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Friday, September 20, 2013

Backpacking is great fun, if it doesn't break your back,...or your bank.

Backpacking is the best camping. Period. If you’ve never tried it, but like car camping, hiking, and enjoying the outdoors, you’re missing out. There’s just something about being off away from all cars, roads and noise, able to spot wildlife, and enjoying the feeling of being self contained and self-reliant.

But how do you get all that gear you’re used to having when car-camping, along with you on your back? -Answer: You don’t! The fact is that, 90% of that stuff is just not needed, even though you can still be completely comfortable. Here’s what is needed:

A pack, a tent, a sleeping bag, a sleeping pad, a water filter, and some food and incidentals. -All of which can easily fit on your back, and weigh only about 25lbs, making the hike a joy. - - Including 5 lbs of hike-in water! So, you ask, “Isn’t getting all your gear and food down to 20 lbs. expensive, due to having to buy high-end ultra-lightweight gear?” -Answer: Not necessarily! You can purchase all of the following, good, light-weight gear, (with some careful shopping) for under $200! And it is a great investment, even if you only use it every year or two, because it lasts forever and doesn’t take up much room to store. It will probably be the best purchase of recreational equipment you ever make.

Below is a list of specific gear and current links to where to buy as of Sept 2013. If you’re reading this much later, you will have to do some research to find similar items. ‘Keep in mind, you can always spend more and get a little better performing gear, but this is just my list of “How to gear-up for comfortable backpacking for under $200”:

PACKS: I hadn’t shopped for backpack gear for over ten years (or hiked myself, until a friend called and talked me into going again), and so it took some real investigating on some of these categories to find out what was now available. When I last hiked, external frame packs were the most affordable, and best way to carry a lot of weight (>35lbs.) and bulk (>4000cu in.), especially in warm climates, as they had the best ventilation of shoulder pads (even though they weighed over 5lbs empty!). However, now there are many better designed internal-frame packs with clever approaches to ventilation, lower priced, and lightweight (~3lbs empty). And although they are a little smaller (~3000cu in.), I’ve realized that everything you put in them is smaller now, so these work just fine!

Most packs start at $100 and you’ll see many for $400! For example, this is the kind of reviews you’ll see when you search for “best backpack”:  The cheapest one listed is $176! But in my world, $50 is the target price, ...but we still want all those features listed above (3lbs, 3000cu in., and good ventilated back to avoid “swamp back syndrome”). So I looked at REI (yeah, right. nothing under $140!), Sports Chalet, all over the internet, Walmart, Target, a few other places I can’t remember, and then I stopped in at Big 5 Sporting goods, which I never used to like because all they had was cheaper junk than Walmart. But they have changed (I guess because Popular Outdoor went out of business) and they now sell better stuff at quite low prices. And they have, what I consider to be the two best deals on some really nice packs right now:

(45 liters = 2746 cubic inches)

Both of these packs are on sale for $49 in the local stores thru Sept. You can go look at these and try them on, etc. Buying a pack online is hard due to crappy pics/details (especially venting of back pads), however, I’m sure there are some good deals out there. You just never know. For example this looks maybe good:

TENTS: A good tent is one that has a separate rain fly, and MANY windows (or all screen mesh, for walls) in order to ventilate well and not condense water on the inside walls of the tent during rain. A “single-wall” tent might look good, cheap, and very lightweight, but cannot perform well during rain. You will end up with your bag against the tents’ wet walls and it will be a long, cold, night. And a mess to pack out. Unfortunately, a good, dual-wall (“separate rainfly”), lightweight (under 6 lb.) two-person tent usually costs over $150. This blows our budget, and my mind, when you see what goes into these tents. They’re just not that hard to make, but they sure are proud of them, when it comes to pricing them. However, here is one, at a great price ($53):
Also, there is one at Big 5 sporting goods that is also $50 and says on its' box that it's 5.7lbs, but you never know with cheaper, imported, off-brand stuff. It is also on sale thru sept. for $35:
If you can spend a little over $100, (which, you can, even with our $200 budget, because tent costs can be shared) this is the next best deal, and it’s on a consistently offered, from the manufacturer, warranted, well-built, very lightweight (4.1lbs!), two-person, two-door, full-mesh walls with separate rain fly, tent.  (Zye $134 shipped):
and, for a short while, there is a good tent from Eureka that is on sale at $99, getting it down to reasonable range. It’s not as light, only has one door, but it’s a good brand, a nice color, and shipping is free:
ALSO: - ‘keep in mind, a 5 lb. two person tent breaks down into just two, 2.5lb loads for the hike! As well as the cost can be split, depending on the situation.

BAGS: Sleeping bags are so important. Along with a good tent and pad, a good bag will determine if you end up liking backpacking or not. Knowing that you have a comfortable, dry, warm bed waiting for you makes all the difference in the world at the end of a long day of enjoying the wilderness. The challenge is to have a warm bag that is not too heavy or big when compressed, in order to not ruin the hike in. And out. Finally, nowadays, there are good synthetic (not expensive lightweight goose down) bags available that will keep you warm when it’s 40 degrees out, and that are small (7”diameter x 12”long in its compression bag), lightweight (3lbs.), and as little as $34!   (Big 5 has this bag in stock, ongoing, so you can see and feel it (and zip into it!) on display. For $69. And they are on sale this week for $35. However, there would be tax on that, and the amazon one includes free ship (with Prime)  There are no doubt other good bags with these criteria/specs, but you have to really look hard for them.

PADS: Sleeping pads are essential for a good nite’s sleep. (even on this hike to Reavis where we are almost certain we will be sleeping below pines on nice pine needles) Not only for cushion, but for insulation from the cold of the ground. The basic blue “closed cell foam” pad at any camp store is fine. They weigh about a pound, and cost  <$10. I like the full-length ones that don’t leave my lower legs on the cold tent floor, although many of these are even longer than you need, but you can cut about 8” off of the end, and take it along as a seat pad, in case the rock you find to sit on happens to be a hard one. And 20” wide is fine (remember, that will be your max width as you hike) They come in different thicknesses. From ⅜” to ¾”. (great for naps on the trail, too!)  I used to subscribe to a rule-of-thumb about these pads that said take an additional pad for every decade of age you are over 20. But hexagenarians would have to try to cram 5 of those things in their pack! Of course, you can also get a high-end, ultra-light air matress (I actually just bought one these for my aging, jointpain-ridden body:
...but they are risky, because they can leak, leaving you on the cold hard ground. (I may take a foam pad as well.) note: it’s a good idea to wrap your foam pad in your nylon poncho because the only place for it is across the top of your pack, with the ends sticking out. And they can get ripped up a bit when hiking beside stickery bushes (of course, it is a good way to leave a trail of blue crumbs to find your way back out of the canyon!).  

FILTERS: Water filters are extremely important, even if you are certain your destination features a natural spring. Animals pee right on the source pool of the spring (they have no manners) and you can get Giardia and really regret not using a filter. They are expensive. And heavy. And a pain to use. But this is our health we’re talking about. Normally, filters are expensive, have hoses and pumps like this: and can be very useful when streams are barely running, and the pools are just an inch or two deep. But now there are a few much lower cost filters like this one:  that you just “squeeze” water thru. Which work. But you have to have a deep enough pool of water to fill the bag with. Which usually isn’t a problem. The advantage is low-cost and lightweight.
AGAIN: - A water filter can be shared among several people (although a minimum of 2 in any size group is needed, due to possible mechanical failure), and so the weight load (and perhaps cost) can be shared.

RAINGEAR: What do you do when it decides to rain for hours, and you don’t have your tent up yet, or you don’t feel like napping anyway? You feel like hiking, or eating, or just sitting around talking, but that’s no fun when you’re dripping wet. You can bring a full rain suit but they’re heavy and hard to put on/off (and hot, if it’s warm). Or an umbrella, but again, heavy, and you have to hold it, and good luck if it’s windy. The only way to have a good time in the rain is with a GOOD, NYLON poncho. A nylon poncho is entirely different than a PVC poncho. A PVC poncho sticks out stiff along its’ fold lines and lets rain in on you. Unless it’s a hot, sunny day, then it will fall down around you (‘course, who needs it if it’s sunny?). A Nylon poncho always falls down around you comfortably, keeping you out the rain, won’t tear when you hike along brush, and isn’t sticky against your skin. It also weighs about half that of a PVC poncho, and lasts forever, as opposed to a year or two. The only problem is, a nylon poncho costs about 4 times what a PVC poncho costs. But it’s so worth it!
(and you can, and will, use them for way more functions than just backpacking)
...and don’t even try to make do with one of those “emergency” ponchos. They’re called that, because if you try to survive in one of those, you’re likely to end up with an “emergency”! (like hyperthermia)  

STOVES: You can cook on the campfire. If there’s a campfire. And if it’s been burning a while to have generated some red hot coals (pot on flames gets black and sticky). Or you can cook anytime, much faster and cleaner with a stove. Most backpacking foods are freeze-dried meals that just need boiling water. There are tiny propane stoves for backpacking that run off of small fuel tanks:
many “ultra-light” folks just use solid fuel only with no stove and balance the pot on 3 rocks:

or, for the lightest possible stove, you can make an alcohol burning one yourself for free, like this one I made in this video, along with a .3 ounce windscreen/pot stand, and a 5 ounce reflector oven. There are many youtube videos on how to make an alcohol can stove, but I try to show how you can do it in a few minutes, instead of trying to make it an all day project:

AGAIN: Stove weight and costs can also be shared.

Lightweight cooksets can be found that are made just for backpacking that start at around $20, but using non-coated aluminum is bad for you, and the coated ones start to get pricey. I’ve found that most all “cooking” seems to be just pouring boiling water into a freeze-dried pouch, and so, just a good lightweight tea-kettle is really all that’s needed. "Hard anodized" aluminum is similar to "coated", and will help keep from allowing high heat to release aluminum into your water. This is a good example of a $20 (select .9liter which is 32 ounces - just right for two, standard, 2-cup freeze-dried meals from the same water-boil) kettle hat is lightweight and has a wide-lid so you can nest other gear inside when packed:
...Here is another good deal on a "set" of a good kettle, 2 plastic bowls, one with a lid and an insulating neoprene streach band, and a "spork". I've seen this set at REI ($40) and it is really nice:
...or... on the cheap!:

Headlamp-type flashlites are the only way to go for camping (and most all other tasks that need a flashlite), because your hands are free to do the thing that you needed a flashlite to see. (if you’re not doing anything then you probably don’t need a light (to see what you’re not doing). The best headlamp is one that is not too bright (you only need to see what you’re doing, you don’t need to light up the whole campsite), has an even “flood” type light pattern (not “spot”), and has an easy to use switch (not having to rotary thru “hi,med,low” every time you want to turn it on/off). Also, low cost, low weight, and long run time are of course, desired.
...’and the winner is:

Here’s a good pillow/seat thing:
Here's a good way to do a hydration tube water bottle system:

here’s what most people do (that want to spend a lot of money) for “ultra”-lightweight backpacking:


An awful lot of this stuff can be borrowed, hacked together, or done without on a first trial-trip to see if you like backpacking, but I feel that these items are all good buys and good investments and can make backpacking a joy for you, from the very first outing. If you hate it, you can always sell the whole kit on ebay for about what you paid for it! (since it is such good value stuff)(think about, if you saw this whole set of stuff for $200 from someone who said they used it once, it all worked well, but they don’t like the activity, wouldn’t you buy it just for the convenience of it all?)

pack: $50
half a tent $27
bag: $34
pad: $8
half a squeezethru water filter: $15
real poncho: $24
half of solid fuel: $4
half a solid tea kettle: $12
headlamp: $6

total: $180(shipped)  ...and you still have $20 bucks left over to buy freeze-dried food!

1 comment:

  1. "if you’re not doing anything then you probably don’t need a light (to see what you’re not doing)." This is wise.

    For reals though, this post was incredibly helpful. Thank you for compiling all this useful info.