Besides "hike your own hike" I like the idea, "pack your own pack." It could even be a mantra. You should not let others decide what works for you. Decide for yourself what gear gives you comfort, safety, and confidence. There is a process if you are new to backpacking. It takes time and miles to discover what is best for you. Eventually you will balance the weight of an item to convenience, warmth, comfort, style, budget, and safety.
The original purpose of going ultra-light included the desire to do monster daily mileage. Getting into the single digits of pack pounds means trading a bit of misery for mileage. If that equates to more zero or nero days, it defeats the purpose completely.
At 68, I find light-weight, comfortable gear a great way to stretch the years I will be able to continue this addiction of spending days, weeks and months hiking in some of the planet's most spectacular wilderness. Much has to do with new hi-tech materials and innovation, but it still comes down to choice.
I spend a lot of time on the trail hiking with and questioning people about their gear. I am fascinated how they end up reconciling what they carry. Many are in self-denial, not counting the five pounds of gear in their cargo pants pockets. There are dozens of ways to calculate base weight. While scanning media, looking for nuggets of wisdom, the due diligence is up to you.
When it comes to weight, I personally find myself in a math roller coaster. When I get down under fifteen pounds I add another layer of comfort. How much is that 8 oz. umbrella worth? I think it is priceless in the Mojave.
From what I observe, electronics should be added to the "Big Three." It is not uncommon to meet a backpacker carrying under ten pounds of hiking gear with an extra three pounds of electronics--phones, cameras, chargers, cables, and yes, drones. I find it pretty incredible that, besides doing a successful thru-hike, vlogging backpackers like "Homemade Wanderlust" and "Chocolate Balls" can produce professional video on a daily basis, while a majority of others fail to complete a trail or struggle miserably. Most viewers, sitting at home on the couch, vicariously hiking a long trail through this amazing technology, do not fully appreciate how much extra work, effort and weight it takes to carry this off.
I count every piece of gear, and consider the average weight of consumables. I always look for gear that can serve more than one purpose. I am interested in weight, space, diversity, quality and protective purpose. There are as many options and opinions as there are miles of trail. I hope this helps in you finding yours.
ULA Circuit--I have put thousands of miles on this pack, many of them desert miles, that tend to destroy gear. I have had to sew up a few cactus snags, but have never had any issues with straps, mesh, belts, or closures. It is a top loader with adjustable storage space. It will easily hold a bear canister when necessary, and has enough pockets and mesh to keep gear organized. When I switched to this pack it saved an incredible 5 lbs. of weight without giving up any convenience or utility.
Zpacks Classic, standard, 5 degree bag--Many people make the mistake of going by a bag's temperature rating. You have to take ratings with a grain of salt. For the average person, a 30 degree bag will keep you comfortable at around 40 degrees. You can layer up, but if you are carrying layers just to stay warm at night, you might just as well put your money and weight into more down. A good night's sleep will be a huge part of your success and enjoyment when hiking. It is so much easier to let heat out than keep it in. This bag weighs less than 25 oz. compared to my older 0 degree bag that weighs in just under 4 lbs. As a cold sleeper, my 30 degree bag is only useful on warm summer nights. This bag saves weight by sacrificing a hood and zipper draft collar. With a 3/4 length zipper it can also function as a quilt.
Hilleberg Enan--This has just replaced my Hilleberg Akto. Same design with much lighter material. Like my Akto, this tent is a bomb shelter. I have already spent a night caught on a ridge in a 60 mph sleet storm that turned to corn snow. It blew so hard and steady all night the center ridge pole laid across my legs most of the night. The reason is because I eliminated the side guylines to save a few ounces. I have now replaced one--lesson learned. In the morning, everything in my vestibule was covered in mountain mortar (frozen snow and dirt). It was like sleeping inside a flag during a hurricane, but never a doubt that this tent would do what it was designed to do--keep me dry and protected from the madness just a mere ripstop away.
It has plenty of room for me to pack everything up inside the shelter of the tent. When I step out into the elements I only have to pack up the tent and strap it into one of my water bottle pockets. I never separate the tent from the fly. I have put it up many times in a downpour and find very little moisture to deal with before I climb in. The Akto served me well for 17 years and thousands of miles. I expect the same quality from my Enan. I study other tent options, but it will take some real innovation to move me out of this double wall, light-weight, small footprint shelter.
To protect my investment I carry a TYVEK footprint. I have opted for the light weight 1443R material. It is 5 oz. lighter in my configuration than the normal house wrap. It also protects my tent as it is carried on the outside of my pack. I wrap the tent in the footprint before stuffing into the carry sack.
Running shorts seem to be the norm on the trail, but I'm not normal. I never where shorts. I'm Irish and old, so keeping the sun at bay is always a top priority for me. I wear quick dry pants with lots of cargo pocket storage, and zips for securing valuables. I have one Columbia Silver Ridge long-sleeve shirt that is stink-proof (NOT!). Ex-officio boxers, Darn Tough socks, a Buff, and a Tilley hat.
I carry another set of clothing I call town clothes, sleeping clothes or insurance clothes. I used to joke, in the old days when there were restaurant smoking sections, that I could go into any eatery near the trail and sit wherever I wanted and people would just move. It is most likely still true today, but I prefer to clean up a bit before going in to represent the hiking class. I now carry Patagonia Houdini pants (actually, they're ballet warmup pants) and pullovers that work as town clothes, laundry clothes and sleeping clothes. They can also be used in light rain and wind, and assure me dry clothing after a day of hiking in continuous rain. I carry a second set of Ex-officio and Darn Tough as well.
For warm layers I carry two Patagonia Nano Puff pullovers. One is a hoody with a kangaroo zippered pocket, which is great for storage convenience. You start out at dark thirty in the morning when it is freezing, all layered up. This hoody pocket allows you to manage glove, hat and mitt storage on the fly. It is also a secure place to store phone, batteries and water filter on freezing nights when I often sleep with it on. The second pullover I use in frigid weather as insulated pants. (Sorry, no video here). Call me goofy but I'm warm. I just put my legs in the arms and it works like a charm.
I also carry down socks and a second merino Buff. I'm a cold sleeper and often deal with temps in the teens. This is what I would call valuable weight to comfort ratio. We are talking under 4 oz. for excellent heat storage. Add to that Zpacks possum hair gloves. Weighing in at 2 oz. these replaced my half-pound down mitts. I made glove liners using Tyvek envelopes and fabric glue. I find this combination as warm as my mitts. They can also be worn to bed on a cold night.
I carry the town clothes in a Zpacks cuben fiber bag that my sleeping bag came stored in. It is light and waterproof.
Sea To Summit Ultra-Sil Nano Tarp Poncho--This is a great piece of gear. I have never carried rain pants or jacket. I have always found them restrictive, clammy, and limited. A poncho breathes, covers the pack, makes a great ground cloth or rain shelter. This poncho is light, fits in my belt pocket for easy access, and can be parked on my pack during those days when the weather can't make up it's mind to rain or not. I also carry a small web strap to hold the poncho tight to my waist in a wind event. It has a hood and bill cap to direct water away from the face, snaps on the sides for adjustment, and tie-outs for shelter use.
Sea to Summit Pillow--This would be almost sacrilegious for a gram weeny to carry, but I will plead the case that a good night's sleep is worth its weight in gold. Over the years I have used my pack, my clothes, my platys, or a combination of the whole bunch, but for a couple ounces this is consistent comfort. It takes seconds to inflate to an adjustable level.
Sea to Summit waterproof compression sack-- I like this as much for the compression as the fact that it is waterproof. I use it for my Zpacks sleeping bag, pillow, and down socks. Pack space is at a premium the lighter you get. I like to compartmentalize my gear and everything has a parking space. Being consistent will save a lot of frustration in adverse conditions when you need to be productive and not scattered. Think like a fireman. Finding and deploying gear should be muscle memory. Keeping gear compact and giving it access seniority will leave you some breathing room for shuffling around in your pack. Building good hiking habits make setting and breaking camp, as well as cooking, faster and more efficient.
Thermarest NeoAir Xlite--I run into a lot of backpackers that don't remember when phones were hooked to a wall, or when sleeping on pine boughs was the only way to have a soft bed in the backcountry. After years of sleeping on a Thermarest 3/4 self-inflater, sleeping on the Xlite is like dying and going to heaven. It's better than a waterbed. They will have to take my NeoAir from my cold dead hand. Full length and insulated, it only takes a couple minutes to inflate, 13 oz. (Enough said). Don't forget to carry a patch kit, especially in the desert.
Jetboil cookstove-- I have an older model. That means this gear passes the test of time. Nothing is infallible. I have had the FluxRing disintegrate a couple times, and both times the company replaced my cup at no charge. I don't even expect that kind of customer service, but that is a breath of fresh air and speaks volumes about the company's commitment to product. They now make a burner that is less of a blow torch and will simmer much better, but I am not a cook. I am a water boiling, freezer bag chef who appreciates the fast action of a good blow torch. I modify everything. With the Jetboil I replaced the thin plastic cup, that protects the FluxRing, with a tin can. When I run out of fuel on a long stretch, I can use the can to build a small hobo fire and still boil water. I don't even want to be stove-less when I'm fuel-less.
I carry a canister refill adapter that allows me to refill my canisters with butane available at most hardware stores. Instead of paying five bucks for a small fuel container I can refill for under a dollar when I find butane on sale.
I have built, designed, refined and tested alcohol stoves. They just are not for me. Cooking with alcohol is like watching glaciers race downhill. They are also being restricted in more and more areas for good reason. Tipping one over is an instant, out-of-control, fire. I used a ZipZtove, which requires carrying no fuel, for many years. I learned to use it quickly and efficiently in all kinds of weather. As fire events have become so common they were frowned upon by more and more agencies and I just got tired of the hassle. Used properly they are safe, reliable and light.
Kitchen Gear-- I use three Ziploc, screw-top quart containers, that nest together, for eating and drinking. I carry two lids. When in the pack they hold part of my food and my Jetboil collapsible spoon. I add my food to the container before pouring in boiling water and screwing a lid on. I have no need for a cozy, I just set the container in one of my pullovers and wait a few minutes. They are great for mixing instant pudding and instant breakfast powders. I add all ingredients, screw the lid on and shake it like a paint mixer. For clean up I add a drop of Dr. Bonner's soap, pour in some hot water and shake again, with the lid loose, so it doesn't blow up. It's that simple, rinse and store.
My Trail Chrome Umbrella--I mentioned the math roller coaster before. This is one of those items that kept calling my name once I hit the 14 lb. base weight mark. It is much like carrying hiking poles in the 90's. If I had a quarter for everyone that said, "Hey, where are your skis?" I would be as wealthy as a dot com billionaire. Now people give me the weirdo look as they approach me on the trail with my umbrella deployed. The difference is, they are sweating under various hats and I am hatless and cool as a cucumber. It also keeps me from pulling out my poncho in the rain until it really starts to pour. To be hands-free took a bit of experimentation. I read all kinds of ideas that didn't work for me. Most tied you into the shaft like Harry Houdini in chains. Every time you needed to deploy or demobilize, it meant taking the pack off and wrestling with the umbrella. The easy fix turned out to be water bladder tubing strap clips. I attached three clips on my shoulder strap and weave the shaft into them. This method takes a few seconds as you continue to hike. Removing it works the same. This is very secure, hands-free. The umbrella is designed to drop down if the wind catches it, instead of turning inside-out like a conventional umbrella. It fits next to my tent in the water bottle pocket and I can reach and attach it without missing a stride.
Nalgene collapsible canteen-- I already explained how much I love my tent. I am not getting out of my warm bag and tent in the middle of the night when nature calls, and at my age nature calls are a constant echo. Without going into a lot of detail, this works perfectly for me.
First Aid Kit--On my first thru-hike I told my doctor friend, and backpacking buddy, that he was in charge of my first aid kit. I told him I wanted to be able to do everything but open heart surgery, but it had to weigh less than 12 oz. He gave me drugs. Sitting on a rock along the CDT in the middle of New Mexico one hot afternoon, I decided to look at the list he included with content descriptions and instructions. It was useful information. Example: "If having a heart attack take two of these every hour until you die."
Today I carry very little. A few basic bandages and gauze, vitamin I (Ibuprofen), Pepto Bismol tabs for the bad belly, triple antibiotic cream, tweezers, needle and floss, Benadryl, and Tylenol. I carry a lot of Gorilla tape on my hiking poles to wrap gauze and fix sleeping pad holes.
Hiking Poles--I have carbon fiber poles. The majority of the time I am using them, but I do want them as light as possible. On cold mornings I strap them to the pack so that I can be hands-free and keep my frozen fingers toasty warm in my pockets if necessary. When the sun flies I pull them out and use them the rest of the day. They have many pros and few cons. I would not hike without them for balance, upper body movement, noise maker (especially in grizzly country), camera mount, rattlesnake pusher, and possible ice axe. I would caution against relying on poles for self-arrest. I slid a thousand feet down Fuller Ridge on the PCT trying to use my pole as an ice axe. The snow was so hard the tip of my pole did not make a dent or slow me at all. I was gripping the pole right at the bottom of the shaft and giving it all I had. Lucky for me there were a lot of unfriendly trees and rocks to slow me down. A true ice axe will help guarantee you do not become a human pinball.
Sawyer Squeeze--Most people would not think of this as a luxury item, but I do. I have been hiking for 50 years and have never filtered water. My wife thinks I will die from giardia or grizzly bear. The Griz might be a lot less painful. This year in Arizona it has been so dry and water is tough to find. I have ingested some real nasty stuff and the Superstition Wilderness has had an outbreak of rabies. More than once, I have found dead animals at scarce water holes. Since filters have come a long way, I decided to try one. Like cooking with alcohol, I have no patience to wait for results. I modified the Squeeze to hang off the back of my pack and filter as I walk. I still only filter the nastiest pools, but in Arizona a mud puddle is often a hallelujah moment. The opening on the Squeeze allows you to insert a common faucet, screened grommet, to filter the big chunks before they reach the filter itself. I am not suggesting everyone should stop filtering. If you drink the water in Mexico, you might get the screamers, but the people of Mexico do not. I think it is building up your immunities.
Water containers: Two 1-liter Platys, two SmartWater bottles, one CNOC 2-liter dirty water bladder. This gives me a six liter capacity if I ever need it. In most cases I am only carrying a liter or less. Much has to do with distance. The more distance you cover in a day the more water options you will have, even in the driest environs.
Petzl Zipka light: This is another long term piece of equipment. It is compact, with a retractable head band. It has two settings, and is great for reading at night, early morning hiking in the dark, or setting up camp in the dark. It takes 3 AAA batteries and is very efficient. I carry one set of extra batteries.
Knife--Okay, I could lose an ounce here, but there is something to be said for nostalgia. I have had this 3.5 ounce knife for many years. About the only time I used it was to cut some moleskin on Isle Royale. I dropped the knife and it stuck, in the upright position, in my thigh, as if I were winning at a game of mumbly peg. I still have the scar. The point is, I may need it one day. It's in a scabbard, it floats, it has a flint hidden in the handle, it is razor sharp and it is strapped to my shoulder harness encase I am attacked by a grizzly and need to quickly kill myself.
Food Bag and hanging rope: I carry my food in a Zpacks Cuben Fiber bag that is easily accessible, waterproof, has a Velcro closure, a plastic clip closure and a few loops for hanging. Attached I have 100 ft. of light nylon rope that is more than enough for many variations of hanging techniques.
Misc.--I carry extra eyeglasses because I am actually blind in one eye, but I like to see out of the good one. Most other items I carry are by choice, light and self-explanatory. They include: Bug head net, credit card, cash, microfiber cloth, mini BIC lighter, toothbrush/paste, Dr. Bonner soap in 1/4 oz. bottle, lip balm, sunscreen, safety pins, rubber bands, GI can opener, micro carabiner, a small washing machine (if you were sleeping that might have piqued your interest). I use a 2 gal. Ziploc bag to do laundry in a pinch.
Luxuries I might add when I get back down to the 14 lb. base weight threshold again-- I really like the Vargo titanium dig dig tool. I now use a hiking pole for cat holes, but the Vargo design can be used as a tent stake. I sometimes need an additional stake if I guy out the side of my tent in a strong wind.
How will I get down to 14 lb. again? I only have to lose one ugly pound, and I don't mean cutting off my head. What we need is better battery technology. I just read about the research development of a nano battery the size of a red corpuscle, yet as powerful as a car battery. Now we're talking. Backpacking electronics would have to be considered today's Achilles heel for a respectable backpacking ultra-lighter. I personally only use my iPhone 5s as a GPS and occasionally a call or text. I don't listen to music, play games, watch TV and movies, VLOG, Tweet, or Facebook, and take very few pics. I simply turn it on occasionally and see where Guthook thinks I am. In the old days I was like Davy Crockett - never lost, but confused for a couple weeks. It takes over a pound of gear to guarantee power for 10 to 12 days. I rarely make town stops, zero's, or nero's. I have my phone off or in airplane mode and still go through battery power fairly quickly. My current solution for a thru-hike is a very large fusion reactor collector. That would be my solar panel. It is one of the first items many thru-hikers jettison, but I find it efficient if used properly. Besides the IPhone and cables, I have an Anker 15W PowerPort solar panel stripped down to 9 oz. When not exposed to constant sun these panels are finicky. When I get desperate I have to stop and dedicate time to recharging by insuring the two panels full continuous sun. There are many reliable backup battery packs available if you do not mind carrying a brick. I personally like the fact that I can plug into the sun and will continue to play hide and seek with it's magical rays until I can get my hands on one of those red corpuscle batteries.
Without giving individual scale readings, this whole collection weighs in at 14 lbs. 8 oz. That is excluding the clothes I wear everyday, my poles, and the phone in my pocket. To this I add 1 lb. of calorie dense food per day, one small fuel canister nested in my jetboil, and water as needed. I seldom do less than one week trips and usually 10 to 12 day stretches during thru-hikes. If I can leave the trailhead with less than 30 pounds on my back I find it a constantly diminishing, comfortable load that provides me everything I need for comfort, safety and confidence in any conditions.