It’s been over two weeks now since I finished my JMT hike, so a gear review is long overdue. Let’s see what did and didn’t work. Here we go!
I’ll go over each category of items one by one. Remember that I was trying to pack as lightweight as possible, so some “comfort” items that you might expect to see, might not have made the cut. The goal was to get my base pack weight (backpack + everything in it, but without food and water or the clothes you are wearing) to about 5 kg. I just missed the mark with around 6 kg, guess I’ll have to try harder next time :).
Prepare for a huge wall of text! I had to split up the post because there was just so much text that the Android app I was using to write all this couldn’t handle it. Also, not too many pictures, because at least one person wants to read this post, so I don’t want to spend a day or two making nice pictures of every last item I took with me.
Note: I bought all of these items with my own money, no sponsoring or anything.
Pack & bags
ZPacks Arc Zip 62 l
This backpack weights in at only 630 g, which makes it the lightest of its kind by quite a stretch. One of its fantastic features is the zipper which runs all the way up and down the pack, so you fold it open all the way. It’s made to order to your exact size and specifications by the super friendly and responsive people at ZPacks. Because of that, it costs a little more than most commercial packs, around 315€.
In order to achieve the super low weight, it’s made out of cuben fiber. Cuben is really strong when you pull on it, but very weak against piercing and abrasion, so the pack’s durability is much lower than that of packs made from conventional materials. ZPacks uses a cuben laminated with a very thin layer of polyester to give the pack at least a little more durability.
Because I knew the pack wasn’t super durable, I did my best to handle it gently. Still, after a couple of days a pair of tiny holes appeared on the front of the pack, due to it leaning against sharp rocks while in camp. But here’s the awesome thing: cuben is super easy to repair. Instead of having to stitch up the holes, you can simply put some cuben tape on the damaged area and done! The taped area will be stronger than the original material. This makes it super easy to repair small defects while on the trail. All you have to do is carry a little cuben tape which doesn’t weigh more than a handful of grams. For me, the ability to make repairs super easily actually makes this fabric more desirable for most backpacking items.
The design of the pack is fantastic. Every little detail has been very well thought out. For example, it’s super easy to pull your water bottles from the side pockets without having to stop hiking and putting them back in is just as easily done while on the go. Another really nice thing is that the pack is inherently completely waterproof. No need for pack liners or covers.
Despite the thin straps and light padding on the hip belt, the pack is also really comfortable. No doubt that is partly due to it being made exactly to fit you. I did have some shoulder pain, but after tweaking the length of the various straps (and eating so the pack’s weight diminished) that went away.
I’d buy thing again in a heartbeat (but hopefully it will last me a long time). Highly recommended!
Sea To Summit UltraSil compression bag
I got one of these for my quilt and it works quite nicely. The problem however is that the more you compress the bag and whatever’s inside, the “fatter” it becomes (i.e. a shorter but wider cylinder). For me, that didn’t really work very well, because the quilt was at the bottom of my pack, below the bear cannister. If I compressed it too much, it didn’t fill up the bottom section nicely anymore. Also, it’s not waterproof which would be nice for such a critical item as the quilt. Also, at 86 g for the 20 liter version, it’s pretty heavy (that’s more than 10% of what my quilt weights).
So, while this is well made and all, it didn’t really work for me and I left it in the car. If only there was a rectangular waterproof bag made to exactly fit my backpack.
ZPack large rectangular dry bag
Well, guess what :). I had ordered two of these bags when I ordered my backpack, but had dismissed them in favor of the Sea to Summit compression bag, since that one was much easier to compress the quilt with.
In the end though, I decided to use one of these to put my quilt in. It took a little getting used to, but now I can compress my quilt quite small in this bag. You just push really hard, then close it off and roll it up, so no air can enter.
Because it’s made out of cuben, it is rather light (34 g) and completely waterproof, since all seams are taped instead of stitched. And best of all, it fits my pack perfectly, so the compressed quilt takes up all the space at the bottom of the pack.
DIY No-see-um Mesh bags
I made a handful of mesh bags out of 0.7 oz/yd² no-see-um mesh. I had left over. These things weight next to nothing (about 3 g for a 9 liter one, including cord and cord lock). The mesh is really lightweight, so I was worried it would break, but it has proven itself amazingly robust.
I used three: for my clothes, toiletries and electronics. Really convenient, because you can see what you’re grabbing, no need to take everything out of the bag to find something small.
Sea to Summit UltraSil bag
These bags are made out of the same waterproof material as the compression bag I discussed earlier. It’s waterproof, though the bags are not, because they have a cinch closure, not a roll top.
I used a 9 liter one to put my clothes in. Kind of redundant, since they were already in the mesh bag. There were two reasons I had for doing this. First, I wanted to be able to store a bunch of wet clothes away from my dry ones. Second, this was my pillow at night and the fabric would prevent the clothes from getting wet in case I drooled while sleeping. Thinking back on this, it’s pretty silly, a little drool wasn’t going to hurt the clothes :).
The bag is very lightweight, so taking it with me didn’t noticeably impact the pack weight, but I’ll probably leave it at home next time.
DIY SilNylon roll top dry bag
Just before leaving on my trip, I made a dry bag for my first aid kit and toiletries. I did forget to measure and weight it, so no clue about that. The only thing I know for sure is that no water is going to get inside this sack once it’s rolled up and closed. If you don’t push the air out first it just becomes a big balloon and no amount of pushing gets rid of the air. Seems good :)!
The silnylon, which I got from ExtremTextil.de, has the highest water resistance rating I’ve seen for this kind of fabric, so that’s really nice. The top closes with a very thin strip of velcro which runs the whole width of the bag. The plastic buckles I got from a Chinese vendor on eBay and are about half the size of buckles sold elsewhere. I believe I found them by using the search term “buckles 5mm”.
Saucony Peregrine 4 trail runners
Hiking boots are a thing of the past on trails such as the JMT. Only a handful of hikers still wear them. There’s quite a few reasons for this.
First of all you don’t need high boots for ankle support, just hike a little and your ankles will get plenty strong. Second, hiking boots are waterproof. That’s very nice when you are just hiking in the rain, but if you’re on the JMT or PCT where you sometimes have to wade through rivers your shoes are going to get wet inside no matter how much GoreTex they have got on them. Good luck getting them dry again. Third, and this is the big one, each kilogram on your feet equals five kilograms on your back. Feel free to search for the scientific papers, they are not that hard to find. Switch from heavy boots to lightweight trail runners and you’ll have just done the equivalent of dumping 5-10 kg from your pack!
On to the actual shoes :). I’ve never owned any other trail runners, so I don’t really have a point if reference, but these were really nice. They are great for hiking rocky trails, because there’s a hard nylon shell in both the sole and the heel, so no rocks can penetrate through.
The rubber and thread on the soles is really good. Even on wet rock they had a pretty good grip. I wasn’t worried about slipping at all jumping from rock to rock.
The mesh on top is very breathable, which makes them dry really quick. I didn’t really care whether they got wet on the trail, because I knew they would be dry about 30 minutes later.
The mesh is also the shoe’s weak point though. After hiking those 340 km, the mesh at the front of both shoes had almost completely worn on both sides due to rubbing against rocks. Hiking in Emigrant Wilderness finished them off and I had to go buy new and improved Peregrine 5 afterwards.
They are also quite lightweight, at about 310 g/shoe. There are definitely lighter shoes out there, but they sacrifice things such as durability and protection (i.e. the nylon shell). If you want to go even lighter, check out Inov-8. They have some shoes that weigh about 195 g/shoe. No telling how long they will last on a rocky trail though.
Yankz! elastic laces
This might be the best 80 cent I ever spend. Normally these things are about 8€, but REI had one pair left at a huge discount. Score!
They are basically elastic replacements for your shoe laces. I loved not having to tie and untie my shoes. It was pretty easy to get these things dailed in so that they weren’t tight at all, but still held my feet perfectly secure in the shoes.
Not sure if I would want to spend 8€ on something simple as this though. You can definitely make some out of elastics and a couple of clever knots. But then you’d have to go and find appropriate elastics, so…
SuperFeet Green insoles
Having seen tons of people recommend these specific insoles for long hikes, I decided to bite the bullet and spend 45€ on them. Before that, I wore my shoes for 3 months with the factory insoles.
They definitely provide much more supporting than the factory insoles that come with the Peregrines, especially for your arches. However, not having done any long hikes with the factory ones, it’s hard to say just how much better these are. I guess they are not worse :).
One drawback is that the heel end is quite sharp. Not any part that your foot is in contact with, but the part that is pressed against the shoe’s inner liner. So sharp in fact, that both inner mesh liners were cut through by these insoles. That was really annoying when not wearing gaiters, because little pebbles would get trapped somewhere behind the liner, making them really bothersome to get rid of. Luckily wearing gaiters fixed all that.
So, recommended? I don’t know. It would be nice if they didn’t destroy the shoe’s liner. Anyway, go hike a long trail with and without them and let me know the results ;).
Dirty Girl gaiters
Ubiquitous on the trail, these things are worth their weight in gold. That said, they are super light :). I don’t think a single pebble managed to find its way into my shoes while I was wearing these.
And they come in such funky patterns, you’ll get a ton of compliments on the trail for your awesome fashion sense. You might think I’m kidding, but no!
I’d say these are definitely a must buy if you are going to do any hiking on rocky trails. Alternatively, you could make your own. I tried but sewing elastics into stretchy lycra drove me nuts. Would be much cheaper though. If you do decide to buy them, I recommend getting them in the US, where they are about half the cost you’d pay in Europe.
Prana Stretch Zion Convertible pants
I don’t think I’ve ever spend 70€ on pants before, but these were definitely worth it. They are your “typical” zip-off hiker pants, but it’s the little details that really set them apart.
First of all, they are a little stretchy, which makes them super comfortable. That also makes it really easy to take off and put on the lower pants legs without having to take off your shoes.
The pockets are really big, all 6 of then can easily hold my cell phone with room to spare. In fact, the top front pockets can hold my Kindle without any risk of it falling out.
The lower side pockets can be opened from both the top and sides and have a special anti-theft zipper pull that won’t move unless you grip it in a certain way. If you’re wearing the pants, that’s not a problem, but I can imagine a pickpocket having a harder time. Of course, this doesn’t matter if you’re hiking, but I found it a nice little touch during the rest of my trip.
There’s also little ventilation holes in the upper thigh section, also nice when it’s warm out.
And finally, they are really durable. I’ve been wearing them every day for 5 months and only one line of (non-crucial) stitching on one of the side pockets is starting to unravel just now. This is after climbing in them on limestone in Thailand for two weeks and climbing rough Yosemite granite for another two weeks.
The drawback? Good luck finding them in Europe. I must have emailed at least 10 stores all over Europe, as well as the Prana directly and none of them were able to sell me any. In the end, my stepbrother brought them back for me from the US. Thanks, Hans ;).
ExOfficio boxer briefs
Another item of clothing I never spend any money on until this trip (I think I’m starting to notice a trend). This company’s slogan is: “17 Countries. 6 Weeks. And one pair of underwear. Okay, maybe two.”
That kind of sums it up. These things are great. They are really comfortsble. They don’t chafe. They sure as hell smell a lot less than cotton underwear. They are really durable. And they are made from some sort of mesh, so super easy to wash in the sink and dry afterwards. That also makes them great as swimming trunks, they’ll be dry less than half an hour after you get out of the water.
I don’t think anything else needs to be said here. Great investment! Again, might be tricky to find these in Europe, I’m not sure. Thanks, Ruan and Hans :).
Drymax Thin Cushion running socks
These socks are supposed to keep your feet dry when you’re sweating heavily. As far as I could notice, they live up to their expectations. They are also really comfortable. And they’re lightweight, since they only come up to your ankle (hey, if you can save some grams at no inconvenience…).
I only used these on the JMT, for about half the time, and did notice that the heel section seems to be wearing through quite a bit. Therefore, considering they cost 13€, I can’t quite recommend them.
Darn Tough hiking socks
If you are to believe internet reviews these socks are indestructible. And then there’s the name of course.
They are made from a mix of merino wool and other fabrics. They are still going to smell pretty bad after hiking 25 miles in them though, trust me.
I got the light cushioning version in a “regular” length from an REI. It was only after my hike that I found the socks I actually wanted (no cushioning, ankle height) at the same REI in the biking (?!) section. They were 16€ for the pair, read on why that’s a much better deal than the 13€ Drymax ones.
They are comfortable, like most socks I guess. They also seemed to be rather durable, up to to the point where I discovered five days of use had somehow given rise to a hole just above my ankle. I didn’t have a wound from a rock there, so no idea what happened.
Best thing though: they have a no questions asked lifetime warranty. I don’t really see the point of buying anything else. Buy one pair and if you manage to somehow break it, just get a free new pair. That’s what I did :).
So, even though they don’t seem to be indestructible, they do seem rather sturdy. And it seems silly to me to buy another brand that doesn’t give you such a great warranty. Would definitely buy they again (in fact, I did and got a second pair).
Decathlon Speed Zip Merino short-sleeve shirt
At about 1/3rd the cost of a merino wool shirt from a name brand, this was a no-brainer. I think it cost around 30€.
After wearing it for many months (incl. all the climbing), the only damage was a small hole on the shoulder, which was easy to fix.
This thing makes for a great base layer. It also dries quite quickly and doesn’t smell terribly bad, even after wearing it for a couple of days for 24h on the JMT, sweating like crazy and not washing it. That’s not my opinion btw, that’s what one of my rides told me without me explicitly asking about it. But maybe I just smell sexy ;).
Another great aspect of merino wool is it’s inherent sunblock ability. I believe it’s somewhere around UPF30. Great if you are hiking under a bright sun all day.
So, jup, go buy it.
Decathlon Techwool 150 ML long-sleeve shirt
Same as the one above, but with long sleeves. This was my sweater and combined with the short-sleeved one was quite warm.
I also preferred it over the short-sleeve shirt most days in India and Australia, the sun “blocking” was quite nice.
Yes, you should also get this one.
Outdoor Research cap
It’s a cap, it goes on your head. This one has a nice strap-like closure system. I’m sure you have a cap somewhere.
Actually, you might want to grab a version with an attached piece of fabric that drapes over your neck to block the sun. Those look really geeky, but they seem pretty great as well.
Whatever you decide, bring some sort of cap. It works great to keep hair and sweat out of your eyes.
Well, it’s a beanie with a fleece inside and it kept me warm. So, great? Actually, I was trying to find a microfleece beanie, which would have shaved about 30 gram off the total weight (30 gram, crazyness!), but couldn’t find any that comfortably covered my ears.
I’m sure you already have a hat of some sort. No need to go out and buy one, unless it’s not windproof or you want to shave that last bit of weight from your pack.
Gore AIR thin running gloves
I had these lying around and figured I might as well take them, they weigh only 37 g for the pair anyway.
I’m sure I would have survived without, but there were at least 2 evenings/nights were being able to wear this thin extra layer made was really nice.
Must have? I don’t know, I guess it can’t hurt. Worst case, you’re hauling around an extra 37 gram. Best case, your fingers don’t freeze off.
Decathlon Quecha Inuit XLight down jacket
Priced at 55€ and weighing about 300g, this was another no brainer. Similar name brand jackets go for about two to three times the price. I’m sure some of them contain much higher fill power down though. It was more or less impossible to find out what kind of down is in this jacket, probably only 550 or 650 FP.
A puffy like this is a core item, providing a lot of warmth for very little weight. Despite the lower quality down, this one kept me warm when needed. Definitely an amazing item for that price!
You might remember that I did spend one cold night due to a wet puffy. Now, I would have had that problem with any down puffy, but a synthetic one like the Patagonia NanoPuff might have been quite a bit warmer under similar conditions.
Do you need one? Yeah, you need a puffy. The real question is whether you want a down or a synthetic one. The down ones will be warmer for the same weight, but the synthetic ones don’t completely lose their insulating properties when they get wet. Also, down compresses better than synhetics. Up to you! I would get one with a hood. Ideally I would probably prefer the NanoPuff, but would buy this one again for the amazing value.
Haglöfs Tilta rain jacket
This jacket was on sale for -70% and is made from GoreTex Active. That’s a 3 layer GoreTex which should hold up really well to the abuse of being compressed by and shifting around underneath should straps. Also, it’s very water resistant, so shouldn’t leak through.
The drawback is that it’s rather heavy at 390 gram. With the kind of weather I experienced a less durable and lighter jacket would have worked just as well.
Also, Haglöfs is a really expensive brand, so I would never have bought this jacket at its >350€ retail price. Of course, it is really high quality gear. At the price I got it for though it was equally or less expensive than the alternatives.
No surprise, it worked exactly as it should have on the trail, keeping me from getting wet. Your rain jacket also functions as a wind jacket on the trail, I don’t see the point of bringing a “specialized” wind jacket. The wind was never really that bad for me though, so I didn’t have to use it for that purpose.
I probably wouldn’t buy this jacket again and go for a lighter, less durable one, e.g. the Marmot Precip. There were a couple of really light Haglöfs ones as well, maybe next time. Anyway, the advantage of going lightweight is that the pack exerts a lot less pressure on your shoulders than an old school pack, so there should be less of a problem wearing a flimsier jacket. And they seem to work for all those other JMTers and PCTers. So get a lighter one :).
If you want to go for the absolute lightest thing, get a Driducks rain suit. It seems to be made from the same kind of fabric as Tyvek, so it won’t stand up to a lot of abuse and might leak through in heavy rain. On the upside, it will weight a fraction of the jacket I brought and it’s really cheap (I believe around 50€ for both jacket and pants).
Neoprene waterproof gloves
I’m talking about thin latex-like gloves here, not the diving suit kind of stuff.
Super cheap, very durable, really lightweight and 100% waterproof. I got the idea for these from some hiker blog, but can’t for the life of me remember which one.
Get these in a larger version than what you normally wear, so they fit over your thin warm gloves.
These cost me about 2€ at a DIY store, seemed like a sound investment. You’ll probably find them in the paint section.
Trash bag rain skirt
Get a big, durable trash bag. Cut it open. There you go, rain skirt. It’s even got built-in tightening cords. I got this trick from Cat’s hiking blog.
It didn’t rain quite hard enough for me to try these out, so they might as well not work at all. Really cheap and light though :).
Ziplock gallon freezer bags
Another trick from Cat’s blog: get two big freezer bags for your feet. Then when you get into camp and have very wet shoes and socks, dry off your feet, put them in the bags and then out your socks and shoes back on. Dry feet!
Again, I (luckily) didn’t have the opportunity to try this out. But you can’t really go wrong taking this with you, it weights nothing and you’re going to have to buy freezer bags anyway for food and trash.
Locus Gear CP3 trekking poles
This might not be exactly clothing, but I’m not going to create a special category for this. So there.
As you might have read in one of my JMT blog posts, hiking poles were really invaluable to me for a couple of reasons. Most importantly, they helped me take a lot of stress off my left meniscus which I hurt climbing last year. Without the poles, my knee would start hurting quite a lot after a couple kilometres, with them I didn’t feel a thing. On the uphill stretches, they allowed me to go a lot faster, because I could take so much weight of my legs. And on the downhill stretches they really helped reduce the shock on my knees. They also served to set up my tarp, although I guess I could have gone searching for appropriate branches, but who has time for that? So, trekking poles are pretty invaluable. One guy I met on the trail, Chase, had to quit his hike because his knees were bust. He did not have trekking poles.
I had made my own a set of poles out of extra stiff golf clubs (check eBay for a new 50€ pair if you don’t want to pay >250€ per piece for second hand ones at your local golf shop), Leki pole tips and bike handlebar tape. They were really light too, only 233 gram for the pair! Alas, they were also fixed length and that was going to be a big problem taking them all over the world. It also wouldn’t have been ideal for setting up my tarp, although I do believe I could have made it work.
Either way, the fixed length was kind of a deal breaker, so I decided to get the Locus Gear CP3 poles instead. At 348 gram for the pair they are quite a bit heavier than my DIY ones. There’s two lighter commercially available poles out there that I know of (the 210 g Ruta Locura ones and the 282 g Gossamer Gear ones), but they both use a twistlock system to lock the pole sections together. If reviews are to be believed, that mechanism will break eventually and I didn’t want to deal with carrying tiny replacement parts.
The CP3s on the other hand have a clamping style lock which is, again according to reviews, pretty much indestructible. From what I’ve experienced, that seems to be the case. I really abused these poles, at times I was jumping over rocks and putting my whole weight (incl. the pack) on a single pole, yet they didn’t budge at all. The locks are really easy to open and close when needed and should one of the pole sections start slipping increasing the clamping force is trivial.
The grips are made out of some EVA type foam and very comfortable. They fit my hands really well. Nothing to complain about here.
There was a little problem with the wrist loop adjustment buckles: after a while they would always slip back to the longest length. I can’t quite fault the design though, given how hard I was abusing these poles for almost 12 hours a day this was kind of to be expected. I always put the weight on the poles through the straps using my wrists, not by gripping the handles like crazy, that would have destroyed my hands in short order. Halfway through my hike one of the buckles broke, but I was pretty amazed that it had actually help up that long, again given the fact that I was sometimes putting my full weight on them. A simple knot to tie both ends of the strap together fixed the problem. Actually, it made the poles even more comfortable because now there wasn’t a tiny plastic buckly anymore that could potentially dig into my hands.
The pols themselves show some slight signs of wear, because the whole JMT is strewn with rocks and so they are getting bumped into those non stop. Still, it’s only superficial damage and they look ready to take on at least a few more 1000 kilometers.
The costumer service from Locus Gear was also outstanding. It’s a Japanese cottage industry company and so I expected some delay before getting the poles, but they arrived about 3-4 days after ordering online. They also sell nice looking shaped tarps and some other gear, might be worth checking out. Their shipping costs are extremely economical.
So, I really recommend these poles. They are much lighter than the lightest adjustable poles from e.g. Black Diamond (490 g for the Alpine Carbon Cork) and cheaper as well (150€ vs 105€ including 3-day shipping from Japan).
All right, that was it for this one. Stay tuned for the next gear review/overview post!