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I took a lot of great gear with me on the JMT. Most of it was relatively new to me, but I also took some old favorites. I have to say, it may have been a shorter trip than most, but I really figured out a lot about my system and what worked as well as what needs reworking. Here the breakdown!
Zpacks Arc Blast Slim – I have had a few UL packs since sending my old, heavy REI pack on its way, but none have been as comfortable to wear as this pack. In fact, when I had it loaded up, it felt like that old 3 lb pack with all of it’s thick padding and weighty framing was back there instead of this 1 lb (with hip pockets) beauty. Once I found the sweet spot on my body where this pack sat best, it felt like I had 5 lbs on my back instead of the 15 that I was actually carrying. I’m still thinking about getting a Zpacks Zero small for those quick summer trips and SUL/XUL trips, but I am seriously considering trying to see if this pack could work for all my trips even if it means having way more space than I’d ever need on smaller trips. Seriously, I’m not exaggerating when I say this is the one and only pack I ever want to carry.
I got it in the orange so that it would be very visible and make me very visible. Most of what I wear is aimed at retaining as much heat or reflecting as much heat as I can, depending on the situation. Those types of colors are rarely the ones that will be seen from the air or far away in rescue situations or make you visible to others if you’re hiking in hunting season. I went ahead and got the orange to have just one piece that would be easy to see and I really do love the orange as well. I had them put the S straps that they can do on request to work around my womanly figure and I had picked up a set of the old hip belt pockets that had the buckles a bit ago that I used with this. I can’t even begin to describe how nice it is to have the S straps and how comfortable they were. I have the same complaints with the old pockets that everyone else has had, they are miserable to get shut with just one hand, but they let me see how pockets worked with this pack. I’ll probably be picking up a set of the new zipper ones at some point. The slim has no pockets at all and just the bungie cord across the front. This is the second reason I wanted to get the Slim version. I have had outer mesh pockets before and I’ve not been very pleased with them. I know people who have and love them, but I haven’t found it to be super useful and the mesh is just not durable over time even with being careful so I was happy to get a pack that held it all inside the main part of the bag instead.
Because I had a bear can (the Bear Vault 500) in this pack, I didn’t stretch the frame into a very big curve, so I could have the most room with the least strain on the pack materials. A bear can is doable in it, but I would get a bigger size if you were going to make it a regular habit as I could tell I was pushing the limits of the pack in the smaller 35 L size. I also started placing my Gossamer Gear Thinlight pad across the front of the outside to protect the material and get the most space inside. As it is, I still ended up with a few tiny scrapes across the front. I think it probably happened on the bus since I didn’t have them when I left home and they were there when I got to Yosemite. On the way home I was far more paranoid with it and ended up with no extra damage. The scratches I got weren’t even all the way through the fabric and I don’t even think they compromised the waterproof of the fabric at all. It appeared as if the orange color was just scraped a bit. All the same, I’ve bought some of the new patches that Zpacks is selling for the hybrid material and I’ll putting one in my repair kit. I’ve only had this pack for a few months, but I know that it will be my go to pack until it can no longer be held together. At which point I’m going to happily slap down another $230 for the same pack again.
Enlightened Equipment 20 Degree Quilt (old design with Karo baffles) – This is the old design and can’t be bought new anymore, but I can see why it was so popular in the first place. It is a sweet quilt! Based on the thermometer on my EDC (every day carry) lanyard, it got down to about 30 degrees and boy was I cozy! The things that I liked about this quilt that are still the same in every EE quilt today are the foot box design and the optional straps that help keep the quilt over the pad. The foot box is really well designed to give you multiple options on how open or closed you want it and that was really nice. I could just cinch the cord up for a loose foot box, cinch it up and zip the zipper for a more structured foot box, or I could do all that and snap the 1-2 snaps that go up even higher for a really solid and tall foot box. The first is great in warmer weather like we had in Yosemite valley when it was only getting to about 40 degrees and the second was great for the 30 degree night I spent on trail. I can imagine that the last option would be really nice when it comes to the lowest temperatures this quilt was meant for. The straps that you can use or leave at home were also really nice in the colder weather to keep the quilt tightened around me all night and kept it from slipping off the pad and me. The cinch cord and snap at the head end are also very nice for keeping the quilt more around my shoulders and the opening at my head a bit smaller. Without the top cinched down, I could wrap the top around my head like a hood which is a great option in colder weather.
One of the features I liked about this quilt which is no longer available, was the Karo baffling. I’ve heard mixed reviews and there are some things that have to be got around with this style, but it also opens up a lot of options as well. First thing I did was shift most of the down the the center baffles and especially away from my face area. My thinking was that if the quilt was hanging over the edge of the pad, the down was basically wasted. That worked really well for back sleeping, but of course left me with cold butt syndrome when trying to side sleep. Happily, the Karo baffles meant it was easy to move the down back where I felt cold spots. Having it away from my face ended up being really nice when I pulled it all over my head because it gave me some extra warmth without suffocating me. One thing that I would like to try is shifting the down all to the second half of the quilt and using it more like an elephant foot in conjunction with a coat to see if I could make use of it in even lower than normal temps. All in all this is a solid buy that I would make again, though I probably won’t have to for a good 10+ years thanks to the quality workmanship and down that has been used to make this amazing quilt.
Thermarest NeoAir Original 72″ – This is one of those items that I really wish they still made because after several nights in a row, this is the only pad I’ve used that keeps my back from hurting and I know my hip would have been much worse off. Thankfully they sell the newer version, the NeoAir Xlite, but I wish it still had the square shape. If this pad ever pops, I’m sure I’ll get the new version because it is warm, soft, not that noisy, and really comfortable. I slept straight on the pad and had no issues with me sliding off the pad. The key is blowing up the pad the whole way, laying on it the way you would if you were asleep and then slowly letting the air out until it feels right. It didn’t take long to get used to just how much air needed to be let out and it allowed me to sink into the pad, preventing me from rolling off and giving the pad a softer feel that is more like my mattress at home.
Zpacks Pillow Dry Bag – This little bag worked out well as both a dry bag for my quilt and a pillow for my bed. I have the original version back when my only choice was the medium. The size works well for 2 season gear, but is a tight squeeze for my 20 degree quilt. I make it work, but if I were to buy it again, I’d get the medium plus for my set up. As a pillow, it was a lot more comfortable than one would imagine. If you get your spare clothes in there well, it isn’t even very lumpy and the fleece was much nicer than a regular old stuff sack. The only issue I see happening in the future is in summer when I don’t take extra clothes.
Zpacks Custom 53″ x 96″ Tarp – This was my 2014 birthday present and it has been one of my favorite pieces to date. When I decided that I wanted a tarp I did some thinking about what size tarp I truly needed. I saw that most people were using 9′ to 10′ long tarps, but the folks using them were also much closer to 6′ people. Being the small, barely 5’3″ tall, person that I am, it occurred to me that I might not need such a long tarp. Turns out most other UL folks seemed to agree, telling me that your tarp should be about 3 feet longer than you are. So I decided on an 8′ and knowing I don’t like sitting in my shelter and only like being in it to sleep, I decided it only needed to be as wide as one panel of cuben fiber. That makes this tarp nearly 4.5′ wide. I went back and forth on having a custom Zpacks regular one or the MLD poncho tarp. I settled on the Zpacks in the end and Joe was happy to provide.
It took a bit of practice to perfect pitching, but once I got the hang of it, it was fairly simple and kind of fun! The size is just right for me and I’m really happy I went with it. If I wanted to hang out in my shelter or I was looking at days and days of bad weather, this would not be what I would take. In the dry Southwestern and Sierra environments that I have been in recently and have used this tarp in, it is just the ticket! I’ve also recently recieved a custom bug bivy from Borah Gear. It is the one thing that I was missing with this shelter. With the crawlies and flash floods here in Arizona, a good bathtub floor and bug netting can be essential. It wasn’t a problem on the JMT at all for me, but if I had gone earlier in the season last year, it would have been. The rains last summer had more than a few people waterlogged and feeling a bit under prepared.
Esbit Titanium Folding Stove – I wanted to give esbit a second try last year and picked up this little Titanium folding stove from my local hike shop that also happily sells the 4g tablets which are smaller and far more ideal for smaller amounts of water. This has been working really well since I got it. I know that the type of stove is as responsible for how well a fuel works, but it didn’t occur to me that switching from the big box folding stove to this small little version would make that big of a difference, but it has because since switching, I haven’t had any issues. This little stove is a winner and will likely be in my kit on many trips in the future!
Aqua Clips – These were probably my favorite small find of the year last year. They only cost $3 each and easily made my hiking experience 80% better. I slipped these on my hip belt and for the entire hike I could reach my water without risking a leak inside my bag, dislocating my shoulder or putting any pressure on my shoulders.
The following is a list of the small things that worked, but I just don’t have much to say at this point.
Sawyer Squeeze – Most UL backpackers have switched to the Sawyer Squeeze or the Sawyer Mini in the last few years. The Squeeze is my choice because sometimes I use it with Richard as well. I’ve used it before and will continue to use it as it is small, light and has yet to fail me!
Petzl E Light – This little light worked well for what I needed. All I used it for was looking into my bag for things and going to the bathroom at night. I didn’t use it for night hiking, cooking after dark, or any other task that could use a higher lumen output than this little guy.
Bear Vault 500 – I borrowed one of these and it worked well. It did fit into my pack, but it was tight. I’d not use anything of a larger circumference. It is really hard to open with gloves or cold fingers.
Terramar Long and Short Sleeve Tops – These two shirts have taken me through a lot of weather and they just keep going. For the price of these pieces and the quality, these are shirts, I’d buy again in a heartbeat.
Terramar Bottoms – I hold the same opinion of these that I do the Terramar tops!
Darn Tough Socks – These are the only socks I wear hiking and they are quickly becoming the only socks I wear at home too. They just keep trucking and with the lifetime warranty, their price is well worth it.
Dirty Girl Gaiters – These beauties did their job perfectly!
Buff – Worked great!
Smart Wool Glove Liners – Kept my fingers warm and have been really nice quality.
What Needed Tweaking
Zpacks Hip Pockets (old version) – There was a good reason why Zpacks changed these pockets to a zippered closure. I have the old fold down and buckle version and they just don’t function very well. I kind of knew that when I got them, but a friend sold them to me so I could try out the pockets without spending the big bucks on the new ones as I wasn’t sure if I needed them or not. I definitely need them. They were great for snacks and my camera, but they were hard to close. The new versions are on my list of things to pick up at some point, but these do work okay for now.
What Did Not Work
Snow Peak Hybrid Summit Cook Pot – This was the first solo pot I purchased and it has gone on to someone else. It was a great first pot, but it was way too big for my uses. Even the most water I needed to boil on this trip filled only a small portion of this pot. I was really happy with the quality and construction of Snow Peak so after this trip, I replaced it with a used Snow Peak 600 that came with the hotlips and an aftermarket Four Dog Stove lid.
Columbia Aruba V Convertible Pants – I love Columbia clothing, but these were a failure for me because the waist was not stretchy at all. When sitting on the ground, a person’s body is more in a V shape than an L shape and with those angles, the waistband cut into my gut so bad it would make me sick withing 30 minutes. I have yet to find pants that won’t either cut into me when sitting or fall off of me when standing while also being light and breathable except for tights which I am uncomfortable wearing by themselves. So for my birthday Richard bought me a Purple Rain Adventure Skirt that I’ve been wearing for a few months now. I will have a review coming up, but all I’ll say for now is these pants are on their way out the door.
I took a few other things that aren’t mentioned here, but it was either not used or is among the things that you always take anyway. Sorry for the crazy long post and the lateness of it, but being without internet for 3 months really set me back.
For those who don’t follow on Facebook, I have been without internet in my house for 2.5 months and it will be another 20 days. When I finally do get it back I will have several New posts for you including what I got for my birthday (which is today) this year!
For now though I wanted to talk about expectations in ultralight backpacking, specifically of the cottage gear companies that supply so much of what we tend to carry. There have been more people than ever ordering from these companies and many of them are first time small company purchasers or new ultralighters and even a few traditional backpackers just trying to lighten some weight. This is great news for these gear makers, but it can also cause some issues. These issues have come to light as of late for a few people and it has caused some unhappy customers. I’ve heard a few of the complaints and sadly, some of them have happened from a lack of understanding in how cottage companies work. Some have been genuine issues as well of course and there are growing pains that do occur. Any time a company has more work than their workers can handle, it can mean things fall through the cracks. It is unfortunate, but a reality of business and is something that customers need to have some grace for. Not that we should settle for bad service, but maybe just have a softer heart and a little understanding that we are working with people, not robots.
The thing that has bothered me the most, is unrealistic expectations from a small business. As someone who works for a family member’s small business I am aware of the issues from the business side of things and as a customer of many of my local businesses and online gear shops, I am also familiar with what it is like to have these issues as a customer. The thing to remember is, these are people at the other end of the phone, keyboard or what have you. These are people with a passion and desire to make a great product. As a customer, it is important to remember that and in a world where faceless corporate conglomerates have taken over much of the market, many people do not understand or recognize what it is to be a small business anymore. People have forgotten that a tent that is a bit late for a business owner is a 12 hour work day trying to fill an order that he just ran out of time to make instead of going to the movies with their spouse or seeing their kid’s ball game on a Saturday. There is a real person there and they have a life outside of your order. These are not machines that pump out hundreds of products a day. You need to treat them as such.
So I have some guidelines I’ve adopted when working with these small companies that helps my transaction go smoothly and my expectations as realistic as possible. It also helps the company to fully understand what I expect.
1. Order Early – I try to add at least a month, sometimes more, than the wait time listed on their website. These wait times are subject to change and are dependent on how many orders they have in. They can (and probably do) get 15 or 20 more orders than they expect in any given day. This can change wait times drastically, so I always try to order early and never order something you can’t live without so that it will get there a week or two before your hike. Always make sure you give it at least a month or more.
2. Expect a Longer Wait in Spring – Folks this is Thru Hiker season and everyone is trying to get their gear and get on trail. There are going to be long wait times and hundreds of emails and requests. You are not their only customer or even the only one who may need a rush on something at this time of year, so have some grace and don’t put your order in too late. This ties into the first point as well as the next point which is…
3. For a Major Hike During a Major Hiking Season, Always Order 6 Months in Advance – I was wanting my tarp last year for a September hike. Not a giant season like April or May is, but pretty big around here so I made certain my order was in April and I was prepared for a long wait. It took a while, but I got my tarp and despite the wait, I wasn’t unhappy because I knew to expect it.
4. Stay In Contact – If you are looking for something vital to your hike, or something you asked to be rushed, don’t be afraid to check in after you place the request and if you don’t get confirmation of shipment the day you requested, email them back. These are busy people. Some of them even have regular 9 to 5 jobs on top of what you’ve asked for and things get lost or forgotten. An email once or twice in the middle of the process (not 15) only takes 5 minutes and can be a good way to make sure your expectations are fully communicated and not being misunderstood. This can give a company the chance to fix something before it becomes an actual problem.
5. Finally, Have Some Grace – Again, these are people, not robots. Even if they do mess it up and your plans are not what you hoped, remember they didn’t do it to you on purpose or to make you upset. Things happen and no one is perfect.
I’ve found if I keep these 5 things in mind when placing orders with a cottage gear maker, I have better success, better expectations, and less frustration during my gear buying process!
It’s always disappointing when a hike doesn’t go as planned. It’s worse when you have to come off trail early because of injury, but that is what happened to me this week. We got a late start in Tuolumne Meadows on Saturday. About halfway down the trail, while I was working through Lyell Canyon, I was noticing that my hip was feeling a bit sore. It was feeling great by the time I turned in that night. I thought it would be okay, but in the morning the pain was back and I knew there was no getting up Donahue Pass. By the time I was back at the halfway point through the canyon and headed back to the ranger’s station, I knew I had made the right choice in heading back. It’s never fun or what you hope for when you start down a trail, but knowing when to call a trip is an essential tool to safety when backpacking and a lesson I got a stark reminder of this time. The only thing to do is get healed up and try for better luck next time, which hopefully will be in October, though not on the JMT.
So I only got two days hiking in the Sierras, but they were two amazing days! Sadly, my camera got some moisture in it and so the pictures are a bit fuzzy, but still gorgeous. I woke up on Saturday, ready to go and excited. My partner took a bit longer to get ready, so we ended up with a later start than I wanted. We started just outside the Tuolumne Wilderness Permit Station and headed towards Lyell Canyon. The weather was perfect and the trail was beautiful. The trail follows the river upstream and there are plenty of places to get water. Most of them are also pretty awesome places to dip your feet in. It looked like this for about 8 or so miles and was mostly flat hiking, but if you think you have to climb to see amazing sights, you don’t in Yosemite! The views were gorgeous and the trail even varied a bit from open fields to wooded forests and babbling streams throughout it all. The trail itself was not as perfect. Years of overuse has turned the delicate topsoil of the Sierras into sand. It’s not uncommon for trails in the Sierra Nevada to turn sandy like that and it can be hard to walk quickly through. The Sierras and especially Yosemite, is covered in granite so there was a lot of lose rocks and stones in the trail that also can make walking at a quick pace challenging. It has occurred to me that the sandy trail may have in fact caused or contributed to my hip pain.
We started thinking about finding a camp spot around 4 in the afternoon and pulled out the maps and guide that my partner brought. There are 3-4 places to camp along this section before heading up the pass. The first two are pretty nice, especially if you have bigger groups. We didn’t stop because we were hoping to get as much out of the day as we could with our late start, but the third camp spot we found was at the beginning of the hike up to the base of Donahue Pass. It was barely 100 ft from the water and kind of in a gully. Well, we took one look at that and checked our maps for something that sounded less damp and cold. The last camp hit the spot, but required a 1,000 ft climb to get to. The climb was worth it since it got us to a spot that was much warmer and drier, but still quite close to a good water source. There was even several great flat tent spots. We set up camp, boiled water, re hydrated food, put the bear can in a small field close by, and sunk into bed. The next morning was when I realized my hip was hurting too much to go over a pass like Donahue, so I told my partner who was fine going solo and I cleaned up camp and was on my way back out by 8 am. Thankfully all that up we had done was now down and the flat meadow was a lot easier than anything else would have been. All the same, I could tell by noon that turning around was the right choice. My normal 2-3 mile an hour flat speed had been reduced to 1-1.5 mph and I was hurting. The whole way out, I was so grateful for my ultralight obsession. I really think I would have had to get someone to have a ranger come and get me if my pack had been heavier. I got to the Tuolumne Lodge in time for the hiker bus to Yosemite Valley and then the Yarts bus to Merced. Unfortunately, being Labor Day weekend, the bus couldn’t get through the traffic fast enough to get me on the train in Merced so I I had to stay the night there. A woman and her son who had been backpacking the White Wolf area was kind enough to give me a ride to a hotel and I got a taxi to the station in the morning and headed home. The time on trail was amazing and I saw more wildlife in 2 days in Yosemite, than the last 6 months at home. We saw mule deer, stellar jays, prairie dogs, chipmunks, squirrels, even a coyote in broad daylight! I did not see any bears while hiking, but I saw one on the way up to the park and three on the way home. It was really a magical time in the most magical place I’ve ever been.
I love my Montbell Alpine Light Jacket. It’s everything I could possibly want for a cold weather camp jacket. I love that it has pockets and a full zipper. For winter, its features are worth the extra weight. I also love my REI Fleece. It has kept me cozy and warm in some pretty wet weather. It has thumb loops that help keep my wrists warm and works great while hiking those snowy winter hikes. But neither of these jackets work best for those dry fall nights or early spring mornings that we get out here and neither were what I wanted for my upcoming JMT hike. I knew I wanted something akin to the Montbell UL Down Jacket, but I really didn’t want the extra weight of pockets that I just don’t use unless it’s really cold. I thought the Montbell Ex Light Down Jacket might be the jacket for me then, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized I wasn’t really excited about the full zipper because I keep my jackets zipped the whole time and I wasn’t sure about spending so much on a jacket that wasn’t 100% everything I wanted. Then I found out that Montbell was coming out with a down pullover with a hood. I wasn’t really excited about the hood because hoods just do not stay up on my head. No matter what I do they always fall off my head unless I’m just looking forward, so I prefer my head gear to be seperate from my coat. Still is was the closest I had found to what I wanted and I was happy to take an extra ounce or so of the hood to get everything else I wanted. I emailed Montbell’s customer service to ask when exactly the new pullover was coming out and they said it would be sometime after September, too late for my JMT hike. I accepted that it was not meant to be and I would just have to pick something from the options I already had which would leave me for certain over a 10 lb base weight. The JMT is known to get snow very early, as early as the first week of September and that meant I would have to take my Alpine Light jacket, despite it being too warm for the trip.
Then I saw a post on Facebook saying that Borah Gear was adding a jacket to their line, the Ultralight Down Jacket. I checked it out and it had no pockets, no hood and it was a pullover. It had all the features I was looking for and nothing I wasn’t and the price tag, $165 shipping included, made this the solution to a 2 year search. There was only one problem, they didn’t make it in a woman’s size, but John was happy to make a custom size for me and it turned out great! I gave John my measurements so he could get the sizing right, but I did have a couple of options as well. I could have him shorten the length to fit my small torso a bit better, but I decided to have him go with the longest size instead so that it covers all the way down to where my legs start for maximum warmth. I also had him go with the shortest sleeves to accommodate my short arms. When it got here, I was very happy with how it turned out and I think it will be my favorite new insulation piece.
1. Quality – It was clear from the minute that I took my jacket out of the box that it was well made and with quality materials. The seams were all even, tight, and no down was poking through. The work was neat inside and out, and there was no sign of visual blemish. The down was evenly distributed and fluffed up nicely despite days of being stuffed in a box. The outer and lining fabric was spotless and felt soft but sturdy, especially for its weight. This jacket looks and feels like I could have bought it off the rack at an REI.
2. Sizing – Of course this was one of the most important things to have right since I ordered a custom sizing that was supposed to fit me perfectly so you can imagine I was checking the size with a very critical eye. I am happy to report that I am very pleased with every aspect of the sizing. It is not too big and does not feel like I’m swimming in fabric and fits well underneath my Montbell Alpine Light Jacket. It also did not feel especially tight when I tried it on with two long sleeve shirts and my fleece and vest on under it. Of course with all my layers on, it was more snug than with only one layer on, but it didn’t feel like bending over was going to put undue strain on the seams either. The sleeves are long enough to just cover the tips of my fingers and the length was enough to cover all the way down to my legs. Both of these are features I really like having in a jacket I’m probably only going to wear in camp, as it helps keep me cozy when just hanging out.
3. Warmth – Right now I can only say that I believe this will keep me warm in the spring and fall. As it is still summer here in Arizona (meaning it is over 90 most days and hasn’t dropped below 60 in three or four months) I can’t really test it to its fullest, but every time it has gotten the littlest bit chilly, I’ve thrown in on and headed outside and sat for at least 30 minutes. The coldest so far has been about 55 with a breeze and I was radiating heat with just a tank top on underneath. Based on that, I’m confident that I will be able to stay warm close to 50-45, maybe even lower, with just a thermal top and this jacket.
Cons (sort of)
1. Design – There are two design elements that could be cons, depending on the features you do or do not like. The zipper does not go all the way to the top. It stops short of the top. Now, I’m a bit claustrophobic when it comes to things around my neck so, this something that I preferred, but it could be a real deal breaker for someone else.
2. The second design element that is very different and may keep someone from buying this coat was the cuff on the sleeves. There is no elastic. It’s just a cuff like you’d have on a shirt. This may be an issue for you and honestly it may be something I end up not being happy about either, but I’m going to give it a try before I consider taking my own sewing skills to this and adding elastic cuffs. Right now, the thing I’m liking about this is that I can push the sleeves up my arms and out of my way during camp chores that I may not want my sleeves getting in the way of. The jury is definitely still out as a whole.
Edit: I almost forgot to add that the bottom hem has a cord for cinching up around your waist, which of course, I love!