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When I began planning for my hikes, I had a pretty good idea of what gear I wanted to take with me.  Some was tried and tested; I knew it was what I wanted.  Other gear was experimental.  I ended up using a TON of gear.  I love backpacking gear, and I wanted to try different things here and there to see what worked, and more importantly, what wouldn’t work.  My gear that I used and had on me was constantly changing with the seasons and varied terrain I found myself in.  I expected this, and made sure I was able to switch things in and out easily, with the help of my friend Scudz (while I was on the PCT) and my parents (while on the AT).  As such, this gear review is going to be extensive, focusing on the major items.  For example, I used three different backpacks on my hikes, all very different.  I’ll review them all.  If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to comment with them, and I will answer as best as I can.  Alright, lets get started!

1. Backpack

Ray way Backpack (10oz)

The Ray Way pack in the Desert, before Warner Springs.  Fully loaded!

The Ray Way pack in the Desert, before Warner Springs. Fully loaded!

Ray Way Backpack

Before taking off on the PCT, I made my own Ray-way backpack.  It was a rewarding experience to sew my own backpack, and I was able to tailor it exactly how I wanted; two side pockets on one side, a larger one on the other, an ice axe loop, and some bungy chord straps.  The bag was extremely light, roughly 10 ounces total, and could fit a ton of fluffy gear as it had a big carrying capacity size wise.  This allowed me to carry a synthetic sleeping quilt which really can’t get small (Can’t carry a low capacity backpack with this quilt).  However, the bag started to fall apart in Oregon, and I ended up having to switch it out.  I believe I put roughly 1,700 miles on this bag.  The main reason the shoulder straps started to fall apart was due to me running with it.  I like to run while hiking from time to time, and would run several miles if my pack was light enough. This backpack was not structurally sound enough to handle that.

Pros: Super light, making your own gear can be very rewarding, and it is a very cheap option.

Cons: Not very durable, and not meant to take much abuse.  Also, unless you’re pretty good at sewing, it’s easy to make mistakes.  And it takes roughly two days to make.  Or it least it did for me, and it was my second pack I made.

Overall:  I don’t plan on making another Ray-Way backpack. It’s a great pack if you take great care of it, but I prefer to run too often for one of these to hold up.  I will not be using this pack, or a similar one on the CDT.

ULA Circuit (2010 model) (2lbs, 9oz)

The ULA carrying a massive amount of gear through the Sierra's.

The ULA carrying a massive amount of gear through the Sierra’s.

The Circuit fully loaded in action descending Banner Peak in the Sierras

The Circuit fully loaded in action descending Banner Peak in the Sierras

I used my trusty ULA Circuit for the miles between Kennedy Meadows and South Lake Tahoe – Roughly 400 miles, mostly through the Sierras.  I have used this pack on previous thru-hikes of the JMT, High Sierra Trail, and many other backpacking trips.  This is my trusted ‘heavy duty hauler’.  I know I can carry a heavy load comfortably, and that this pack is pretty bomb proof.  In the Sierra’s I carried a 5 degree, 2+ pound sleeping bag, and some warmer layers as we were going through in in late May.  The load was just going to be too heavy for my Ray Way pack, so I opted to used the Circuit that I’ve had for years.  It worked great for the heavy load, and allowed me to put a lot on my back, likely much more than I needed.

Pros: Durability, load carrying ability, comfort

Cons: Weight, too many bells and whistles, cost (225 dollars is trending towards the expensive side of backpacks)

Overall:  This backpack has lasted years, and it serves as a great heavy duty backpack for me.  Though I doubt I’ll ever use it again on a long distance trip, it’s good for smaller trips, or trips where you may need heavier gear.  It has a place in my gear room, but likely not on any long distance trails again.  It’s just too heavy!

Gossamer Gear Kumo (1st generation) (13oz new, modified to 11.5oz) – Note that this model isn’t being sold at the moment.

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Taking the Kumo out on a trip up Goat Mountain near Denver.  This was just last week!  I still get out - just not as much as I wish :)

Taking the Kumo out on a trip up Goat Mountain near Denver. This was just last week! I still get out – just not as much as I wish 🙂

After my Ray Way pack started breaking down, I chose to get the Gossamer Gear Kumo pack.  My good friend Dirtmonger turned me on to this pack, and I liked its versatility, no frills and light weight.  I immediately cut off the hip belts (I prefer not to have hip belts with light loads), and scrapped the extra webbing which I would not need, which got the weight of the pack down to roughly 11.5oz.  This pack ended up being the perfect pack for me! The shoulder straps held weight comfortably, and matched with their 1/8 inch sleeping pad (used as a makeshift frame/cushion), it was extremely comfortable on my back.  The Kumo has just the right amount of exterior pockets for me, and I enjoyed the over the top pocket for my smaller items that I wanted handy throughout the day.

Pros:  Light weight, durable, comfortable, and inexpensive (I believe it was roughly $160)

Cons: Non-removable hip belts, which meant I had to manually cut them from the bag when I got it.

Overall: This is my favorite pack I have ever used on a backpacking trip.  It’s versatility is unmatched, and the weight/capacity/durability is perfect for where I’m at with my gear right now.  I plan on using the Kumo on my hike of the CDT. It’s that good!

2. Shelter – Note that I much prefer tarps as opposed to tents.  I have used both in the past, and find that tarps do a better job of keeping me dry.  I also prefer the ‘airy’ feel of a tarp, theres more of a connection to nature when you aren’t surrounded by walls in a stuffy tent.  Especially on the PCT, there is no need for the weight of a tent, IMO, as you will only need to use 10-25 times depending on the weather you see.  But mostly, the PCT is dry, and I cowboy camped nearly every night.

Ray Way 2-person tarp (16oz for tarp alone)

The Ray Way Tarp - poorly set up next to Micah Lake in Washington

The Ray Way Tarp – poorly set up next to Micah Lake in Washington

The Ray Way Tarp properly pitched.

The Ray Way Tarp properly pitched.

I made the Ray Way 2-person tarp back in 2011.  I have now used this tarp on multiple occasions, and it worked out extremely well on the PCT.  I would say I used it maybe ten times total, but was thankful I had it every time I used it.

Pros: HUGE ground cover.  On numerous occasions, I fit three people and all of our gear under it at once.  It’s also bomb-proof if pitched properly.  Never Leaks, breathes extremely well, and can be pitched in various different ways.

Cons: weight.  With the big size and ground cover comes a weight penalty.  16oz is a lot for just a tarp.  It also is difficult to pitch in wind.

Overall: I will not be using this tarp on the CDT.  However, if I ever go hiking with a partner, this will be my tarp of choice!

Etowah Outfitters 6’x10′ tarp – 9oz

I bought this tarp in Hot Springs, NC.  It was getting cold, and wet, and I needed some form of shelter, as I was having trouble sleeping in the shelters next to my friends (especially Scudz, she saws some logs!).  I used it twice, and both times, it worked great!  It’s got extra length, at 10′, keeping myself and my gear dry.

Pros: lightweight at only 9oz.  Extremely cheap, at under $100.  No frills.

Cons: After the Ray Way palace, this seems to be very small with only 6′.  I may need to figure out how to set it up differently.

Overall: From the two times I used it, I really liked it.  But to accurately review it, I would need a few more uses to see how it holds up in winds as well.  Did great in the rain though.

AT Alternative – NO SHELTER!  From Massachusetts to Hot Springs, NC, no one in my group of 5 (including myself) carried a shelter.  This provided awesome weight savings.  Heading South on the AT, we more often than not had shelters all to ourselves.  We each saved roughly a pound by not carrying shelters, if not more.  That goes a long ways!  However, this did mean that we had to strategically plan our days, and be weary of what to do if the shelter was full.  On a handful of occasions, it was a huge pain not having a shelter.  But overall, if I did it again SoBo, I would drop my tarp/shelter in Mass again, and go without a shelter for the remainder of the hike to Springer.

For the CDT, I’m looking at getting a Gossamer Gear Q-Twinn Tarp (7oz), or a Yama Mountain Gear Cirraform Tarp (7.5oz).  I would like something small, and light weight.

3. Sleeping Systems

Ray Way Quilt – (25oz)

Zpacks sleeping bag in Green, Ray Way sleeping quilt in White.

Zpacks sleeping bag in Green, Ray Way sleeping quilt in White.

I made this quilt in 2011, and have used it on multiple trips.  Its extremely warm for it’s weight.

Pros: warmth, no frills, customizable.  It is also synthetic, which meant that it kept me warm even when it was wet.  This came into play during a freak snow/sleet storm in July on the PCT.

Cons: no bottom. This presented problems with me wanting to cowboy camp, as often times I woke up with bugs crawling all over me.  I had to be careful to not set up close to any ant hills.  I also wish there was a way to wrap it around you.  Something I’ll look at customizing before I use it again.

Z-packs 900 fill down 20 degree sleeping bag – (17oz)

I once slept in a dugout while on the PCT. The narrow fit made the narrow bench a bit easier to sleep on :)

I once slept in a dugout while on the PCT. The narrow fit made the narrow bench a bit easier to sleep on 🙂

In Northern California, I began getting too warm in my Ray Way Quilt, and began looking at other options.  Many of my friends carried the Z-packs sleeping bags, and when I tried it, I really liked it.  It’s super light for the warmth rating.  Z-packs does this by making it a very snug fitting bag, and only having it go to above your shoulders.  I loved the snug fit, as it was much more efficient at heat conservation, and took me less time to warm the bag up on cold nights.  I also prefer to wear a hat, as opposed to bulky bags that try to fit around your head.

Pros: Lightweight, snug fit, easy to warm up, compresses very small, which helps if you have a lot of food that needs to fit in your bag!

Cons: Very expensive at nearly $400.  It’s also down, which gives it positives with weight and compression, but means that you have to be much more careful about keeping it dry and how you store it after.

Overall: I will be using this bag again on the CDT.  I’ve never had a better bag!

Shelter Note:  I used a 5 degree Mountain Hardware Down sleeping bag for the High Sierras.  This was extremely heavy, at roughly 3lbs, but worth the weight in my opinion.  I cowboy camped every day in the Sierras with just this bag, and it worked out great!  However, I took a short term hit to my weight, and that was noticable.  If you’re going to be in the Sierra’s early, look at getting a warmer bag than a 20 degree, or possibly get a sleeping bag liner to increase the rating of your bag for that time.

Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Xlite – Small (8oz)

I used the NoeAir Xlite small version the entire length of the AT and PCT.  Admittedly, I’m a pretty wimpy sleeper, and cannot sleep well on foam pads.  I need an air pad to comfortably sleep at night.  This is the lightest option out there, at 8oz for the small.  It reaches from the top of my head to my knee’s (I’m 5’7″).  The air mattress helps keep me warm as well, adding to my temperature at night with a 20 degree bag.  I couple this with the Gossamer Gear 1/8th inch thinlight insulated foam pad (which doubles as a frame/padding on the Kumo backpack at 2.5oz) for my sleeping pads. One thing to not about this pad is that it is slightly loud and crinkly, and needs to have protection under it in order not to pop it.  However, I went the entire two trails without having even a leak out of this mattress (save for the time the bear popped it with its claws, which I was able to repair in the field, and used it for another 1k miles). This system worked GREAT for me, and I will use the same system on the CDT.

Misc. other gear

Tyvek ground sheet – I used this every day on the PCT.  I cut it large enough to fit just my sleeping pads and myself, roughly 5’10” by 2’8″.  This provided protection for my air mattress, and protection from wet ground.  You can find Tyvek at most construction sites, or at Menards/home depot. For the CDT, I plan to upgrade to Gossamer Gear’s Polycro Ground Cloth.  It’s a bit less durable, but its weight is only 1.6oz.  I may cut out a small peice of Tyvek to couple with it that I would put under only my sleeping pad.

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Leki Carbonlite Aergon XL Carbon Poles – (14.3oz)  – These are the Cadillac of hiking poles.  Super light, with a camera mount function.  I much prefer backpacking with Poles, especially on a cruiser such as the PCT. It keeps my arms active, and takes a bit of the weight and pressure off of my knees and legs.  Additionally, the poles helped set up my tarp if there were no trees around.  I had to do this a handful of times on the PCT.

Leki Carbon Lite Trekking poles.

Leki Carbon Lite Trekking poles & Ray Way Backpack

I hike faster with poles :)

I hike faster with poles 🙂

Stove – I went stoveless for roughly half of the trail. I preferred this to having a stove, as I didn’t have to carry anything extra, and there was no clean up necessary.  however, when I had a stove, I had a .6L Evernew pot (3.4oz), an alcohol stove, and a wind screen.  This combo worked well, but I would recommend that you practice it before you go out.  There are several options you can go with, but alcohol worked best for me.

Water treatment – I used Aquarmira on the AT.  I did not treat my water on the PCT.  However, unless you know you do not react to Giardia (I knew this going into the PCT) I would not go this route.  Several of my friends that I hiked with got Giardia and got very very sick.  I was drinking the same water, and not filtering (they were all filtering) and I was fine.  This is a personal thing, but I would err on the side of caution.

Fanny Pack – 0.8oz

I loved my fanny pack!  My weight was light enough that I did not use hip belts on my backpacks.  But I got so jealous of all my friends who had hip belt pockets, holding snacks and the like.  The solution was obvious – Get a hip fanny pack!  I held my camera, phone, wallet, batter charger, and various snacks in this at all times.  It was also super handy to have in town.  Plus, the ladies totally loved it.  Don’t think twice about this purchase.  I give it 10 stars 😉

I practically had to fight all of the flocking ladies away when I donned this fanny pack!

I practically had to fight all of the flocking ladies away when I donned this fanny pack!

Brooks Cascadia Trail Runners – 6 pairs – I loved the Brooks Cascadias.  They’re a bit narrow, so if you have wider feet, look at the Altra Lone Peaks.  I would say 80% of PCT hikers used one of the two pairs listed above.  I’ve used both, and really like them. Both last roughly 700 miles before they start giving out (in my experience). I saw Sheriff Woody put 1,700 miles on a Pair of Cascadia 8’s (not recommended).  Others wore through them in 500 or less miles.  It all depends on the person.

Sony RX100 – This camera is amazing.  It takes great videos and pictures.  It’s a luxury item, as my iPhone 5 takes very nice photo’s, but it’s one I’ll gladly carry.  I love taking photos, and this camera was able to get great shots and has way more depth/clarity than any camera phone.  I would shy away from getting a generic point and shoot, as camera phones have drastically caught up to these, so the added benefit doesn’t justify the weight.  This camera, however, is closer to a DSLR, and allowed me much more shooting ranges.  The battery life was unreal, as well, and it can be charged via USB.  That’s awesome.  A beer cozy worked well for the case 🙂

Suntactics sCharger-5 USB Solar Charger – 8oz. From my research, and what I saw others using on the trail, this is the best solar charger for backpacking when taking into account weight/power ratio.  I used this from Mexico into Northern California on the PCT, and it worked wonderfully.  When fully exposed to the sun, it would charge my iPhone 5 in one to two hours.  You can easily strap it on to your pack to have your phone charging as you walk!  Perfect for sunny places.

External Battery Pack to charge phone and iPod – I used an external battery pack (15000mAh capacity) that weighed in at 11oz.  To be able to blog on the trail, you need more than just your batteries capacity.  The 15000mAh would charge my iPhone 5 from 0 to 100% approximately 7-8 times.  That’s a lot!  A luxury item, but if you plan on blogging every day, it’s a must.

Casio Multifunctional Watch – With Altimeter.  The best function of this watch was its altimeter.  If you bring maps with you (I used Half Miles Maps, printed, for the PCT), it is extremely helpful to know your relative altitude.  Additionally, if I knew I had a 3k foot climb coming up, I could check my altimeter right as we began climbing, and could always give an accurate account of how far into the climb we were.  This was very helpful, and I loved checking it to see what we were doing.  Additionally, it obviously kept time, and has a stop watch function, and alarm.  For only $60, this is the best watch out there price wise.

iPhone 5 – Everyone know this.  It’s a great little phone, has a decent camera for photo’s on the go, and can store apps.  The apps I found most helpful were Halfmile’s PCT app (this was so clutch!), and the podcast app.  I listened to a lot of podcasts!

iPod Nano – Arguably one of my favorite items.  It’s tiny (1oz), has a 16gb capacity, plays music for 30hours on one small battery charge, has radio capability, and bluetooth capability.  Plus it’s relatively cheap at $150, all things considering.  I’m so glad I had this!

iPod Nano.  It's tiny. 1oz

iPod Nano. It’s tiny. 1oz

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That covers most of the basics.  The remaining items are are clothing. Here, I will list my favorite items with little description.

Patagonia R1 – Best thermal top.  Breathes well, fits tight, keeps you warm when wanted, and isn’t too hot to hike in.  Perfect to wear to bed for extra warmth.  Has a hood (a must, in my opinion). Perfect layering item. Unfortunately its super expensive, but just one of mine will last me the entire triple crown, so it’s a good investment! Plus, it comes in wild colors.  I like wild colors.

Patagonia R1 hoody in orange.  Kumo backpack, fanny pack, cascadias, Leki Carbonlite Poles

Patagonia R1 hoody in orange. Kumo backpack, fanny pack, cascadias, Leki Carbonlite Poles

Golite Down Jacket – Golite is out of business.  It’s too bad, because this down jacket, at 13oz, was so boss.  Warm, good layring.  I would recommend a down coat for the Desert, Sierras, and anytmie you’re hiking the AT past October.

Darn Tough Socks.  These are the best socks, period.  They last the longest, and if they get holes in them, the company will replace them, no questions asked.  Most gear stores along the trail carry Darn Tough socks, and will replace them in store if you have a pair that has holes.  If they don’t, I wouldn’t buy anything from that store, as they’re supposed to swap them out!

Icebreaker wool T-shirts – I loved my wool t-shirts from icebreaker.  Wool is my favorite fabric, especially next to skin.  It is odor proof (at least much more so than any other fabric), it dries quickly, and keeps you warmer than other fabrics when wet.  That’s a lot of positives.  On the negative, they’re super expensive, but I wait until I find deals on them and snatch them up at 40% off or more.  Then they’re only very expensive.  They do, however, wear out on your back due to backpack rubbing.  I called Icebreaker about this, and they replaced my shirt no questions asked.  The customer service was great, and will keep me coming back!

Zpacks fleece hat – If you have a big head, this hat is the one for you.  I tried many hats, and of them all, this was my favorite!  Warm, covers my ears fully, light (1oz).

Frogg Toggs Rain Jacket & Frogg Toggs Poncho – I used a rain jacket for Washington and a lot of the AT.  But it ripped very easily, and wore out.  I got the poncho on the Southern half of the AT, and it worked great.  They’re extremely cheap, and keep you dry, but the durability leaves a lot to be desired.  For the CDT, I have upgraded to the OR Helium Jacket.  I’m excited to see how that works.  I just can’t afford to have my rain jacket ripping on every sharp branch I come across. Of the two Frogg Toggs I used, I prefered the Poncho.  It covered all of myself and my pack on the AT.  Though on the PCT, I think it would be too windy for it to work as well as it did on the AT.

Coolest hobbits on the AT.

Coolest hobbits on the AT.

Poncho covering the backpack.  Scudz knows whatsup!

Poncho covering the backpack. Scudz knows whatsup!

Other notes – I preferred short running shorts and a running tank top.  Especially when it was hot.  If it were socially acceptable to be naked, I would have hiked that way most every day.  But its not, and short shorts/tank top are the next best thing on a nice sunny day!  Grab a hat that has a big brim/bill so that it shades your face fully.  Big sunglasses are awesome as well, as they’ll help shade your face.  Growing a beard also helps keep the sun from burning your face. Dirty Girl gaiters are awesome at keeping small rocks and sticks out of your shoes, and were very helpful in the desert.

Please let me know if you have any questions, as I love talking gear!  Remember that all choices are personal, and that what worked well for me may not work well for you.  Cheers! – Twinkle