Sunday, November 2, 2014

Gear review for the PCT: pack, hydration, kitchen, electronics, etc.

This is the third part in my gear review series from my 2014 PCT hike.  Here, I describe what I liked and disliked about my pack, hydration system, kitchen, electronics, and other misc. gear.  If you just want to go directly to my gear list, that link is here.  I covered my hammock related gear and clothes in separate posts.

My base weight (no food or water, and without counting the clothes I wore) on the PCT was 12-13 pounds.  I get cold easily so I used more insulation and I carry a hammock.

Pack: Gossamer Gear Mariposa Pack  (25 oz w/out pad)                      
I got this pack for free since I am a Gossamer Gear Trail Ambassador.  Overall, this pack fits me well and I like the design.

Pros:  My favorite thing about this pack is that it was extremely comfortable and made the pack feel like an extension of my body.  I also liked that my sit pad could be used as the backpanel and could be easily removed for rest breaks.  Especially after the stress fracture, I must have taken that sit pad out at least a half dozen times every day so I could sit and rest my feet comfortably.  I also loved that I could access the right side pocket without taking off my pack.  That allowed me to take out (or stow away) my umbrella, gloves, and buff as I hiked.  The mesh pocket was great for storing damp items like water containers and a ground cloth.  It was also large enough to carry 7 L of water and 6 days of food in SoCal or a bear canister (vertically) in the Sierra.  

Cons: I had a problem with the straps on this pack.  Over time, the shoulder strap rubbed against the hip belt pocket, and eventually made the pocket zipper break.  I told Gossamer Gear and they eventually sent me a new, modified hip belt which was great because it fixed the problem that I was having.  But getting the new belt took months which was frustrating.  Gossamer Gear is working to improve their customer service, so hopefully this sort of thing won't be a problem in the future.
Gossamer Gear Mariposa.
Pack Liner: Trash compactor bag (1 oz)
Simple, effective, and inexpensive.  I always keep my quilt, hammock, sleeping clothes, and puffy jacket in it so they wouldn’t get wet when my water containers leaked.

Hydration system
I switched between the sawyer mini filter and aquamira.  I used the sawyer filter in SoCal but I hated  how long it took to filter water.  So I switched to aquamira for simplicity in the Sierra.  After the stress fracture when I was hiking alone, I ended up carrying both the sawyer mini and aquamira.  I felt better having a backup system when there was no one else around, and I also liked that I could use the aquamira if I didn't want to stop, and I had the option of tanking up at water sources with the sawyer before the longer water carries.
Sawyer mini.
For SoCal, I had 9 liters capacity for water, though the maximum I ever ended up carrying was 7 L.  I had a mix of shapes and sizes of collapsible bottles so that they fit into my pack and served various functions.  I liked being able to sip my water from a platypus.  I had two 3-L platypus hosers that I switch out.  I also had a 1 L platypus collapsible container for drink mixes.  The 1 L size fit perfectly on my side pocket so I could reach it without taking off my pack.  In addition, I had a 2 L “dirty water only” platypus, which is what I used to collect water.   After SoCal, I tossed one of the 3 L platypus containers.

Kitchen: Stoveless
I’ve been stoveless for several years, and it really suits my hiking style.  I always had a meal rehydrating in cold water in my pack, so when I got hungry I could eat whenever I wanted.  It made things easy in SoCal where water sources were spread out- I would filter water directly into my meals at water sources so I didn’t even have to plan how much water I’d need for meals.  Super easy.

In the Sierra, I was worried I might be cold due to not having hot food.  But being cold for me was due to not enough calories or having cold, wet feet, not the temperature of my food.  On cold nights, I’d have spoonfuls of peanut butter before bed.

I ate everything out of plastic bags.  No bowl, plate, or cup.  I preferred ziplock brand pint sized freezer bags.  Lighterweight or cheaper bags leaked more often.  I always double bagged the food I was rehydrating. 
Cold lunch and boiling hot fumerole, Lassen Volcanic National Park.
Spoon:  Sea to summit alpha light longhandled spoon (0.5 oz)            
I love this spoon.  The long handle allows you to reach into quart sized ziplocks instead of pint sized which trust me you will have to resort to at some point.  The squarish shape allows you to really scrape the sides of the bags or jars.  A metal spoon doesn’t break like plastic.

Food bag: Sea to summit, ultrasil stuff sack (1 oz) 
Light, durable.  This is not waterproof, but it dries quickly.

Opsack Odor proof bags
I stored my food in Opsack odor proof bags.  I still don’t know if it mattered because I typically camped in lesser used campsites, or where no one had ever camped before.  I usually hung my food at night too though.  I never had critters get into my food.

Bear bag rope: Kelty Triptease
Most PCT hikers sleep with their food.  I hung mine in trees with rope.  It is reflective, which really helps for finding it in the morning because I'd usually be up well before dawn.

Skin care (soap, sunscreen, foot care, toilet bag, pee rag)

Soap: Dr. Bonner’s peppermint soap repackaged in a Mini-dropper bottle
I used a drop of Dr. Bonners in a ziplock bag for washing.   I washed my socks frequently, and found adding a little soap really helped when they got really gross.  I used a drop of soap in a plastic bag of water to wash my hands (if water was available) after I pooped.  I always make an effort to disperse the soap as far as possible from water sources, and I only used a tiny amount of soap.  Even though it is biodegradable, that doesn’t mean it isn’t harmful to aquatic environments.

Sunscreen: Neutrogena SPF 70 (2-3 oz)
I burn easily, so I had to frequently apply sunscreen.  I carried a 3 oz bottle of sunscreen, because I used it so quickly especially crossing over all the snow in the Sierra.  At first I was pissed off that some other people didn’t use any sunscreen, but then I thought about how many times my dad has had to get the skin cancer removed from his face and I hope these extra efforts spare me from all that in the future.

I used various brands of sunscreen but these were my two favorites: Neutrogena ultimate sport 70+ and Neutrogena ultrasheer liquid 70+  They didn’t feel as slimy or have terribly offensive odors. 

Foot care bag  (duct tape, sports tape, anti-friction cream, moisturizing lotion, knife)
I took out my foot care bag at every rest stop and used it in the morning and at night before I went to bed.  I used a baby wipe to get the dirt and sand off.  I massaged my feet with anti-friction cream (trail toes) during the day, and then with moisturizing lotion at night.  The scissors on my Swiss army knife classic SD (0.8 oz) worked great for trimming toenails, and I kept it in my foot care bag because that’s where I used it most often.  Duct tape and sports tape were used to tape up blisters.

Toilet bag  (ziplock with pre-cut paper towels, pack of baby wipes)  (1 oz)
I prefer paper towels as toilet paper- they hold up better.  I used natural material first (i.e. sticks, smooth rocks, certain leaves, snow), and buried them deep in the hole with the poop.  Then I polished off with a small amount of paper town and a baby wipe (if needed).  I always packed out used TP, baby wipes, and tampons- double bagged in ziplocks.  Then, I wiped my hands with a baby wipe and washed them with soap and water if possible.  Regular hand washing helps prevent GI problems!

Bandana: pee rag w/ snap (0.8 oz)
A pee rag may sound gross at first, but let me tell you what’s gross: finding toilet paper along the trail.  My pee rag is a cotton bandana with a snap on one corner.  The snap allows the bandana to be attached to the shock cord on my pack (for easy deployment without taking off the pack) or to my hammock ridgeline in camp.  You want a snap because the PCT is windy.  You don’t want your pee rag getting blow off your pack because then someone might pick it up and give it back to you and then how awkward is that going to be?!?

The UV light from the sun kills any bacteria that may be on your pee rag.  I also rinsed out my pee rag using my ziplock bag washing machine and scattering the dirty water far from water sources.
Pee rag attached to pack via snap and shock cord.
Thoughts about technology on the trail:  When I was planning my hike, I had mixed feelings about using my iphone while on the trail.  But on the trail I naturally found a good balance.  I wasn't overly distracted by social media or email because the trail was so absorbing and fulfilling.  I usually didn’t even want to make phone calls unless I was in town.  Disconnecting helped me focus on being in the moment, rather than checking my email or facebook ever few seconds as a way to escape like I do when I'm off-trail.  But I also really liked keeping a blog and being connected with friends and family with my posts.

Thoughts about not carrying a camera: I did send home my camera and just used my iphone to take photos.  I carried a camera the first 500 miles but I didn't like having to take time in town to find wifi to transfer my photos to my iphone and charging the camera battery was a pain.  I was much happier with photos that I could share instantly from my phone. After the stress fracture, I got more interested in photography, but I found that I could still take adequate photos on the iphone when I put more effort and thought into lighting and composition.

Phone: iphone 5S with AT and T (4 oz)
I used my phone as GPS unit, camera, computer, ipod, kindle, and (rarely) a phone.  It was easier to have one unit do everything rather than have to fiddle with multiple devices.  Fewer cords, easier to get everything charged in town.

I was glad I took my friend Pathfinder’s advice and waited (and saved) to get a new phone right before my hike.  I like iphones but that's probably because they are all I've ever used.  I should have gotten more memory so I could store more photos because 16 GB filled up quick.

Phone case: Lifeproof fre (1 oz)
Waterproof.  Lightweight. Expensive but totally worth it.

Phone battery: itorch 5200mah  (4.4 oz)
Charging my phone on the trail with an external battery was easy and didn't require any fiddling like a solar charger does.  This size was more than enough for me, but I tended to use my phone less than others.

Satellite GPS messenger: SPOT Gen2  (4 oz including 3 AAA batteries). 
Pros:  I felt that it was the responsible thing to do to carry this in case of emergency, especially for when I went off bushwhacking to find a hang site.  My family and friends felt better when they received my “OK” messages.

Cons:  It doesn’t allow you to receive messages and you have no way of knowing if your message got sent.  It also doesn’t do text messages like the inreach.  You have to get to an open space without tree cover to improve the chance that the message will go through, and often times it didn't.
Watching the sunset and sending my evening "OK" message using my bright orange SPOT.
Headlamp: Petzl Zipka plus (2.5 oz  including 3 AAA batteries)
I debated whether to carry this or my lighterweight but dimmer eLite.  In the end, I was glad I used this one because I ended up nighthiking a lot.  Also, when I stealth camped in my hammock I was often far away from the trail, so I’d be starting my day bushwhacking in the pitch dark.  

Pros: This headlamp didn’t turn itself on in my pack like other headlamps that I tried.  The cord is retractable so it didn’t tangle up.  I used the same set of lithium AAA batteries for 940 miles.  I like that the headlamp uses the same type and number of batteries as my SPOT satellite device so I didn’t carry extra batteries.  I just figured if one ran out, I could use the others until I got to the next town (though that never happened).

Cons: Weight.  There are lighter options available.  Next time I’d check out the lights that run on a single AAA battery.
Bushwhacking by headlamp.
Watch:  Timex expedition indiglo  (1 oz)
A watch is a very helpful tool for backpacking.  It is key for measuring distances/ dead reckoning.  In the Sierra, it was critical for timing the passes to avoid postholing.  And for estimating how fast I needed to hike to get to various stores, restaurants, or the post office before closing.  This watch is simple and durable.  It lights up so I can tell the time in the dark.

Everything else

Notebook + pen: Rite in Rain (1 oz)
I wrote notes as I hiked so I could get the thoughts out of my mind or make notes about names that I’d likely forget.  I typically wrote in my paper notebook during the day, and then typed up my blog entries at night from my notes.  I don’t think the waterproof paper was necessary but this sized notebook fit in my pocket.
Writing in my notebook.
Poles:  Black Diamond Distance FL (15.5 oz)
Loved these poles!  They are very light and they never collapsed, unlike so many other poles I've tried.  They folded down super small when I wasn't using them.

One trick- I put reflective tape on them.  Then I could use them to mark my hammock campsites when I went off to go watch the sunset.  Otherwise, it'd be hard to find my way back to my hammock in the dark.
Reflective tape on my hiking poles.
Halfmile paper maps
I am somewhat old-fashioned in that I used paper maps in addition to the navigation apps on my phone.  I made notes on my maps about potential hammock hang sites and water sources.  It also saved my cell phone batter to not have to always rely on it for navigation, so I could carry a smaller battery charger.  After the stress fracture when I was doing more off-trail exploring and side trails, I was especially glad I had the extra information on side trails and off-trail lakes (for swimming!) contained in the paper maps.  

Wallet (with ID, cash, credit card, PCT permit)
I carry a butterfly wallet (0.3 oz) and preferred it to a plastic bag because it was more durable and easy to carry in town in my pocket.  I did carry more cash than I normally do.  Most places took credit cards.  Only got asked for my PCT permit once, but definitely have one.

Gear used in the Sierra
 It was a low snow year, but I entered the Sierra early, leaving Kennedy Meadows on May 24th.  I encountered lots of snow.  I found the snow terrifying but also totally exhilarating.

I used microspikes in the Sierra, but not an ice ax.  I took a snow course (highly recommended) where I was trained in self-arrest, but I decided not to take an ice ax anyway.  When I crossed over Forester Pass and a few other passes, I was with other people that did have ice axes.
Crossing the chute on Forester Pass in my microspikes.
Traction: Kahtoola microspikes
Pros: I was a fan of the microspikes for the Sierra.  They griped the ice which made me more confident on the traverses.

Cons:  It took extra time when I took them off and put them back on very frequently whenever the terrrain switched from rocks to snow to rocks again.  Eventually I learned from another hiker (Thanks Red!) that you could just leave them on in the rocks and it wouldn’t damage them too much. 

Bear Canister: BV500
Loved my bear canister.  Bear canisters are required in the Sierra, and it made me feel good that I was doing my part to help protect the bears.  This bear canister is inexpensive, and I liked that I could see through the sides to find what I wanted to eat.  Opening the BV500 was fine for me because I used the library card trick.  It wasn’t as horrible to open as it had been in the winter in Georgia when I was practicing carrying it.  I suspect because there was less moisture so it didn't freeze shut. 
Bear canister.
That's it for the gear reviews.  As I said, my clothes and hammock gear were reviewed in other posts, and I discuss apps here.  Let me know if you have any questions or comments!

Disclaimer: I am a Gossamer Gear Trail Ambassador, and I got the Mariposa pack from them for free.  All other gear was purchased by me.


  1. Hahaha, once my pee rag fell off my pack and a guy picked it up and gave it back to me. I just couldn't bring myself to confess what it was. Sorry, dude.

    1. Haha!!! Yep, don't guys know about pee rags and not to touch other people's bandanas?!?! I didn't confess either when it happened to me.

  2. If we ever become dedicated hikers at 90 years of age, we know where to go to get prepared! Right here on your blog!

  3. I found your stoveless way of eating interesting and am trying to learn more about this. Is there anywhere I can look to find suggestions about what types of food to bring, how to prepare it (if needed), etc. I am look for some "how to" info about going stoveless. Thanks in advance.

    1. I learned a lot about going stoveless from Backpacking Light and PCT-L (search the archives) . In addition....

      PMags wrote a great general article:

      Julie Urbanski talks about going stoveless here:

      Section Hiker has this article:

    2. Thanks for the info. Have very much enjoyed your posts!! Gary

  4. I know this post is old, but I'm intrigued by the pee rag. It looks like a topo map (Joshua Tree?) bandana that you attached snaps that right? I'm planning to use a Freshette on long hikes and anywhere there may be a pit toilet, and I love the pee rag idea instead of TP!

    1. Yes, this post is old but I still use most of this gear. Love my pee rag! Yes, it’s a map from Anza-Borrego. But bet Joshua Tree would work too. :)

      The snaps work well attached to a shock cord. With the skirt and some practice, I didn’t even have to take off my pack to pee. Makes things much easier.

    2. Thanks to Amazon, I already have my Joshua Tree bandana! I have some snaps I can attach or perhaps sew on some type of loop. I need to look at my backpack to see what will work best. I tested the Freshette with my pack on and it worked great! I'm so looking forward to staying hydrated and not squatting over pit toilets in Yosemite! I need to look into a hiking skirt and maybe some leggings?