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Backpacking gear: The good, the bad and the weird

As the summer backpacking season winds down, and through-hikers on the Pacific Crest and John Muir trails return to the comfort of sleeping indoors, let's take a look at some of the good, the bad and the just plain odd in the world of backpacking gear.

SPOT2_New_Orange:webI'll share some of my discoveries from an August backpack to Evolution Valley, in the western Sierra.

At Muir Trail Ranch our first night, we dined with an older hiker who had a Spot Satellite GPS Messenger. He said it gave his wife peace of mind while he and his buddies gallivanted in the backcountry. These tiny two-way GPS devices allow users to send an "OK" message to loved ones back home, and also transmit a help signal (to a Spot representative) if trouble strikes. I poked around online when we got back and found out the devices run about $150 and service plans cost another $100 a year. It's a luxury, but kind of a cool way for others to track your trek (it's an additional $50/year for the tracking option), and would be very handy for Aron Ralston/solo-hiking types who don't leave behind detailed itineraries.

UmbrellaOne odd gear item we saw on the John Muir Trail: umbrellas. It was hot out, so I can only assume they were for sun protection. I noticed three people using what I later discovered was the GoLite Chrome Dome. Two of them appeared to be through-hikers and I wondered how someone trying to shave ounces off their packs could justify it, but they only weigh eight ounces. It's a wine flask trade-off I personally wouldn't make, but they're kind of nifty-looking.


We made some major purchases for this trip, hoping to shave not just ounces but pounds from our packs -- including the pack itself. I finally ditched my Arcteryx Bora and, after much research, bought a Gregory Jade 60 and couldn't be happier (weight: under four pounds; color: a very spiffy green). I love the lighter-weight construction and especially the nifty granola-bar-sized pockets in the waist belt.

We also replaced our old North Face Roadrunner tent with the MSR Hubba Hubba. This sucker is lightweight and has a uniquely awesome hub and pole system that is super-simple to pitch and provides extra headroom by having the clips pull the ceiling and walls up and away from the living space. No more sagging walls. We got a great deal on ours at Adventure 16, and REI has them on sale right now for $259.99.

More gear odds and ends:

Sporks Sporks: Loved the MSR folding spork (right); the GSI telescoping "foon" worked fine but seemed a little flimsy. Both can be purchased at Campmor.

VIA: Starbucks' version of instant coffee comes in tiny single-serving packets that rocks the socks off of any camp coffee we've attempted in the past.


Trader Joe's freeze-dried strawberries: Ain't nothing like the real thing, baby. Extremely lightweight. Decent in oatmeal. Fairly odious in trail mix or straight outta the bag. We tend to avoid freeze-dried anything on our backpacks, opting instead for the tiny picnic items at Cost Plus for a good chunk of our backcountry menus.

Hopefully some ideas here for the outdoor gear junky on your holiday list. Except for the strawberries.

-- Julie Sheer

Photo credits: Courtesy of SPOT and GoLite; spork and strawberries photos by Julie Sheer

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Comments (7)

Wow, thanks for the post. I never really thought about all the things that can make backpacking or camping more safe and fun, till now. I usually just brought my camping lanterns, some food, and a tent. But the gps thing is something that could determine life or death. Very informative, thanks again.

Get something really practical: Brazos Walking Sticks. They help you get to your destination safely!

The umbrella is first for sun protection, second for rain. Sun/heat is a very big problem when doing a through hike from the desert border to Canada.

The umbrella is rain gear for some ultra light hikers, not a sun shade. Goodness, a quick google would have solved that one.

I LOVE those freeze dried strawberries! I even eat them at home. The blueberries are the best, though.

The point of the Spot device is not that it's "a cool way for others to track your trek," it is to be able to signal to Search and Rescue in the event of a life-threatening emergency. Also, although I've never heard of anyone carrying an umbrella, I can guarantee that they aren't for sun protection. It does rain in the Sierra in the summer. It even snows, no matter how hot Ms. Sheer may have thought it was.

Does the Time vet the credentials of its bloggers? This one must have fallen through the cracks.

I backpacked every year from 1977 until 2002, and our group would spend anywhere from 6 to 10 nights on the trail. In our earlier years, we would purchase freeze dried from the original Sports Chalet in La Canada, but found freeze dried extremely expensive and lacking in taste. We gravitated towards top ramen, pasta and rice all of which were quick to cook and a fraction of the cost compared to freeze dried. As far as equipment, I have the same Kelty outside frame pack that I purchased at the original Kelty store in Burbank in 1977, and I have added pockets to the pack, and had A-16 weld a self standing waist belt. I also have the polar gard sleeping bag from 1977 that was rated at 0 degrees. All said, I am confident that the gear I purchased 30 years ago would still hold up in the back country today.


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