The combination of an email from a scouter, an article about (and presentation by at powder horn) Winton Porter in backpacking magazine, and some of my experience suggested that thinking about systems and more to the point interlocking systems is a good way to look at equipment and methods for backpacking. (I have to put a disclaimer here – while I’m pretty good at short trips – I haven’t done any really long trips so my viewpoint is a bit biased).
One of the big questions that people new to backpacking inevitably ask at a troop meeting is: “what should my son (or I) take?”. This is inevitably followed by “What should I buy?”.
The way to answer this is to think of a set of interlocking systems that cover the basic needs of life and comfort. So the real question is “what systems do I need to have a good time?”
There is a short list of things that are needed: “Warmth, Food, Cleanliness and Water”. Warmth covers the related ideas of shelter and clothing – if you are cold and wet then you are likely to be miserable and more importantly vulnerable to hypothermia and death (no I’m not being histrionic here). Food covers the things you need to keep moving – how do you make it, and how do you carry enough? Cleanliness covers the things you need to do to stay healthy. I separate water from food because (especially in summer), without enough water you get into serious trouble very quickly.
Evaluate your choice of equipment by how well it meets the requirements of the systems you need to supply.
- Tent/tarp system. You need some sort of shelter to keep out of the environment. Here on the east coast bivy sacks just don’t cut it. Tarps are light, but can be tricky to set up and don’t provide any protection form insects. Tents can be easier to set up, usually have insect screens, but are heavy. What you need is a system that combines the strengths of each. I’ve had good luck with Shire’s tarptents and the six moon designs Luna Solo. But if you’re going in a group, dividing the weight of the tent among several people is also a good idea.
- Portable shelter – e.g. Rain Gear. Unless you plan to stay in your tent all the time it is raining , you will need something to keep dry. I like frog toggs (order on line) because they are light and inexpensive. You have to pay a lot more to get better performance. Ponchos are not a good idea because they act like sails. Some people will use a poncho for a combination of shelter and rain gear. This could work, but really only in warm conditions or where a steady continuous soaking isn’t likely (California in the summer). Rain shirt and pants are better because they form a redundant layer of protection – they’re an extra layer when it is cold. This summer at Philmont (40′s F) I found a light fleece and frog toggs jacket was more comfortable (and lighter) than a fancy REI synthetic jacket. Some “looney light” people will even sleep in their rain gear as a layer in the sleeping system, but that wouldn’t be a good idea here on the rainy east where you need to keep the sleeping system dry – the wet rain gear should stay outside of the dry shelter.
- Portable Shelter 2: keeping your gear dry. Packs are generally not very waterproof (you can get truly waterproof gear for canoeing but that is “out of scope” for backpacking as it is not really designed for long trails), and waterproof pack covers aren’t. Use a pack liner. Typically I use a heavy duty trashbag (either a trash compactor bag or a “contractors” bag) inside of the pack. Everything that needs to be dry stays in it. Things that are already wet don’t go into it. I bring at least one spare. It will be useful – in Philmont one spare served as my clothes washer – and I could dump the dirty water well away from the water source. The spare liner can, in a pinch, serve as an extra layer for warmth and dryness by cutting head and armholes. (when I was a scout one of my friends found this so comfortable that he did this by choice). The pack liner keeps your sleep system dry which is critical.
- Layers. Bring polypro’s or caprilene. Bring layers. Wear layers and keep one layer dry. The current fashion is to have light weight hiking clothes – shorts and not zipoffs – and wear the caprilene bottoms as an outer layer if it is cold. (and wear the rain pants over that if protection is needed). I haven’t tried this (yet!).
- Hat – Don’t forget your hat – even if you have a full head of hair a sun hat in the summer and a warm hat in the winter will make you much more comfortable.
- Sleep system: You will need a sleeping bag that is a) compressible, b) warm enough, and c) light weight. You can supplement warmth with extra layers or a silk liner – but if you can’t fit it in the pack it doesn’t work. My current summer system is a very light 35 degree REI bag with a silk liner and clothing layers. I don’t know how far into the southern winter I can extend this system, but it will probably work into December. Western mountaineering makes a great 10F down bag, which is not cheap. I had bad experiences as a youth with down bags and dampness, but the new ones are supposed to be better. On the other hand synthetic fills have made great strides and some of them will probably work (even bags a few years old will be obsolete). Beware that the temperature ratings on most bags are, to put it charitably, optimistic. No matter what system you use – it is critical to keep it dry – which is one of the interlocks between systems.
- Change socks, change underwear, wash them if it’s a long trip. Dry socks are critical to avoiding blisters. You will have to find the sock system that works for you, but both my sons and I wear single thin liner socks. (by the way don’t expect socks to make up for badly fitting boots – they won’t and you will be miserable). Other people wear several layers or a thicker single sock. A change of underwear and some way to wash “down there” is critical to avoid “monkey but”. This isn’t so critical for an overnight trip – but for longer than that it makes the difference between success and failure. It certainly has a big impact on your comfort. I’ve used a cotton bandanna that gets rinsed and safety pinned to the back of my pack – along with any drying wash. It’s colorful, but works.
- Sanitation – read “how to shit in the woods” (a real book). Follow area appropriate techniques. Bring a small bottle of hand sanitizer – and use it. (the 62% ethanol sanitizer will ignite so you can use it as an emergency fire starter). Most cases of “beaver fever” (giardia) on the trail are actually good old fashioned food poisoning due to dirty hands.
- Sanitation – dishes. Clean and rinse your food preparation and eating utensils. Removing the bulk of the food will prevent nasty things from growing there. It’s probably a good idea to re-rinse or sterilize them before eating. You probably don’t need soap.
Food systems interlock with warmth systems. If you have a full stomach, then your body is better prepared to fight off hypothermia. There is nothing like a warm cup of tea on a cold day.
- Pots, Pans, and Stoves. The lightest way to go is with an alcohol stove, a titanium mug (the handle lets you pour the water when its hot), and freezer bag cooking. Alcohol stoves can be ‘tetchy’ and I’m still practicing with them. This November I’m going to take my first real trip where that is the only system I carry. The alternative systems are propane/butane canisters and white gas. The canister systems are safer for scouts (and sometimes lighter), but the white gas is more reliable in my experience.
- Hot (cooked) food. Fancy freeze-dried cuisine is expensive. Look at what you can do from the supermarket. The freezerbag cooking website is a good start. (Ziplock bags do not contain the plasticizer that is causing some people to abandon nalgene bottles – and are approved for cooking – but I would be careful with discount bags made somewhere in the third world). If you eat out of the bag you don’t need a plate. Instant oatmeal and grits is fine from the packet.
- Cold food. Energy bars and beef jerky. Some people love these. I find them fine, but only in moderation. I cannot imagine eating just these for a whole summer.
- Eating utensils. Wendy’s chilli spoons are fine. A cup or bowl is fine. What more do you need? I like the light-weight ziplock or similar semi-disposable food storage containers. Since they shut up tight they can serve as a waterproof sanctuary for matches and things that absolutely positively must be dry.
- Bears and Minibears. Unless properly hung (12 feet up, 6 feet from a tree, two lines) a bear bag is a “bear pinata”. Bear canisters and possibly an “ursack” are a better idea, unless the campsites are properly equipped for a bear bag (i.e. have a steel cable hung somewhere away from the tent sites). DO NOT KEEP FOOD IN TENTS OR PACKS. Even minibears can cause a lot of damage as they chew through your expensive pack to get a few cents worth of gorp.
Check current conditions on your trail – you will need water.
- Drinkability. Water filters are great – except they clog and are heavy. They also fail silently. Chemicals are great – except that it can take a long time to inactive certain protozoa. UV light is great – except you need batteries and the system can be fragile. I tend to like the chemicals – polar pure or aqua mira or the like. Lightweight and (mostly) reliable.
- Filling your container. – this may sound silly, but you need to be able to get the water into the water bottle. Not a problem with a stream or lake, but an issue with a seep or spring. (and a serious issue with the UV systems where they don’t sterilize the threads). Try carrying a spare heavy duty plastic bag.
- Carrying capacity. How much should I carry? This depends on the trail, but at least a liter and as much as 7 liters. I like carrying a liter nalgene for measuring and drinking from and two 2.5 liter platypus reservoirs as backup capacity. That way I can adapt my capacity to conditions. I’m not keen on sip-valve systems because it is hard to measure usage with them. Your stomach is also a good carrying system – so “camel up” at a water source by drinking as much as you can hold.