We face a few challenges when it comes to what gear to take with us.
We are going to be doing two very different forms of traveling in the next few years. We’ll spend stretches of time in the wilderness. And we’ll be doing a lot of world travel. Sometimes those two scenarios might come together at the same time, but more likely we will be doing one or the other. But, we won’t have an apartment or other permanent home base we could use to store different clothing and gear, so we need to try to have our gear be as cross-over as possible without it requiring us to take double what we’d normally need. We can keep a few things in boxes with family, but we won’t have the luxury of being able to keep a garage full of gear and clothing to switch out based on where we’re headed to next.
We all want our stuff to be of durable high quality, lightweight, and affordable. The problem is you can choose any two of those three factors, but you’ll almost never find all three in the same piece of equipment.
The Washington Post ran an article about the International Space Station and the cooperation between the Russian and American space programs. It described the difference in engineering cultures between the two countries. Americans tend to build equipment to be efficient, small and lightweight. But it often will damage easily. The Russians on the other hand, tend to build equipment that will withstand a lot of abuse and will last a long time, but it tends to be very, very heavy. So when you think about gear for a long trip, what is the best way to go?
Durable can be inexpensive, but usually comes with a weight penalty. I used an old MSR set of stainless camping pots for many years, from about 1995 until I gave them away in 2011. They were compact enough, nesting into each other, and came with a lid that converted to a frypan (which I never used). They took a huge amount of abuse, and they still worked perfectly and even looked pretty good after a decade of hard use. But they were HEAVY.
Lightweight can be cheap, but doesn’t tend to last very long. I had a small flashlight made of aluminum that was pretty cheap (about $16 or something). I bought it at the local hardware store. It was bright-(ish). But after a few months, the electronics began to fail and it just stopped working after a while despite fresh batteries.
We’ve weighed the pros and cons of various things. In striving to find gear and clothing that will serve in both scenarios, we ended up going for things that were both light and durable. In most cases, that translated into purchases that were more expensive. For example, we could have bought the ideal stove for a long distance trek across the Highlands of Scotland: a small, light stove head that attaches to compressed gas canisters. But such a stove can be useless outside of North America and Western Europe. So we bought a stove that is able to use nearly any kind of fuel (alcohol, gasoline, diesel, white gas, kerosene, etc. But it will also use gas canisters. It weighs a bit more than we’d like, but we know it’s well-made and can definitely be used in developing countries like India and Nepal, or Central Asia. We chose to do this instead of buying two different stoves. We applied the same principle to almost everything, unless it was specific to just one or the other. Knowing we can afford now to pay a bit more for quality and durability in a lightweight package while we are working full time in well-paid jobs, we decided it was sensible investment. Later on, when we’re just unemployed hobos, we’ll make do with cast iron equipment made in Russia.
Since we are starting our travels with a couple of long distances hikes in northern England and Scotland, here are the core elements of our trekking kit:
I bought my first hiking pack in 1995. It was an Arcteryx Bora 65. It survived several camping trips in various places in wild British Columbia. We bought one identical to it for Karen 10 years later before we embarked on our first trip to Asia. We dragged those packs through China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and India in 2007. We then used them again for nearly two years in Asia in 2011-2013. At the end of the last trip, my pack was missing some pieces and both were showing their age. We decided to replace our packs. Arcteryx still makes great gear – especially their packs. So naturally we looked first at Arcteryx. We explored other brands, many were cheaper, but the replacement for the Bora – the Altra 65 – was consistently top-rated. Turns out these packs are amazing.
Lighter and smaller than the Bora with the same capacity, but with a few added features that aren’t gimmicks. The packs are top-loading, but can be unzipped all the way around to open completely flat. And the suspension system and back fit have been improved substantially. One thing stands out in particular: The new suspension system and what Arcteryx calls a Load Transfer Disk. Basically, the disk rotates with your hips as you carry the weight. You’d think this wouldn’t make much of a difference, but it actually makes things a lot easier. We used the packs on an astrophotography camping trip I dragged Karen on at the end of October. And we’ve spent many weeks on fully-loaded training hikes using these packs. They’re amazing so far. Given our experience with the bomb-proof Bora packs, the build quality and the updated features of the Altra made our choices a no-brainer. We’ll add more on our thoughts about these packs as we go.
I had a fantastic tent in the 1990s. It was pricey but it was a lightweight, three-season design that suited our needs at the time (which included some bike touring and camping). It was really the only thing my girlfriend at the time and I really each cherished when we broke up. I agreed to let her keep custody. But I had visiting rights for the tent. We broke up in 1996, but I actually did borrow it as late as 2003. When Karen and I decided to buy a tent, I had that one in mind. A lightweight, three-season tent that would stand up to abuse, not be too heavy, but could be used in a variety of different situations. The tent purchase was the hardest decision to make to be honest.
After months of research (literally), I decided to splurge on a Hilleberg. Probably among the best-made tents in the world. We could have made do with a two-person tent, but after Karen and I talked it over, we decided we’d put up with a bit more weight in exchange for a little more comfort. We bought a Nallo 3 GT. It’s roomy enough for the two of us, and there’s a fully protected vestibule for our gear. We can swap out the 3-4 season inner tent for a very breezy mesh tent in seconds, so we have cold weather/hot weather options. I made the mistake of telling Karen the mesh inner would be more than adequate for our late fall trip to a dark-sky preserve in Ontario for astrophotography. It wasn’t. At all. It would have been perfect for a summer journey. And the regular inner tent would have been perfect for this trip when temperatures dropped overnight to -10C. Oops. At any rate, this isn’t a cheap tent. But given the weight-to-build ratio and the flexibility it offers, we think it was well worth it.
Our original plan for 2017 was to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. On that trip, weight is everything given you are carrying everything on your back for 4000 kilometres. The thing about sleeping bags is that the back of a bag, the part you lie on, provides zero actual insulation because you are pressing all the loft out of it as you lie on it. So you get all the extra weight of that back panel of material and down fill without any benefit. One small company in Colorado has figured this out and designed an ingenious bag that is super light but fantastically warm – Katabatic bags. These are handmade bags made with ethically sourced, high-quality down. They work differently than mummy bags. Karen is slightly claustrophobic. So a conventional down mummy-style sleeping bag really wasn’t going to work. Katabatic bags are roomier than a mummy bag, and because they are open on the side you sleep on, you have room to manoeuvre. So how does the bag keep you warm if it’s missing an entire back side? It uses clips that attach the bag to your thermarest. Genius. You can adjust the tension of the straps depending on the temperature. So if it’s cold, tie it down super tight and you shut out the freezing air, trapping the warmth inside. If it’s a little warm, leave the clips looser, allowing more air flow into the bag. We’ll get Karen a down hood to make sure she’s as cozy as possible…
The sleeping pads we’ve paired for the Katabatic bags are ThermaRest NeoAir thermal pads. They’re very light weight and use an innovative approach to reflect cold back down toward the ground, and bounce body heat back toward you. They also pack down incredibly small, about half the size of the old ThermaRest I used for many years (and which I had already thought was small and light!).
I’ve always been a big fan of the MSR Whisperlite camp stove. I used one for many years. Reliable and relatively inexpensive, mine was trouble-free as long as I owned it. There are a few significant drawbacks, though. One, despite its name, it’s LOUD. I always thought the name must have been some inside joke at MSR. As you light the thing, you’d think you were starting up a rocket engine. That’s annoying. But more important are two other problems. One, it doesn’t simmer very well. Given you need to simmer most things (rice, beans, whatever), this is a serious drawback. You’re left basically with blast furnace or off. Not especially convenient. The other problem is that it only works with liquid fuel. Compressed gas canisters are more convenient if you can get them. But if you can’t, it’d be nice to be able to use other fuels, too. Gasoline or diesel, for instance if you’re somewhere in the developing world and can’t get anything else. It would do in a pinch. But for that you need a special stove designed to cope with the filth of these fuels without getting clogged and shutting down.
At the end of the day we went with an Optimus Polaris because, while similar in design to the old MSR “Whisper”lite stoves, they differ in that they are a more stable design, can use either compressed gas canisters or liquid fuel bottles, and they can use almost any type of liquid fuel in a pinch. Not much heavier than the MSR, they offer great build-quality with more versatility. We could have gone with small, lighter options, but would have been limited by them or forced to have two different stoves.
As I said above, for years I used a set of MSR stainless camping pots. They worked very well, lasted over a decade, but were very heavy. This time, we’ve gone with titanium. One 1.5L Evernew non-stick pot and a titanium kettle-like thing that can double as either a kettle or second, smaller pot. I can’t believe the difference in weight. It’s really extraordinary the difference in material makes. Obviously, titanium is much pricier than stainless steel, so we paid a premium in exchange for shaving those not inconsiderable ounces off our total.
Got questions? Post a comment below! Thanks for reading.