Sunday, September 21, 2008

JMT - Gear

Now that we’ve caught up on our trip log from the JMT, we thought we’d write a few posts about our experience planning for the trip, in the hope that the information we provide will help other people plan for similar backpacking trips.

First up are our thoughts on gear and the lessons that we learned along the way. Different people have different preferences, but we’ll explain what worked (and what didn’t) for us. We won’t provide a comprehensive list of everything that we packed but will touch on the more interesting areas.

On the trail, we met people carrying a huge range of loads. On one end of the spectrum were Minnesota Ken with his GoLite rucksack and 16-pound base pack weight, and a guy who was planning to hike the whole trail in six days, whose pack, including food and water, weighed a mere 20 pounds. Then there were people like Colleen and Jeremy, who had seemingly huge packs. Jeremy was carrying an Arc’teryx Bora 90-liter pack that he claimed weighed 55 pounds at its heaviest, though we suspect that might have been an understatement. In the middle of the spectrum were people like Doug and Mike, who had mid-weight packs and some interesting luxuries such as a two-ounce showerhead attached to a water bottle.

One thing we noticed was that the middle-aged and older hikers on the trail were universally carrying less gear and lighter gear than the younger hikers. We aren’t sure if that was a result of experience on the trail or simple inability to carry any more weight. At any rate, carrying less weight is definitely a desirable goal. We were glad we whittled down our pack weight before the trip and wished we’d done even more to reduce it. 220 miles is a long way to carry things.

We also noticed that pack weight was inversely proportional to trip length. The weekend backpackers almost all had significantly more stuff than any JMT hiker. Some even had lawn chairs strapped to their backpacks! One novice backpacker camped at Outpost Camp initially thought we were joking about having hiked all the way from Yosemite Valley. Once he realized that we were serious, his first question was, “How can you possibly carry enough stuff for a trip that long?” He was astounded to see how small our packs were. Our packs weren’t especially small by thru-hiker standards – they weighed 25-30 pounds on average, including food and water, though they were heavier immediately after resupplies.

We speculate that some of the increase in gear for a shorter trip has to do with backpacking inexperience. The less you’ve backpacked, the more you think you need to bring with you to be safe and comfortable. Another factor is that the longer you hike in a day, the less important comfort in camp becomes. If you’re taking a three-day weekend to hike 20 miles and spending a lot of time at camp, you may find it worthwhile to carry that lawn chair. If you’re hiking 220 miles and spending little time in camp, though, lightening your load is more important. We were surprised by the number of hours we spent on the trail each day – typically close to 12. We took lots of breaks along the way and hiked slowly to enjoy the scenery. By lightening our loads, we chose comfort on the trail over comfort in camp, since the trail is where we were spending the vast majority of our waking hours.

Here’s what we learned along the way regarding gear.

  • Hiking clothes - We each had one pair of hiking pants (Brian’s pants have zip-off legs and Sarah’s pants roll up for when pants are too warm) and a lightweight long-sleeved hiking shirt that did double-duty for keeping the sun off and bugs at bay. Brian also brought a short-sleeved athletic shirt. We had brimmed hats to keep the sun off. We also brought wool hiking socks and sock liners. We were both happy with our choices of hiking clothes except that the Patagonia Sol Patrol shirt that Sarah brought proved very hard to wash, as you might have noticed from some of our photos.
  • Warm clothes - We each brought a fleece hat, gloves, a full set of long underwear (Sarah has Patagonia Capilene 4, and Brian has a Patagonia R1 Flash Pullover and corresponding pants). Sarah also brought a fleece. In addition, we both had raincoats and rain pants that could be used for warmth. All in all, we were really happy with the amount of clothing we brought. We wore everything we brought and didn’t feel like we were lacking in warm clothes.
  • Rain pants - We spent a while debating after the trip whether rain pants were necessary and are still on the fence about them. We never used them for rain protection, and given the rain patterns in the Sierra it’s unlikely that we would have needed them. In a warm afternoon shower, we could have hiked with our raincoats and dealt with our hiking pants getting wet, since they dry quickly. In a really cold rain, we likely would have just set up our tent and waited out the storm. However, the rain pants were nice for providing warmth a few times, especially in the wind on top of Mt. Whitney.
  • Boots vs. trail shoes/sneakers - We both wore hiking boots. Sarah didn’t have any problems with them, but Brian had a number of blisters. We met a lot of people hiking in trail shoes or sneakers who thought they were fantastic. Choice of footwear probably varies by the month -- in August the trail was dry, but we’ve heard that in June or July it can be very wet. We are both planning to try trail shoes for backpacking in the future. Ultimately, this choice seems to be a matter of personal preference.
  • Camp shoes - Neither of us brought camp shoes with us. Sarah didn’t miss them at all, but Brian wished he’d brought a pair of lightweight flip-flops for walking around camp. Flip-flops could also double as shower shoes at Reds Meadow.

    Standard backpacking gear:
  • Cooking gear - We carried the MSR WhisperLite stove, two fuel bottles, and MSR Duralite 2-liter pot. We’ve heard about other lighter stove options, including fuel tabs, which might be worth checking out. The Vargo Outdoors Triad XE Titanium Alcohol/Fuel Tab Stove which weighs 1.5 ounces and uses ½-ounce fuel tabs looks interesting. One hiker told us that he only uses half a fuel tab to heat water for a meal. If that worked out, this would make a pretty lightweight cooking system. We also considered not carrying a stove on a future trip. Having hot meals to start and end the day was nice, but didn’t seem like a requirement given the variety of other food we had. Also, taking the time to cook and clean up sometimes seemed like a pain. Eliminating the stove, pot, and fuel would have saved quite a bit of weight.
  • Fuel - We definitely carried way too much fuel. We never resupplied fuel at all, and we still had a little fuel left at the end of the trip. We were cooking oatmeal for breakfast and a dinner each night ranging from just-add-boiling-water meals to meals that cooked for up to 10 minutes. We were really careful to boil only the amount of water needed. Given this usage, one fuel bottle that we refilled at Muir Trail Ranch would have been more than sufficient.
  • Tent - We carried the REI Half Dome HC tent. At nearly 6 pounds, this was the heaviest single item that we carried. This is another area where we’d definitely consider other options to save weight in the future. Lightweight tarps and bivy sacks were popular options among other JMT hikers, and very practical, given the typical clear, dry nighttime weather in the Sierras. Those hikers would generally just sleep out, enjoying the amazing starry skies, but they had their tarp or bivy sack as backup just in case of bad weather. Another interesting option is a tent that sets up with hiking poles.
  • Sleeping mat - We both carried the short Therm-a-Rest RidgeRests instead of the inflatable Therm-a-Rests that we typically use. The RidgeRests and Therm-a-Rest Z-Lites (another foam Therm-a-Rest model) seemed to make up the vast majority of the sleeping mats that thru-hikers were carrying. The RidgeRests are nowhere near as comfortable or as durable as the inflatable mattresses, but they are a whole lot lighter at a mere nine ounces. Choosing the 3/4 length (four feet long) instead of the full length further reduces weight with very little change in comfort. Even Brian, who’s six feet tall, was fine using the short RidgeRest – as it turns out, you really only need a mat under your head, back, and butt. Most nights, Brian piled some clothing under his feet to prop them up to try to reduce swelling. Overall, given the weight tradeoff, we were both very happy with our decision to take the RidgeRests.
  • First-aid supplies – Stocking a first-aid kit is a very personal choice. Every hiker has a different set of ailments, and even for a given ailment, two different hikers may have two different remedies that work for them. For instance, Brian always has problems with blisters several days into a trip. His standard remedy is to cover each blister in the morning with a piece ofSpenco 2nd Skin, then with an Equate Corn Cushion (a product from Wal-Mart that’s essentially a piece of Molefoam with a hole cut in the center), and finally athletic tape to hold everything in place. So we brought sufficient blister-treatment supplies with us, and included them in our resupplies as well. But we didn’t adequately account for the unknown. 17 days in the backcountry was nearly three times as long as we’d ever been out before, and, perhaps predictably, we encountered new problems – chiefly, Brian’s Achilles injury. We had some naproxen sodium (brand-name Aleve) with us, but not enough, and we didn’t have an Ace bandage. In hindsight, we should have brought more multipurpose items like those. Naproxen sodium, in particular, is extremely light and has a multitude of uses for relieving pain and reducing swelling. An Ace bandage is heavier, but useful for just about any muscle or joint injury.
  • Hiking poles - Both of us used hiking poles and were very glad that we had them. We find that they help a lot for balance when crossing streams and other places with tricky footing, and they reduce strain on the knees, especially going downhill.
  • Books and maps - The book, John Muir Trail: The Essential Guide to Hiking America's Most Famous Trail by Elizabeth Wenk and Kathy More was invaluable in planning the trip. It contains trail descriptions from north to south and south to north, mileage charts, campsite listings, and a bunch of other logistical information. It also contains descriptions of the flora, fauna, and history of the areas that the JMT passes through. We cut relevant sections out of the book and carried them with us on the hike so that we could read them during our rest breaks to learn more about the areas we were hiking through. For maps, we used the John Muir Trail Map-Pack: Shaded Relief Topo Maps by Tom Harrison. The maps are printed on lightweight, tear-resistant, and waterproof paper, and they have the JMT route highlighted. The JMT covers a large area, so buying the map pack was much more practical than trying to find all the necessary USGS maps.
  • Bug spray/headnets - We didn’t carry bug spray but we did carry headnets. Brian used his headnet once; Sarah didn’t use hers at all. The headnets are super-light, so we’d pack them again, just in case. We never missed the bug spray. There were rarely bugs (only for a few short periods several evenings) and covering up with long sleeves and pants did the trick to keep them at bay. If we were hiking the trail earlier in the season, we’d definitely bring bug spray. We heard from other hikers that the bugs were voracious in June, July, and even earlier in August.
  • Bear cans - We carried both a BearVault BV400 (similar to the BV500) and the Garcia bear-resistant canister. Yosemite National Park requires bear cans throughout the park. Bear cans are heavy, though – about 2.5 pounds each – so it’s worth doing some creative planning and packing to minimize the number of cans you carry. For instance, on our first night, we planned to stay at Sunrise camp, which has bear lockers at the campground. That way, we wouldn’t have to carry a bear can on the first day’s long climb out of Yosemite Valley. Instead, we picked up our bear can at the Tuolumne Meadows post office on our second day. We didn’t pick up a second bear can until Muir Trail Ranch. Because our food was so compact, we were generally able to fit it all into one bear can for the first half of the trip and two bear cans for the second half. Immediately after the Reds Meadow and Muir Trail Ranch resupplies, though, we expected to have a little bit more food than would fit in our bear cans, so we investigated food storage regulations and determined that we were allowed to hang our food in the places that we’d camp immediately after those resupplies. Given that, we brought a rope to hang our extra food those days, rather than carrying a third bear can that would be empty the rest of the time. We did see other pairs of hikers with up to three bear cans between them, some very early in the trip. We’d definitely recommend waiting as long as possible to start carrying the bear cans – though necessary and a good thing to help protect the bears and people, they are heavy. As for which we liked better, we definitely preferred the BearVault. The wider lid made it easier than the Garcia to get food into and out of the can. Also, the Garcia requires a small tool to open it. This isn’t a big deal, but simply twisting off the lid of the BearVault was more convenient. A final nice feature of the BearVault is that the plastic is transparent, making it easier to find what you are looking for, especially right after resupplies when the can is jammed full.
  • Sleeping bags - We both carried 20-degree down sleeping bags. They are under two pounds each and quite true to their ratings. We were never cold at night and could have been comfortable in much cooler temperatures if the need had arisen.
  • Filtering water - We carried the MSR SweetWater filter. The filter is rather heavy, but we prefer it to iodine. We talked to a number of people who didn’t treat their water at all. However, given the prevalence of mule manure on the trail, we weren’t comfortable with that approach.

    Electronic gadgets and such:
  • Cell phone - We carried our cell phone primarily because we needed to be able to get in touch with the body shop that was replacing our bear-ravaged car door. We did have cell service at Tuolumne Meadows and at Reds Meadow. After Reds Meadow, there wasn’t service until the top of Mt. Whitney (reportedly – we didn’t try this ourselves) and then in the town of Lone Pine, which is 13 miles from the Whitney Portal trailhead. If it weren’t for the car repairs, we wouldn’t have bothered to carry a cell phone, since it’s heavy and useless for the vast majority of the trip.
  • GPS - We debated about carrying a GPS and ultimately decided to leave it at home. Unless you are doing off-trail side-trips, a good map is perfectly sufficient for navigational purposes. The trail is well-traveled and virtually all of the junctions are very well-marked.
  • Extra memory card - Sarah wishes she’d brought an extra memory card for her camera. Almost 500 photos (the capacity of her memory card) may sound like a lot, but on a 17-day trip through such amazing scenery, it wasn’t nearly enough.
  • Batteries - We saw one group with a small solar charger attached to the top of a backpack. This allowed them to reduce the number of batteries they carried. Since they were using a SteriPEN and a GPS and needed a number of batteries, this seemed like it could end up being a huge weight savings over the course of the trip. Also in the battery department, Brian discovered that lithium AA batteries are significantly lighter than rechargeable AA batteries, and they last a lot longer, too. One set of Energizer Ultimate Lithium AA batteries lasted Brian the whole trip and then some – he wound up taking over 2000 photos on that single set of batteries before they finally ran out of juice. The only drawback is price – they cost about $16 for a pack of eight.

  • Comb - On a couple-day backpacking trip, Sarah will often tie up her hair and not bother to bring a comb. At the Reds Meadow resupply, though, she broke down and bought a small, light comb, fearing that her normal tactic would result in dreadlocks after so many days.
  • Toilet paper - We had a hard time figuring out how much toilet paper to pack, but heard that one roll per person per week is the rule. In the end, we had a partial roll left. This was about as close as we would have wanted to cut it anyway, so the roll-a-week rule seems like a good one…

    Next up, we’ll talk about planning food for the trip.

    Rake said...

    Awesome advise.

    I can't wait until the next post. I have yet to try a three day plus hike - I think my fear is the planning of it and finding a good hiking partner.

    Oh yeah - and I need a water filtration system.

    In my limited experiece - I like the no stove idea. There is a lot of no cook food choices today.

    Anonymous said...

    May I ask the pack brand and size you carried?

    Thanks, Craig