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Buying Backpacking Gear ?

Information and instruction related to
researching and buying backpacking gear.


Part 1
Backpacks ..|.. Binoculars/Cameras
Boots ..|.. Cookware ..|.. Food ..|.. Knives
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
GoTo: GEAR  PLANNING  &  PURCHASING -- Part 2

[ TLB HOME ]



Backpacks

Internal vs. External Frame
Some Things to Look For (Internal Frame)
Fitting Tips
Packing Tips

INTERNAL vs. EXTERNAL FRAME (some features):

  • External Frame:

    • rigid frame upon which pockets, pack bag, and suspension are attached.

    • typically has lots of pockets for easy gear distribution and organization.

    • good for carrying heavy loads, on-trails only, and on relatively easy terrain.

    • more open space between frame and person's back for better ventilation than Internal Frame.

    • dimensions of fully loaded backpack has wider, taller, less-stable profile than Internal Frame backpacks--very high center of gravity--(don't even try to walk under tree limbs or you could end up flat on your back).

  • Internal Frame:

    • framing is an integral component integrated with suspension and pack bag.

    • pack designed to fit snugly and comfortably against a person's own profile.

    • very stable and functional off-trail as well as on-trail.

    • snug fit against the body allows for better balance and maneuverability on rough terrain.

    • narrow profile allows flexibility to venture into tight places.

    • tends to be warmer against the back--ventilation not as good as external frame.

    • typically, lack of pockets for organizing gear.

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    NOTE: From here on, I concentrate on Internal-Frame backpacks only. I am fully converted to Internal Frame, as are the rest of my family. I, personally, feel that Internals provide me more value for the dollar, in that they are better suited for traveling off-trail (alpine scrambling, cragging, climbing, skiing, snowshoeing, and so on). That's not to say externals can't be used for those activities, it's just that, for me, externals don't provide the snug, form-fit, narrow profile that internals do. That's my preference. There are other good resources on the web where you can find out more info on external-frame backpacks. Here's some info on internals:

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    SOME THINGS TO LOOK FOR (in an Internal Frame):

    • Double bottom with differentially cut inside layer--puts weight on inside layer, significantly prolongs life of pack.

    • Slim profile, if going off-trail.

    • Straps (removable) and loops for transporting sleeping pads, ice tools, etc.

    • Compression straps to enable a slim profile and stable load and for carrying poles, wands, etc.

    • Load-lifter straps to pull the load off the top of your shoulders.

    • A belt that cups over your hip bones, so the pack's weight is evenly distributed over the entire belt surface and not just on the part of the belt that rests on your hip bone.

    • Preferably, double zippers--in case one blows out, you won't lose functionality.

    • Head clearance. You might want to look up (without hitting your head) to see where you are going.

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    FITTING TIPS:

    First, a brief word about fitting a pack. As with boots, proper fit is the key with a backpack. The weight of a pack is secondary, since a well-designed, heavier backpack may give you a more comfortable ride than a much lighter pack carrying the same load.

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    NOTE: Although weight may be secondary, it is nonetheless very important. For example, don't automatically settle for a 7 pound Dana Terraplane when you mostly carry 30-40 pounds. Firstly, understand your needs and how you're going to use this thing. There are an increasing number of lightweight packs coming to the marketplace which might serve you better. I, for example, loved my Terraplane--I sold it, recently--but I've cut the weight of my gear to the point that I just don't need it. My desire is to find the perfect 2 1/2 to 3 pound, 4000 cubic inch pack that will give me a great ride with 35 pounds of gear in it--more than enough for a week. Remember, if your pack weighs 6 to 8 pounds before you put anything in it, you can forget "lightweight".
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  • Know your torso length. Lack of this knowledge often causes an uncomfortable realization, after the fact, that the pack doesn't fit correctly. The reason you must measure your torso, rather than guess what size pack you should have, based on your ability or size, can be illustrated as follows:

    A large, tall person can have a short torso (and long legs) thus requiring a smaller pack. A shorter, smaller person can have a longer torso (and shorter legs-like me) and require a larger pack. All pack makers design their packs with your torso in mind. Thus, measure your torso, preferably before shopping, so you will have that knowledge in your pocket. This will, hopefully, eliminate total dependence on outdoor-shop salespeople--who sometimes make mistakes !

    OK. The torso. To determine your torso size, ask a friend or family member to help you, if possible. You will need a tape measure or tailor's tape to measure along your back from the seventh vertabrae--the largest bump on the back of your neck, with your head forward--to a point on your lower back which is hortozontal with the top of your hipbones.

    If you find that your torso is on the border between two sizes, my experience is to go with the larger size. For example, if your torso is 18 and a small size is torso 16-18, and a medium size is 18-20, go with the medium because you'll have more room to make adjustments. Most good packs allow for that.

  • The rest of the fitting you will need to do, although important, has more to do with what feels good. It seems like I'm always getting a hipbelt or shoulder harness that feels right to me but doesn't jibe with the manufacturer's fitting instructions. But a couple of things you should look for:

  • The hipbelt should wrap around your hips, not your waist (or stomach) and the lumbar pad should be centered properly into your lumbar area. You want a significant amount of the pack's weight on your hips (and, if you're like me, on the lumbar region). A good way to do that is to make sure your hipbone is centered under your belt (and the lumbar pad centered and pressing firmly into you lower back).

  • Get a shoulder harness that doesn't get in the way when you swing your arms or have buckles that pinch your skin.

  • Anyway, the key for any pack is to try it out with plenty of weight in it. All outdoor shops should have weights and stuffing for testing packs. Fill up the pack with weight approximate to that you would be be carrying on the trail. Try to distribute the weight in the pack as best you can (I know it's hard because the store's usually have 10 to 20 pound sacks of lead shot or BB's and wads of paper, but try your best). After you have achieved a good fit (and, hopefully, the salesperson concurs) take the pack for a test drive, as follows:

    • Bend over and touch your toes. Sway, dramatically, from side to side. Jump up and down. Throughout these manuevers, the pack should stick to you like glue. It should not feel sloppy, nor, if it's properly packed, should it throw you off balance.

    • Walk around the store many times.

    • Walk up and down stairs. Walk out in the parking lot, thru the nearby park, or wherever--assuming it's okay with the salesperson.

    • Take the pack off, loosen all the straps, put the pack back on, tighten all the straps, and walk around some more.

    • Concentrate on ensuring yourself that the weight is being distributed evenly. You shouldn't feel excess weight in any one spot, unless of course you want it that way. A good pack will provide flexibility to shift the weight around via adjustments. Fiddle around with the adjustments. Shift weight to your shoulders, then to your hips. Each should feel comfortable, because on the trail you will use different adjustments going uphill than you will downhill. Also, when your shoulders get tired on a long haul, you may want to shift more weight to your lower back and hips. Experiment.

    • Once you've decided on purchasing a pack, ask if you can return the pack, if upon further testing and experimenting at home with your own gear loaded in it, you decide it's not the right pack, after all.

    • I buy most all my packs at Marmot, who allow you to purchase it, then take it home and try it out with your gear or whatever--keeping it clean, of course--so you can have time to decide if it really is the pack for you. If the pack has interchangable parts, Marmot will allow you to bring back parts for exchange--if you don't like the way the hipbelt is wrapping around you, take it back and exchange it. Look for that kind of professional support because it makes finding the right gear a whole lot easier. Okay, I diverge, but hopefully this will help somebody.

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    PACKING TIPS:

  • Unless you have a bombproof, leakproof pack, organize gear in waterproof stuff sacks or heavy duty zip-loc freezer bags. Color-coded stuff sacks make it easy to locate gear items and is an especially useful way of keeping track of smaller items.

  • Pack tent on top where you can get to it fast in a sudden storm without pulling out any of the rest of your gear. Also, pack items such as raingear, water, snacks, sunscreen/sunglasses, bug juice, camera, binocs, and other quick access gear items, in an easily accessible location--right next to side zips, in the pack lid pocket, a side pocket, or on top of the pack, along with the tent.

  • If your pack doesn't have a framesheet between you and your gear, make sure you pack sharp and hard objects away from your back, preferably toward the outside of the pack. Items like stove, cookpots, water & fuel bottles, and tent poles & pegs.

  • Keep fuel (especially white gas) containers away from food and cooking gear. Place fuel containers in heavy duty gallon zip-loc freezer bags and pack upright.

  • Strive for a horizontal distribution of weight, so that one side of the pack isn't heavier than the other. You should keep the weight centered so that you don't lose your balance or hurt your back.

  • Slimmer is better. Cinch down the pack's compression straps as you pack to help ensure a slim pack profile. As it becomes apparent that you will need more space loosen the compression straps, accordingly. When all packed, cinch down all compression straps and load stabilizers, in order to ensure a secure, stable load. Remember, the fatter your pack becomes, the farther you must lean forward to bring the pack's center of gravity back over your hips--fat packs can result in sore backs !

  • If mainly on the trail, especially for long distance treks, pack the heavier items in the upper portion of the pack, in order to create a higher center of gravity. This centers the pack weight above your body where it's easier to carry (on easy to moderate tread).

  • Men, if going offtrail, pack heavier items close to the back in the middle portion of the pack. This will result in better stability when boulder hopping, post-holing, or whatever.

  • Women naturally have a lower center of gravity than men, thus may want to pack as if going off trail--heavier items a little lower in the pack-- on all occasions. I know my daughter prefers to pack the same for all occasions.

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    Binoculars

    Magnifying Power & Objective Lens
    Other Attributes to Look For

    MAGNIFYING POWER & OBJECTIVE LENS:

    There are two numbers which define the functionality
    of Binoculars (e.g., 8 x 20).

    • The first number is magnification--a larger number means greater magnifying power.

    • The second number is the diameter of the objective lenses--the lenses farthest from the eyes.

    • Dividing the second number by the magnification number results in the exit pupil, which is the diameter of the shaft of light that reaches your eyes. The larger the exit pupil is, the easier it is for a person to maintain a full image as their hands move. A larger exit pupil also lets in more light which creates a brighter image, which is especially important at dusk or dawn. Thus, an 8 x 20 binoc would have a 2.5mm exit pupil. 4mm or higher is recommended for low light situations. Another number associated with binocs is the field of view. This number (e.g., 359 feet) indicates the width of the area you would be able to view in a single glance, 1000 yards from where you stand.

    OTHER ATTRIBUTES TO LOOK FOR:

    There are other attributes to look for.

    • If you wear eyeglasses, look for binocs with eyeglass cups which allow you to easily look thru them without removing your glasses.

    • If water resistence is important, seek out binocs with internal and external rubber seals. For shock absorbtion, look for "rubber armor".

    • All the binocs should have convenient focusing mechanisms. Center focusing is the most common and convenient. You should be able to focus one eye using the center focus dial, then focus the other eye using the separate focusing dial located on that eye's eyepiece. Once both eyes are focused, use the center dial to fine tune subsequent sightings.

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    Boots

    What is the Best Boot ?
    The Boot Life Cycle

    WHAT IS THE BEST BOOT ?:

    Boots are like backpacks--both must fit properly, or else. When LaSportiva came out with their Makalu, I was very interested in the design, and the good reviews from others made me decide to get a pair. I tried on several pair, in three different stores, but they would not fit my feet. Major bummer. But that's the way it is. When people ask what's the best boot ? The best answer is twofold (1) the one that meets your usage requirements and (2) "the one that fits". I ended up getting a pair of Dolomite Ortles G. A better fit isn't possible. They are full-grain leather, GTX-lined, crampon-compatible, light-weight mountaineering boots which didn't require any break-in--no blisters, not one have I received wearing those boots.

    THE BOOT LIFE-CYCLE:

    There are some good articles on boot shopping, fitting, and maintainance. Backpacker Magazine usually has a good section in their annual Gear Guide each March. I'll just mention a few of the critical issues related to the "boot life-cycle".

  • Research & Ask Questions--in order to get a boot appropriate for your intended usage.

  • Get Help--from a reputable outdoor shop with experienced people.

  • Always try on boots with the sock combination(s) you actually use on the trail.

  • Look for a snug fit especially around the heel where slop will cause major blisters.

  • Test the boots vigorously on a steep downhill plane to ensure your toes don't touch--most serious boot shops have such a sloped device. A good quick study: you should be able to insert two fingers behind your heel, with the boot laced loosely and your foot as far forward in the boot as possible.

  • Try on as many boots as possible. DON'T buy the first pair unless you're very experienced and are quite sure. There are some boots that feel good, but there are others that feel JUST RIGHT !

  • Wear the boots around the store for awhile. Walk up and down stairs. Load up a backpack to see how they feel under a load.

  • Keep in mind there are helpful products to aid in the quest for a good fit. Often times just changing the foot bed makes the difference. Again, an experienced salesperson can get the job done for you.

  • Once you purchase boots, condition and waterproof them before using, and frequently thereafter. For leather boots, depending on the design, I may inject some SeamGrip into seams between layers of leather to ensure waterproofing. Regardless of boot type, however, I always apply two or three coatings of Nikwax to my boots, allowing each coat to dry thoroughly before applying the next. I use an old toothbrush to get the paste down into the seams.

  • Don't forget to take some moleskin, just in case !

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    Cookware

    About The Pot Materials
    Attributes to Look For
    Cookware Kit Contents

    ABOUT THE POT MATERIALS:

    Although there are several materials that are used in outdoor cookware, I'll concentrate on the materials that are currently being used in the leading backpacking cookware. In other words, I won't be talking about copper, enamel, or castiron. The materials of note in this section are aluminum, stainless steel, and titanium.

    ALUMINUM
    Aluminum (the uncoated variety), once the mainstay lightweight cookware for backpacking, has gone out of favor for many folks, for several reasons. One is because the aluminum oxidizes, over time, and is thought to be connected to health problems, including alzheimer's disease. In addition, aluminum is not very resilient in that it dents and deforms, very easily. If you use aluminum pots for cooking, rather than just boiling water, be prepared to seek out some fine mud & gravel, because your food will probably stick to the metal.
    Here's an in-depth review of Aluminum, as a cookware material

    STAINLESS STEEL
    Another reason uncoated aluminum has lost popularity is because of the invent of ultra-lightweight stainless steel cookware. Stainless steel cookware is strong and durable. It does not however, distribute heat as evenly as aluminum.
    Here's a review of Stainless Steel, as a cookware material

    NON-STICK COATED ALUMINUM
    Non-stick, coated aluminum cookware is becoming popular in the backpacking ranks--for example, Traveling Light's Evolution Cookware. Although heavier than uncoated aluminum, it is comparable to lightweight stainless steel, is durable, and has good heat distribution.
    Here's a review of Non-Stick, Coated Aluminum, as a cookware material

    TITANIUM
    Can't get any lighter than this. It is extremely resilient and durable. Because the metal is so thin, it also does an adequate job of evenly distributing heat. It weighs about 1/2 of what the lightweight stainless steel and coated aluminum pots weigh.
    Here's a review of Titanium.

    ATTRIBUTES TO LOOK FOR:

    Look for the following attributes when shopping for cook pots:

    ROUNDED BOTTOM EDGES:
    For two reasons, (1) the pots are easier to keep clean--food stuff doesn't get caught in seams where the sides meet the bottom section and (2) flames/heat from your stove can more easily move up the sides of the pot.

    BLACKENED BOTTOMS & SIDES:
    Most pots do not come blackened, but over time may become that way, especially if you use them in an open fire. Of all the pots in the "kitchen inventory" section of my "gear closet", my SIGG Inoxal pots are the only ones that actually came with a black outer surface. However, no matter, I always paint my pots with flat-black stove paint, as soon as I get them. I recently did this with my Evernew Titanium pots. The black surface absorbs and distributes heat faster than a shiny surface.

    TIGHT-FITTING LID:
    A tight-fitting lid is critical in order to maximize the efficiency of your stove. If you have a tight-fitting lid, the contents of the pot will heat faster and, thus, you'll consume less stove fuel. Also, the contents will stay heated for a longer period of time.

    COMPACTNESS:
    Look for pots that require a minimum of space in your pack. Handles that fold or else a separate pot-gripper handle which is storable inside the pot. If you're carrying more than one pot, look for pots that nest into one another.

    LIPPED TOP RIM:
    This is especially important if you are using a separate pot-gripper handle. The gripper-handle attaches to the pot underneath this rim for security and stability. Otherwise, well, your gripper-handle could easily slip off your pot and your soup would be in your lap.

    LIGHT WEIGHT:
    There's quite a number of good pots available, nowadays. Look for the lightest manifestation which meets your requirement.

    COOKWARE KIT CONTENTS:

    A person could get quite carried away here. This is, however, The Lightweight Backpacker, so I'll be brief.

    SMALL ULTRALIGHT CARRYING SACK:
    I like mesh, at least on one side, so the contents can breathe, just in case things like damp spoons and such have a chance to fully dry out.

    CONDIMENTS:
    Your choice--powdered garlic, onion, parsley, cayenne, other herbs. Carry each in a small, plastic container (you can buy, at REI and other outdoor shops, containers like film canisters but about 1/2 the size). You can also carry them in small zip-loc freezer bags, but be careful of holes developing in those bags, especially over the duration of a multi-day trip.
    NOTE: I don't use film canisters because I was told that residual chemicals typically remain in those canisters long after the film is removed. I haven't yet taken the time to validate that information, but, in the meantime, I don't use them.

    SPOON:
    Choose your own utensils, however, I see need for only one lexan soup spoon (with 1/3 of the handle sawed off--and sharp edges sanded down).

    OPTIONAL: COFFEE FILTERS & LIGHTWEIGHT PLASTIC-CONE FILTER HOLDER,
    if you are a coffee drinker and carry coffee grounds into the woods. Carry your grounds inside heavy-duty zip-loc freezer bags or small plastic containers with secure, tight-fitting lids. An option, on the other hand, is to leave the filters and plastic cone at home and take along "coffee-bags" that you steep in your cup like tea. A whole lot lighter and less messy.

    OPTIONAL: SMALL SCRUBBER SPONGE:
    This may be prudent if you have cookware that has a protective coating which could be compromised by rubbing mud and gravel over it. Otherwise, I personally, see no need for the scrubber sponge--I use mud and fine gravel to keep my pot, spoon, water bottles, and cup clean.

    OPTIONAL: INSULATED MUG with LID:
    Optional during the 3-season. Very important piece of gear, though, in the Winter. In the 3-seasons, if you do carry the insulated mug, leave the lid at home and save an ounce and a half.

    OPTIONAL: PLASTIC BOWL:
    For solo packers, eat out of your pot. If two packers, one will need a bowl.

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    Food

    Planning Your Food Allowance
    Keep it Light & Simple
    Vitamin & Mineral Supplements
    One Person's Method

    PLANNING YOUR FOOD ALLOWANCE:

    In general, when planning your "lightweight" trip, figure about 2 lbs of food per day, more or less, depending on your needs, the type of food you will carry, the weather conditions (cooler weather necessitates more food - possibly with higher fat content - to keep you warm), and the length of time you'll be out there.

    Typically, for short duration outings - 6 days or less - you can get by with less food. For longer duration treks - say a week or more - like doing the AT or PCT - you may need progressively more nourishment. You may be able to get by with 1 1/4 pounds per day for awhile, but find you require 2 1/4 pounds within a couple of weeks.

    Before embarking on a long backcountry expedition, experiment in your kitchen, on overnight hikes, and on multi-day hikes. For you, more strenuous hikes may require more food. It's good to understand your needs before leaving on a ten day hike. I learned that lesson the hard way.

    Carry foods that require little or no cooking. It is important, however, to have at least one hot meal per day, preferably in the evening. A hot meal will help you keep warmer on cold nights, help you sleep more soundly and, in general, help maintain your psychological and physiological well-being.

    For your hot meals, try to bring food that can be prepared in its own package (like many of the freeze-dried meals on the market) or remove them from their own packaging and put into heavy-duty freezer bags which can tolerate boiling water. Also, when measuring out meals, err on the "too much" side. You'll probably get hungry enough to eat it all.

    Important rules to remember: Carry extra food for emergencies, at a minimum, one good, high-fat-content meal. Also, when exhausted after a hard day's climb, make yourself eat, even though you are "too tired". Your body really needs the nourishment, no matter what your mind says.

    KEEP IT LIGHT & SIMPLE:

    I like to keep it light and simple, with the convenience of no dirty pots. I don't like leaving food scraps in streams, lakes, or on the ground. Anyway, don't get me wrong, nothing against those of us that like creative cooking in the outdoors. I've just found a method that works best for me. Maybe I'm lazy.

    Anyway, I like a lot of dried soups and cereals, measuring out just enough for each meal and putting it into small zip-loc freezer bags. All I have to do is boil water and pour it into the freezer bag, close the bag, which retains heat rather well, and let sit for several minutes before feasting. I also really enjoy several Mountain House freeze-dried meals--Lasagna, Spaghetti, Pasta Primavera, Chili Mac w/Beef--and deserts like dried strawberries, yum !

    VITAMIN & MINERAL SUPPLEMENTS:

    Supplemental vitamins and minerals are very important for our health and well-being in the woods, especially, if we're out for a long duration. I carry two to four packets of E-mer'gen-C Vitamin & Mineral powder per each day that I will be out. I take, at least, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, mixed with water. It is rich in vitamin C (potassium ascorbate), has 8 times more potassium--200 mg--than gatorade, 25 different electrolytes, 1000 mg of Vitamin C, all the B vitamins, and many minerals, in each packet. Yet, each packet weighs only 1/5th of an ounce. It makes a difference for me. Helps keep me energetic with a positive attitude !

    ONE PERSON'S METHOD:

    My method requires boiling one quart of water in the morning for oatmeal, cereal, or granola with fruit, and a 12 ounce cup of delicious Caffe d' Amore cappuccino (purchased packets at REI) and/or Singlebrew gourmet coffee (from a large tea-style bag). I also boil one quart of water in the evening for an instant-soup or freeze-dried feast along with a 12 ounce cup of licorice-root tea, other herbal concoction, or hot cocoa. I don't use a stove during the day but take a number of snack type foods to eat.

     

    Stay Healthy--Eat Well

    MARY JANES FARM ORGANIC MEALS

    Mary Janes Farm Organic Backcountry Meals

    NATURAL HIGH GOURMET MEALS

    Natural High
     


    Knives

    A knife can be used for so many things, it is one of the "Ten Essentials" prescribed by "The Mountaineers".

    However, a knife can weigh a half pound or more, so it deserves close scrutiny as to its value ounce for ounce. Your choice of knife (or survival tool) should be entirely dependent on what you intend to use it for, including emergencies. I, currently, don't carry a larger swiss army knife because I found that I can't justify many of the really neat tools, plus the blade isn't very substantial. I currently carry a small Spyderco Ladybug for serious cutting chores. For "on-trail" use, I carry a tiny swiss army classic--scissors for cutting moleskin, small screwdriver for digging, scraping, prying, a small blade and, of course, the tweezers and toothpick--weighing about 3/4 ounce.


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