Both the hip pocket zips broke. The first came apart after just 300 miles, the second got looser and looser as time went on to the point that it didn’t stay zipped shut. I fixed the first with a FixnZip Small which worked perfectly, if a bit stiff. The stitching came apart gradually under the crotch and had to be sewn back up.

Pro Tip: Carry at least 1 FixnZip in your repair kit and check the stitching occasionally.

Rating: 4/5.

Shirt
Rab MeCo 140

Rab MeCo 140

After the first month with a mostly-merino Rab MeCo 140 Long Sleeved Zip that had an annoyingly tricky zip I switched to a lighter polyester Outdoor Research Echo Long Sleeved Zip Tee in small for the last 1100 miles and this would have been fine for the whole trip (again, bearing in mind the daytime temperatures were never that cold). At just 102g it is much lighter and cooler than it looks and the grid fabric makes it ideal for sweaty conditions. I hiked 99% of the time with the sleeves rolled up above the elbow and lowered them at rest stops and at camp for warmth so it is more flexible than a t-shirt.

OR Echo

Outdoor Research Echo

Things I liked: it didn’t smell as bad as I thought a 100% polyester top would. Others may disagree but I didn’t find it too bad and there was no stink detectable after a wash. The material performed the way I expected in hot conditions – as cool as you can get with the long zip helping ventilation a lot. The material felt silky against the skin. It didn’t pill much even under the pack shoulder straps. I was surprised by how well it lasted a thousand miles of backpacking.
Things I didn’t like: not much but it didn’t look as flattering as other tops do, like the Rab for instance – this shirt does not make you look fitter than you are.

Pro Tip: If you unzip then be sure to use sunscreen on your chest in that exposed triangle.

Rating (both tops): 4/5.

Rain Jacket

rainjacketThe Berghaus Vapourlight Hyper Jacket was only 77g in small including its own stuffsack and did the job it was supposed to – more an emergency shell rather than a day-in-day-out all-rounder. It’s very light and packs up to the size of an apple. It didn’t suffer any damage. Looks-wise it is good enough to wear around town so the cost is easier to bear.

Things I liked: I could push the arms up to the elbow which helped ventilation along with the full zip so I could keep the jacket on and be comfortable even if had maybe stopped raining but was still threatening rather than choose between the hassle of stopping to take it off and maybe put it back on 5 minutes later or keep it on and overheat.

Things I didn’t like: Not much. The price when it first came out. It’s not very breathable (10k) so could get clammy in the summer storms I faced a lot and in 3 solid wet chilly weeks in May the thinness of the material meant the wind flattened the fabric against my body causing heat loss a thicker jacket would have avoided.

Rating: 4/5.

Rain Pants

Montbell rain pantsMontbell Versalite pants weighed 102g in medium and were comfortable to wear (20k/15k rating) all day long. If it was raining in the morning then I happily just wore these over my underwear and stored my regular hiking pants in my pack. They didn’t suffer any damage and washed fine with everything else when it came to laundry though I kept them out of the dryer. Handwashing tended to leave a layer of mud on the lower legs. Despite not having zipped calves they fitted easily enough over my Hoka shoes.
Things I liked: The weight, packsize, price and performance. So, everything really.
Things I disliked: Every time I wore these it rained. Oh, wait…

Rating: 5/5.

Down Vest

Borah Gear down vestI get a lot of hits on my comprehensive round-up of down vests so it was important to put my money – and comfort – where my mouth was. I went with the great-value Borah Gear option and they created a size between their standard small and medium just for me. The product did exactly the job it was supposed to – be a comfortable warm layer in the evening and in bed on cold nights, plus I used it occasionally as a pillow cover. It suffered little down leakage despite being compressed into my pack ever day.
Things I liked: a good amount of warmth for 99g.
Things I disliked: Not much. Maybe the arm holes could be 1cm larger to avoid cutting in.

Pro Tip: I chose a 99g down vest instead of my 230g down jacket as I was hiking from May to September. For April and October I would have preferred the jacket but was able to save 131g with this decision and was only cold enough to regret it once, when night temperatures dipped to 36f (3c).

Rating: 5/5.

Hat

I’m a sweater. Not a cosy woollen top, I mean I am someone who has to wipe the machine down at the gym after I use it. And the floor around the machine. And apologize to the person running next to me. Also, while I’m in confession mode, I don’t look good in any kind of hat. I’m not being modest; over the years multiple people have said in a shop, “Go on, just try it on….oh, right. I see.” So wearing a hat is not an automatic choice. I look pretty good in a headband and wore my Buff that way for all of 2014 and the start of 2016. But once the temperatures picked up the cloth Buff was causing me to heat up a lot and it was being overwhelmed with sweat as well. So cool looks be damned, I gave in and ordered a Headsweats Elite Icefil ball cap in black (white would be cooler physically but less cool looks-wise) from Amazon. Headsweats Elite Icefil

It manages to direct the sweat over the brim so it drips harmlessly away from your face down to the ground (oddly not onto your body or shoes, not sure how. It did drip on my shoes when I sat down for a rest but not when walking) and the mesh top means my head doesn’t heat up too much. It provided sun protection for my face and head (not the back of the neck though so that still required sunscreen) and sweat became a non-issue, so it definitely worked well for me. From never having worn a hat in my life I went to wearing one every minute I was walking every day for more than 3 months.

In the Whites

In the Whites

capIt washes easily – just stick it in the laundry and leave it out of the dryer. I met one other person with the same hat (in white, it looked awful but he’d been at the end of a 10-day section between washings) and he loved his too. A good sign of how much I liked it was when I lost my first one – I was miserable and promptly ordered another one.

Pro Tip: It has some reflective piping which worked well when I left it on the apex of my tent at night as my torch would pick it out ensuring I didn’t lose my way back if I’d gone off for some reason. Also, remember to take it off for pictures…

Rating: 5/5.

Longjohns

In 2014 I used 200-weight Icebreaker merino longjohns as sleepwear which were very effective (warm, opaque) and weighed 185g. Zeoline_smallFor 2016 I wanted something lighter for the summer months so went with Rohan Ultra Silver leggings at just 89g in Small. The fabric is like a synthetic version of silk (it’s made from 100% polyester) and has an anti-bacterial Polygiene treatment for hygiene. Despite being very thin they were sufficiently opaque for dashing to the bathroom in hostels at night. It did a good job and I was annoyed to leave them behind in a motel halfway through. Still, I’d always planned to upgrade to thicker ones when I hit the Whites so I used a pair of cotton boxers for a few weeks and then ordered the planned-for Montbell ZeoLine Expedition Weight leggings in Small for delivery to Hanover, NH. At 180g they provide the same warmth as 200-weight merino for about the same weight but I found them a bit more comfortable and they dry faster as well.

Rating (both): 5/5.

 

Cooking

Complete system

Complete system

As documented in my Small Cook Pots roundup here I stuck with the speed and simplicity of a canister system but went with a minimal (I could say “right-sized” here instead) pot and stove. With an MSR foldable spoon packed outside the pot but inside the bag everything needed for cooking was kept neatly in one place.

Things I liked: The weight of the pot, lid, stove, spoon, lighter, sponge and bag was 132g plus a canister (average weight 155g).

Things I didn’t like: The price of the Evernew pot plus a third-party carbon fiber lid (sourced from the US as well) at $80 means this part of my kit was possibly the most expensive $/gram way to save weight. Other options that are nearly as good are half that cost.

Pro Tip: Don’t carry a system bigger or more powerful than you need as it just takes up space and weighs more. For example the popular Jetboil is 350g. Also, you don’t actually need to fully boil water for rehydrating dried food (e.g. Mountain House et al) especially in summer, just bring it to a small-bubbling state (90% boiled?) as this will be sufficient and it saves fuel and time.

Pot

pot1The pot was the Evernew ECA-264. Weighing 72g it stores a small (110g) gas canister, stove, mini Bic lighter and cleaning sponge and boils enough water for one person meals (drinks may or may not need a second boil) without wasting space or weight in being any bigger than necessary. Thought for the future: handles may technically be a luxury item as titanium above the water line cools quickly after the heat is extinguished so you could pick up the cup (less securely) with a sleeve or Buff. Weight could be saved by removing them or swapping to a similar product with handles.

Rating: 5/5.

Lid

The 24g Evernew lid was replaced with an 8g Ruta Locura #2 carbon fiber lid to save weight and space over the bulky 24g original. The lid transmits minimal heat so also doubled as a coaster onto which I could place a hot pot while eating without melting or burning what was underneath, such as my tent floor. If you want to save weight and can afford one, I’d recommend it.

Rating: 5/5.

Stove

The stove was the BSR-3000T obtained from China for about $15. It’s principal feature after the low cost is the tiny size and weight (25g with its own bag) and my only concern was whether it would hold up for over 100 uses. It did. It takes several minutes to boil 400-500ml of water compared to my high-end Soto Windmaster which takes a minute or so. When I got to use the Soto again in New Hampshire it blew my mind how fast it was. But an extra 2-3 minutes to make dinner is completely irrelevant, or at least it was to me. Plenty of chores to do while the water boils. It may or may not be as fuel-efficient as other stoves but $6 canisters would last more than a week (I’m guessing 10 days) and I was always able to buy a new one before running out so that wasn’t relevant on this trip either.

Rating: 5/5.

Water

Filter

After using a Sawyer Mini in 2014 and for the first two months of 2016 I switched to a full-size Sawyer Squeeze when the Mini had lost much of its flow and immediately wished I’d switched sooner. The Squeeze is about 35g heavier than the Mini but the flow rate is double or triple. In the end the weight penalty was worth it, to me. Both work the same way functionally, I used them on every drop of water I consumed outdoors and I can report that I never suffered a serious stomach problem (meaning more than a few hours) in 6 months.

Storage

I started 2016 with the 2L Sawyer bag as my dirty bag and, after that failed in its usual way after a month, switched to using a Platypus bladder for the dirty end as well as the clean end as usual. At home I had used a hole punch to make holes in the Sawyer bag for hanging string but when I switched to an Evernew bag in the field I just used my knife and that was fine. During the hottest weeks (July and August) I also carried a 1L Smartwater bottle just to expand my carrying capacity.

Scoop

Many times I had to collect water from a source too shallow or small to use the dirty bladder to gather the water directly. In those time I used a dedicated ziplock back, either a sandwich or quart size. This is practically a weightless solution that takes up no space (I just kept it shoved at the bottom of the pack’s front pocket until needed). I remember an enthusiastic Long Trail hiker at the first shelter telling me I’d need a scoop for the shallow stream and digging around in his pack for nearly a minute for the “perfect thing” which was the cut-off end of a bottle, already dented and on its way to fracturing from being squashed. I’d waited politely, curious to see this perfect solution but then just held up my sandwich bag in response. The look on his face was priceless.

Drinking Bottle
My beloved Propel 750ml

My beloved Propel 750ml

The Osprey Exos’s unusual holster-style side pockets means you can easily drink using a random drinking bottle you come across from time to time, e.g. Smartwater, Vitamin Water, Coke, or what have you. If you can get one with a sports cap it will make drinking easier and can be done with one hand. Most of those bottles are around 600ml. One litre bottles are too big as they will poke forward out of the pocket too much, banging your elbow as you walk and falling out as too big a fraction of the bottle is hanging out of the pack. Still, 600ml is fine. But then I found the perfect bottle and I was extremely excited to have discovered The Perfect Bottle. The Propel 750ml is the same height as the Smartwater 600ml so doesn’t poke out of the Exos any more than normal (so is stable) and is not so wide that it cannot easily be pushed back into the Exos side pocket. And 750ml isn’t too heavy to work with either. Hey presto, 25% more water capacity with no downside. I swapped the bottle when I found a new one but otherwise guarded my bottle religiously and am still using the final one today at the gym, 2 months after buying it in New Hampshire.

Pro Tip: Smartwater and Propel caps share identical threads and cap sizes both between brands and between their smaller and larger bottle sizes. So you could buy a 1 litre Smartwater bottle if it had the sports (or normal) cap you wanted and put that on any other bottle. Also, a spare cap (normal or sports) if you use sports caps at all on your drinking bottle or storage bladders as they can break at the hinge.

Gravity System

Water Gravity SystemAfter months of squeezing water by hand from a bag into a bottle or another bag squeezed between my feet while cold water inevitably ran down my legs and my hands froze I developed a much easier and hands-off system before this 2016 trip. It involved a length of tubing and a cap for the clean bladder or bottle with a one-way valve in. The tubing length I chose meant that at camp I could hang the dirty bag on the apex of my tent and the clean bag would sit neatly on the ground (if you let the dirty bag hang in the air you may occasionally find the weight of a full bag will pull the tubing off the filter, fall to the ground and leak clean water out of the tube). During the day I hung the system off any available tree branch/stump and could sit down for a rest, prepare some food or have a chat. The 52g this cost me was well spent.

Dirty bag (left), filter and tubing to clean bag

Dirty bag (left), filter and tubing to clean bag. Note taped threads and use of sports caps.

I bought the Blue Desert SmarTube but you can make your own equivalent system easily enough. The trick is to ensure the clean container (usually a Platyus bladder for me but occasionally a plastic bottle) is in a vacuum state – i.e. it has had the air squeezed out of it. This is easy with a bladder, just squeeze or roll it up. A bottle may need more than one go and probably won’t get filled up completely. Then the water flows down the tube into the bladder which expands happily to fill with clean water. With a Squeeze filter it would take about a minute to filter 2L, certainly no more than two minutes even if it hadn’t been backflushed recently. With a well-used Mini it was taking 7 or 8 minutes which was a bit boring.

Sawyer SP110 smallWhile the tubing just pushes tightly onto the male outlet on the Sawyer Mini, the Squeeze has a totally different output. I used the blue half of the Sawyer Inline Adaptor kit to provide the “sticky out bit” onto which the tubing could be pushed and this worked perfectly.

Oatey Thread Seal TapePro Tip: Many people expressed interest in how I was able to use the Playtpus bags with the Sawyer Squeeze or Mini AND have Smartwater/Propel sports caps on them to make pouring much easier. Their threads don’t quite line up so you will likely get leakage when filtering if you just screw directly onto the bladder and it will erode the threads on both products if you keep forcing it every day so eventually it won’t work at all. The trick was to purchase some thread seal tape (aka radiator tape) for $5 from Walmart and wrap it around the bladder thread. Wrap enough to provide a solid seal but not so much that the filter doesn’t screw on any more. I treated both bladders this way and the tape lasted for more than 2 months though I kept some spare in my repair kit as it’s almost weightless and I might have needed to replace a bladder.

Miscellany

Wallet

Zpacks walletNot a glamorous item but I want to give a shout out to an unsung piece of gear that everybody needs but isn’t as easy to get right as it might first seem. I used the same Zpacks Wallet Zip Pouch (it’s a purse really) as 2014 so by the end it was 3 years old and with other hikes between AT trips had been used for nearly 200 days. At all times it stayed in my trouser hip pocket so a lost or stolen backpack wouldn’t leave me without money or ID – this exposes it to more abrasion and water than if it was stored in a backpack. I saw several other hikers use the same purse (I mean, not MY purse obviously). The wallet is light at 6g, waterproof, tough, slim and only costs $10.

Things I liked: It held up perfectly and never let in any water. The zip is waterproof but not too tight to be easily used even without a cord zip pull. It held everything I wanted (4 cards, some bills, my knife and a few coins) without a problem but without wasting space. This snug size meant I didn’t feel or hear coins moving about as I walked.

Things I didn’t like: At 4.25″ by 3″ I would prefer the purse to be 3mm taller and wider. It is JUST the right height for US currency but 3mm extra would mean you could put money in faster without it having to be perfectly aligned. Right now a bill or two often gets caught up in the zip. Also, credit cards don’t drop in (or, to be fair, fall out) straight, they have to be angled in which is a bit annoying.

Pro Tip: I also stored my knife in there just to give it a consistent home and to avoid it being lost through being too small when stored loose in my pocket.

Rating: 5/5.

Knife

In 2014 I used a good-value Gerber LST and would have been happy to have done so again but in the meantime had gotten my hands on a couple of Spyderco knives and liked them so much I started 2016 with a Honeybee (16g) instead of the Gerber. Spyderco ladybug3
It worked great but when I thought I lost it (falsely – it turned up 2 weeks later in my pack) I sized up and went with a Spyderco Ladybug 3 which weighs only 2g more but has a 49mm blade length versus 41mm for the Honeybee. I found this to be more functional in slicing salami and cheese. Anyway, they’re all good and finding a good small knife in a store in America is not exactly a difficult task so this isn’t a category to get stressed over.

Pro Tip: Yes, you need a knife. No, you don’t need a bulky Swiss Army Do Everything Doohickey.

Rating (Ladybug): 5/5.

Bear Bag

In 2014 I used the PCT method to hang my food and smellables. It was a bit of a pain, taking up time in the evening just when I wanted to rest. In 2016 I decided to use the Ursack I already owned instead. This means you don’t need a rock sack, any cordage or a food bag. You also don’t need to find rocks at hang time or to throw a line and tie up a bag. Instead I stored my food in a Opsak (basically a big 20″x12″ odor-proof ziplock) which fits inside the Ursack. The Opsak stays pretty much permanently in the Ursack except when I throw the Ursack in the laundry. At night, throw in your toothpaste, seal up the Opsak and tie the Ursack closed as instructed. Then find a thin tree or a reachable limb of a thick tree (not hard in a forest) which is 20+ yards away from your tent and tie off the Ursack to it a few feet above ground with a double overhand knot. It takes about a minute from the second you leave your tent and can be done just as easily when it’s dark unlike the normal hanging method (the difficulty of which is why some people don’t bother, causing lots of problems with bears and critters). The idea is that a) animals cannot smell your food and then b) if they do or if they stumble on your bag randomly then they cannot access the food thus avoiding the animal becoming habituated to the campsite. You may find your food crushed or otherwise damaged (e.g saliva) but you’ll survive – use the aluminium liner if in a more remote area with no resupply option. You are never more than a day or two away from resupply on the AT. The key thing is that bears do not get rewarded, thus protecting them in the long term. And humans too indirectly.

Anyway, this simple 1-minute method saves lots of time and was well worth the ~150g weight penalty that it costs due to the heavier bags. For the record, I never had a problem with my bag. If anything tried to get access there was no evidence. Bear in mind I stealth camped 90% of the time so that’s triple protection (security through obscurity as it’s known in IT circles). Even when a bear visited me one night in Shenandoah and was therefore 20 yards from my food, he never went near it.

What I liked: So simple and quick to do the previously-dreaded bear-bagging chore. I appreciated this every day and doubly so when it was raining.

What I didn’t like: As basically an ultralight hiker (11.6 pound summer baseweight) adding 150g voluntarily goes against the grain but the time saved was more important. The Opsaks are quite fragile, surprisingly. Don’t overpack them and open them gently. They tear where the ziplock-y bit meets the main bag. I just Tenacious-taped those tears up and eventually replaced the bag twice in 3 months which isn’t too bad.

Pro Tip: Tie the rope up and put it inside the Ursack when laundering. Otherwise the rope may work its way out around the neck of the Ursack and you’ll have to slowly poke it back round again. Plus a flailing rope in your laundry may damage your clothes.

Rating (Ursack): 5/5.
Rating (Opsak): 3/5.

Night Splints

Splint1In order to help my plantar recover each night as much as possible so they could face the next day’s hiking I wore a soft night splint sock on both legs/feet literally every night, putting them on as soon as I made camp and was in my tent so they could recover for as much as 12 hours in every 24. When I needed to put my shoes on and go outside (e.g to hang my bear bag) I just pulled them down from the top slightly and the main band will slacken and I could get my feet into my shoe, just lacing up a lot looser than normal due to the extra bulk. As they provided warmth to my feet their weight (50g each, 100g total) was compensated for by not carrying any dedicated night socks this time.

I had been using such splints at home since the 2014 trip and I know that, for me, they consistently make a big difference – 1-2 points on the 10-point pain scale. I have found two brands which are as good – slightly better in fact with a solid patch under the toes – than the original white Strassburg sock and they are much cheaper as well. And they’re black, which is cooler. These two are the Powerstep UltraStretch and the Ultimate Performance Plantar Fascia Sock which are practically identical to each other, so just get whichever one is cheaper at the time of purchase. I wore a pair of Powerstep UltraStretch socks for all 1500 miles in 2016 and they are still going strong a month after returning.

Pro Tip: As well as the obvious trimming of excess velcro off the main vertical band (you should be able to leave this main band stuck down permanently once you’ve found your comfortable level of stretch) you can also cut off the velcro and band at the top (say, 1 cm either side of the D-ring attachment). It saves 11g off the the original 61g, makes it much more comfortable to wear as the band doesn’t now cut into your calf, and only reduces the maximum stretch by a small amount. Click the photo to see in detail.

Rating: 5/5.

Replacement Zip Pull

FixnzipAfter suffering two broken zips on my hiking trousers and with a tent bug screen door that I couldn’t risk breaking due to the number of bugs around I was happy to find a solution that is almost weightless (2g) that worked and was small enough that I could just carry a spare in my repair kit for immediate repairs if needed. The product is called a FixnZip and it will fix a broken zip pull or slider (so not the teeth strip part).

Pro Tip: You need to get the right size to match your zip or it won’t work; for most lightweight hiking gear that will be a Small (which matches to a YKK #3) but if you have a “normal” size zip (maybe on a tent or trouser fly) then you’ll need a Medium (equivalent to a YKK #5).

Rating: 4/5.

External Battery

USb BatteryAs I wrote about in detail in my last battery review I had decided to take a smaller external battery this time as my 9000mAh unit in 2014 was powering more equipment (e.g. a MiFi device) and I thought I get away with a 6000mAh unit this time (the Teknet PowerZen Gen2). I was correct. In fact I could have probably gone down to 4000-5000 and still been ok but 6000 was a safe sweet spot of function-to-weight (132g). Pared with an iPhone 5SE and a Sansa Clip Sport MP3 player that only needs 150mAh to fully charge, it easily lasted the 5-6 days sections I had between town stops even with music and podcast playing at night sometimes (and an hour of blogging). Cutting down to just GPS, blogging and communication with friends and family it would have powered me for 9-10 days. Since the iPhone 5SE is a small and highly power efficient smartphone these numbers will be entirely different for someone else who has a 6″ Samsung phablet and may want to power several other devices as well (this unit only has 1 USB port and a 1amp input to save weight).

Rating: 5/5.

Power Socket

AukeyWhen I found a power socket, e.g. at a gas station or in a hotel, I would plug in my dual-USB power socket and charge up my phone and external battery at the same time. The Aukey 12W/2.4A product delivered as much power as both those devices required in a tiny package with foldable power prongs and it worked flawlessly. For $8 it’s a bargain.

Pro Tip: The blue power LED is more powerful than Han Solo’s laser blaster so cover it in blue-tack or tape.

Rating: 5/5.

Ziplocks

Finally I have to give a shout out to Ziplocks (and Hefty bags). How it could be possible to go backpacking without these wonders of functionality and weightlessness is beyond me. I carried several spare at all times as they are so light and small it doesn’t matter. Their uses are myriad and vary by individual. Personally my most innovative use of one was as my pee bottle – no picture of this.

Rating: 6/5.

6 thoughts on “Gear Review 2016

  1. Excellent thorough gear review. Really useful, thank you :) Well down on completing the AT. I found your blog a few weeks ago and was reading from the beginning, so didn’t know you were unable to finish in 2014, I was so gutted for you. But then so pleased that you have gone back and finished last summer. Great blog, thanks :)

  2. Hi Sparky, thanks for writing one of the most informative and interesting AT trailblogs I have come across. I am also a Brit planning to try a thru’ either next year or the year after. One question – what did you do with your passport?

    1. Thanks! I kept my passport in same ziplock as my AWOL guide, any current permit (Smokies, Shennies, Baxter) and extra cash. It’s the ziplock AWOL comes in which is strong and bigger than normal. And that was kept in my pack. HTH.

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