Monday, 5 September 2011
Pacific Northwest Trail Gear Review
This time a year ago I was in the rain in the Cascade Mountains on the Pacific Northwest Trail. In less than a month it'll be the first anniversary of my completion of this marvellous route. I've thought about the walk many times since and it has grown in my mind. I think I appreciate it now more than I did when I finished. It was a privilege to spend a summer hiking through such a varied and beautiful landscape. I'm currently writing a book on the walk - inbetween all my other work so no publication date in view yet. Here I've posted a feature on the gear I used that first appeared in TGO.
The photos show me hiking below Mount Baker in the North Cascades and camping on Bald Mountain in the Pasayten Wilderness.
My 1200 mile Pacific Northwest Trail hike took me from the Rocky Mountains through the dry, hot Purcell, Selkirk and Kettle River ranges to the wet and humid Cascade and Olympic Mountains. The weather is of course one of the main factors equipment has to cope with, the other being the terrain. During the 75 day trip I had to deal with thunderstorms, heatwaves and many days of low cloud and rain. In the first 49 days there was only significant rain on 6 days, and a little drizzle on a few others. In the last 26 days there was rain on 19 days, often heavy. And in those first 49 days the humidity level was usually quite low, with any rain quickly followed by dry, sunny conditions. Every morning I recorded the relative humidity and it only reached 100% eight times in the first period and sometimes dropped as low as 50%. In the last 26 days it was 100% every day bar one – when it was 99.4%. Often I camped and hiked in wet mist even when it wasn’t raining. I learnt later that the weather in September in Washington State, where I spent the whole month, was the wettest for thirty years.
Although it was often very wet during the second half of the walk I usually camped in forests so wind wasn’t a problem. In fact I only had three really windy camps during the whole trip. Whilst this meant the tent didn’t often have to stand up to big winds and I wasn’t kept awake by thrashing nylon it also meant that there was nothing to remove condensation on humid nights.
Temperatures were overall warmer than I expected, especially in September when many frosty nights are usual in the mountains. In fact the temperature only fell below zero twice the whole trip and then only slightly with the lowest temperature being -1.1°C. During the first part of the walk daytime temperatures were often in the 30s C and staying cool and hydrated was the main problem. For the last month the temperatures were twenty degrees and more colder and the rain and high humidity meant it felt chilly much of the time.
The terrain varied enormously from paved roads to pathless dense vegetation. Mostly I was on trails or disused dirt roads, both often overgrown with bushes that often reached shoulder high. When wet these could soak me far faster than any rain. This was nothing, though, to the bushwhacking through dense tangled vegetation, which was some of the toughest walking I’ve ever done. A mile an hour was good progress.
The story of my hike has been told in my backpacking columns, the final one in this issue. Here I’ll describe how my equipment performed.
Pack & Storage
I began the trek with a GoLite Pinnacle, a pack I’d used successfully on several TGO Challenges. And for three weeks it was comfortable and stable and I was happy with it. But then the shoulder straps began to twist in on themselves and became quite uncomfortable. At the same time holes appeared in the fabric and straps and seams started to tear. Concerned that the pack wouldn’t last the rest of the trip and not wanting to carry what was now quite an uncomfortable pack I contacted GoLite who immediately offered to replace it. I still had to nurse it through another ten days until I reached a Post Office and could collect the new pack, a GoLite Quest. Although the capacity is the same at 72 litres the Quest is some 500 grams heavier than the Pinnacle because it has an internal frame and a lid. I didn’t notice the extra weight though. I was just happy to have a comfortable pack. Each pack was used for half the walk and with loads up to 25kg (due to carrying 10 days food, fuel and maps plus several litres of water). The Quest was in fine condition at the end of the walk and I was very pleased with it. I think it’s an excellent lightweight pack for moderate to heavy loads. The Pinnacle has gone back to GoLite for examination. As both packs had just about the same usage in time and conditions, though the Quest had to cope with much more wet weather, I can only think that the Pinnacle was a rogue pack that slipped through quality control.
Both packs had excellent pockets for organising gear. The big rear pockets were good for clothing, especially wet waterproofs. The mesh side pockets held water and fuel bottles and the hipbelt pockets mini binoculars and snacks. The Quest also had a lid pocket, in which I kept small items like GPS/phone, headlamp, lunch food, notebook and knife.
Just before the walk I received some Pod Ultralite Drysacs and Lifeventure Dri-Store bags. Both types are made from waterproof nylon with taped seams and roll tops. Impressed with these I used various sizes for my sleeping bag, spare clothing and other water sensitive items. By squeezing the air out I could reduce the size of packed items more than with a conventional stuffsack. I didn’t use a pack liner and my sleeping bag in a 15 litre Lifeventure Dri-Store was packed at the bottom of the pack every day. In wet weather the outside of the stuffsack was often wet when I made tent but the sleeping bag was always dry inside. These are the best stuffsacks I’ve ever used for keeping gear dry.
I also had three clear Aloksak waterproof bags in different sizes, which I used for maps, notebook and phone. These bags are very flexible so I could easily fold the large one with the map for storage in a shirt pocket.
Wanting a shelter that could be pitched with my trekking poles I took a GoLite Shangri-La 1, which is a simple tapered ridge tent, plus the Shangri-La 1 Nest mesh inner tent. The tent can be pitched with just six pegs but I added four more for the extra guylines I attached. One of these, at the front peak, was very useful as pegging it out tightened the ridgeline for a tauter pitch and also meant I could open the whole front of the tent without it collapsing. The side guys were useful for stability on the rare windy nights and for giving better separation with the mesh inner but I didn’t often use them. The rear guyline wasn’t really needed. Four more pegs were needed to pitch the Nest.
I brought the Nest to keep off the mosquitoes I knew would be a problem early on in the walk and it did this well. Indeed, on some clear warm nights I used the Nest on its own, which gave me a good view of the stars and the landscape whilst keeping off the bugs. Once the mosquitoes faded away, from mid-August onwards, I had intended using the Nest as a groundsheet only. In fact I only did this on a few nights as I found that in wet weather the high waterproof walls of the Nest kept splashes of rain and condensation running down the inner tent walls off my gear as well as stopping it sliding off the groundsheet onto muddy ground.
Overall the Shangri-La 1 combination performed well and I grew to like it very much. It was just the right size for myself and all my gear and in heavy rain there was space to use the stove in the vestibule. It stood up to the few windy nights well and was in good condition at the end of the walk. It’s a great shelter for long solo walks, especially if you use trekking poles.
On most trips I take a bag that I think will just keep me warm in average temperatures and plan on wearing clothes on colder nights. On the PNT I ended up taking a quilt that was much warmer than I needed, as the freezing temperatures I expected in September never materialised. The quilt was a GoLite Ultralite 3-Season, rated to -7°C. I should have taken the 580 gram 1+ Season Quilt, rated to +4°C, and saved 128 grams. Only ever having used a quilt on a couple of nights before the trip taking one was a bit of an experiment. The Ultralite quilt has straps underneath for attaching it to a mat so there are no cold spots at the sides and I found these useful on the few nights where the temperature fell below +5°C. However as most nights were well above freezing I never needed to sleep in clothes and usually just draped the quilt over me. On these mild nights I found the quilt fine and less restrictive than a sleeping bag. In freezing weather I suspect I’d still prefer a sleeping bag that I could cocoon round me though. Also when it was a little chilly I missed being able to easily use the quilt as a garment. With a sleeping bag I pull it up under my armpits and tighten the hood drawcord. Whilst I could wrap the quilt around me when I moved it often slipped to one side, leading to cold spots. That said overall it worked well and I was never cold or uncomfortable. This winter I shall try it in colder conditions.
With a quilt a good insulating mat is needed as there’s no fill underneath you. The new style air beds are the thickest mats and I took one of these, the Pacific Outdoor Equipment Ether Elite 6 2/3. It proved supremely comfortable yet weighed less than most thinner mats and packed up very small as it only has thin strips of insulation inside. In the mostly above freezing night temperatures it was warm enough though I suspect that on snow or frozen ground a warmer mat would be needed as well. My joy in this air bed only lasted 47 days however as on the 47th night it sprang a leak, just as the stormy weather of September began. I woke in the early hours with the hard ground poking into me. Once an air bed like this deflates you’re left lying on two thin strips of nylon with no cushioning and little insulation. I spent a chilly dawn forcing the air bed into the cold waters of appropriately named Frosty Lake in search of bubbles that would reveal the leak. Eventually I wrestled the mat under the surface and spotted the tell-tale signs. The tiny pinhole was along a seam. I covered it with glue from the tiny repair kit supplied with the mat but the next night it still went down, though only slowly. I added more glue and then a patch but the leak continued, spreading, I suspect, along the seam. After 18 days of blowing up the mat every 3 or 4 hours each night I gave up and borrowed an old Therm-A-Rest Ultralite ¾ self-inflating mat, which I used for the last 10 days. This didn’t feel as comfortable as the Ether 6 when lying in the tent but I slept on it just as well. It weighed 480 grams and was slightly bulkier when packed. The Ether has gone back to POE for examination.
At the last minute I also took an OMM Duo Mat to use as a sit mat and under my feet on cold, wet ground in the tent. At 143 grams it added little to my load and having a dry seat was very welcome during wet weather.
Stove, Kitchen & Water
The Caldera Ti-Tri Inferno stove was one of the great successes of the walk as I really enjoyed using it. For the first six weeks of the walk I used wood regularly as there were always tiny dry twigs and wood chips around my camp sites. Having a mini camp fire was fun and also efficient. Water boiled more quickly with wood than meths and I could also control the heat for simmering, something impossible with meths. In wet weather I did use meths, which I was able to buy in every town along the way, as HEET de-icer or rubbing alcohol. The titanium Caldera Cone and inner cone for use with wood were both in good condition at the end of the walk. The drinks can meths burner was a little dented but still usable.
I used my old Evernew 0.9 litre Titanium Pan with the Ti-Tri Inferno and it was as good as ever. My mug was an MSR 0.6 litre titanium pot, not new but not as old or well-used as the Evernew pot in which it nested. One advantage of using the Inferno with wood is that I could boil water in both pots as they sit on tent pegs inserted in the windshield high above the fire. With meths only the Evernew pan could be used as the pan has to fit precisely into the windshield.
For water I set off with two Platypus 2 litre bottles for camp use and a GoLite 700ml wide-mouthed bottle for on the trail. The latter proved far too small in the hot weather of the first six weeks as water sources were often many miles apart so I supplemented it with a 1 litre soft drinks bottle. For much of the walk I drank the water straight from streams and springs without treatment. However in the Kettle River Range and the Okanagan lowlands there were many cattle and water sources were often filthy. To treat this water I used a SteriPen Adventurer Opti, which uses UV light. It was easy and quick to use, far simpler than any filter. I presume it worked as I didn’t get sick and some of the water was badly polluted. The Adventurer Opti also has a small LED light in one end, which was useful when I needed to change headlamp batteries in the dark.
For most of the walk I wore Inov8 Terrocs and found them comfortable with a good grip. I went through two pairs, neither of which is completely worn out though the tread is wearing away at the flex point on both. During September the shoes were soaked for days on end but still remained comfortable. Only in the very hottest weather did I find them uncomfortable. Then my feet swelled enough with the heat that even without socks the Terrocs were too tight. The answer, I knew, was a pair of sandals but, to save weight, I foolishly hadn’t brought a pair so I was very pleased to find some Merrell ones in the little town of Eureka nine days into the walk. I wore them on the hottest days and in towns, around camp and on some of the road walks. The extra weight of 688 grams was well worthwhile for the freedom they gave my feet in the heat.
In the Terrocs I wore merino wool Teko Light Hiking Socks. Two pairs just lasted the whole trip, though both had holes in them by the end. In dry weather I could rinse out the socks and dry them on the pack. In the wet weather I wore the same wet pair for a week and more at a time, keeping the dry ones for tent wear. Even when wet the socks were comfortable and warm.
With weather ranging from hot days with temperatures in the 30s to stormy days with sleet and near freezing temperatures my clothing had to be very versatile. The one garment I wore every day of the walk was a polyester Paramo Katmai Light Shirt. This proved tough and comfortable. It survived all the bushwhacking and stayed remarkably clean and uncreased even after ten days without washing. It also wicked quite well and dried very fast when damp. In the heat the wide sleeves could easily be rolled up. I kept my folded map, compass and other items in the spacious pockets. Overall this is the best hiking shirt I have used. Under other garments it was fine except in the coolest, wettest weather when it became clammy and felt damp and cold against the skin. After experiencing this a few times I wore a merino wool Icebreaker Ultralite 140 T Shirt under it, which made for a comfortable combination. Mostly, though, the t-shirt was worn in the tent, if at all.
In the hot weather and open country I wore an old pair of GoLite Skyrunner shorts on my legs. These were comfortable and lasted the whole walk, though the inner brief did fall apart. For bushwhacking and in cooler weather I wore Montane Terra Lite trousers and these were excellent, surviving the lashing vegetation and keeping out wind and light rain.
In breezy but dry weather I wore a GoLite Kings Canyon windshirt over the Paramo shirt. This zip-fronted hooded windshirt worked fine and I wore it often. The hood was useful when my head felt a little chilly. I’d like to have had chest pockets for map and compass though.
For rain I had a Rab Demand Pull-On eVent waterproof top and GoLite Reed overtrousers. The Rab smock was superb, keeping me dry during the days of rain and breathing well. I was never more than slightly damp underneath it. The hood gave good protection and the chest pocket was big enough for a map. For lightweight backpacking in wet places I think this is one of the best waterproofs around. The overtrousers were worn less often but worked fine when they were needed, which was more for pushing through wet vegetation than to keep off rain. As the rain often came straight down my legs didn’t get very damp even without the overtrousers.
For warmwear I took my old faithful Jack Wolfskin Gecko microfleece sweater and a Mont-Bell Ultra Light Inner Down Jacket. The Gecko was worn most evenings and mornings and for walking in during the coolest weather. It was well-worn at the start of the walk but still looked fine by the end. Most of the time the Gecko was the only warm garment I needed, making the down jacket rather a luxury. I used the latter as a pillow every night but only wore it in the coldest weather. Given the wet weather a synthetic filled garment would have been a better choice, though it would have weighed more. I never got the down jacket wet though and I was never cold.
For the sun I took a cotton T3 Tilley Hat, which I also found effective against rain showers and for keeping vegetation off my face and out of my hair when bushwhacking. For cool weather I had a merino wool Smartwool Beanie, which was warm and comfortable while packing away into a tiny bundle and weighing little. I also carried a pair of old polypro liner gloves that I never wore, though I almost did a couple of times.
Navigation is difficult on much of the trail. Many times I had to find the line of an old trail, select the best route through dense forest or choose the right one in a maze of forest roads. My Silva 7NL compass was an essential tool and was used often. Of course good maps were required too and I had topographic maps in two forms. Long distance hiker Li Brannfors, who I’d met in the High Sierra many years ago, had hiked the PNT in 2009 and recorded his route on his GPS unit (which meant carrying loads of batteries – I’m glad someone else did this!). Li sent me A4 print-outs of topographic maps with his route and alternatives marked, with distances between points. These maps were my main ones and were carried, folded, in an Aloksak bag in a shirt pocket for quick access. I also had ViewRanger software with topo maps on my HTC Desire phone, which has a GPS function. ViewRanger worked well and provided all the features of a stand-alone GPS. I used it whenever I found locating the correct route with map and compass difficult as it made route-finding much easier and quicker. A few times I used it to find junctions with disused trails hidden in dense vegetation. To find these junctions I would switch on ViewRanger and follow the route on the map until I had reached the right point. Usually there was no sign of the trail but after I had followed its line a short distance signs of it would appear.
I also carried larger scale national park and Forest Service maps so I had an overview of areas and could place myself in the landscape and identify surrounding features.
My carbon fibre Pacer Poles were used every day of the trip as trekking poles and every night as tent poles and were excellent in both cases. They were particularly useful when bushwhacking for holding vegetation out of the way and stopping me falling when I stumbled over a hidden rock or root.
Later in the walk as daylight hours shrank I often made camp in the dark. Sometimes I walked in the dark for several hours too (on my longest day I walked in the dark for seven hours and made camp at 2 a.m.!) For light I took a Petzl Tikka XP headlamp, which worked perfectly throughout the walk and which I used with a flood beam in camp and with a narrow spot beam when hiking.
I don’t actually find much use for a knife blade when backpacking and use scissors far more often. The tiny Leatherman Style CS multi-tool has a pair of the best scissors I’ve found on a lightweight knife plus a sharp blade and a few other tools. It worked fine throughout the walk.
I like to keep a record of weather conditions such as wind speed, overnight temperature and humidity and for this I carried the Kestrel 4500 Weather Station, which is easy to use and very efficient. I ran it on old headlamp batteries and was surprised when batteries that barely produced a flicker of light were rated as having over 80% power by the Kestrel. They lasted for weeks too.
On the trail the HTC Desire smartphone was mainly used as a GPS though I sometimes used it as an e-reader in camp and on boring road sections. In towns I used it to send emails and reports and photos to TGO, update my blog, and even, occasionally, as a phone. I rarely got a hint of a phone signal in the wilds and never an internet connection. Overall I found the Desire useful and a versatile replacement for a standalone GPS. The phone battery lasted about eight hours and I carried two spare batteries plus a Freeloader Pico solar charger, which lived on top of my pack. I found it would half-charge the phone after two to three days of sunny weather. Of course I was often in the shade of the forest and it was often cloudy. I would expect it to be more efficient in hotter more open places.
GoLite Pinnacle first half of walk 935g
GoLite Quest second half of walk 1400g
GoLite Shangri-La 1 & Nest 963g
GoLite Ultralite 3-Season Quilt 718g
POE Ether Elite 6 2/3 first 65 days 306g
Therm-A-Rest Ultralite ¾ last 10 days 480g
Caldera Ti-Tri Inferno 225g
Plastic fuel bottle 25g
Evernew 0.9 litre titanium pot 139g
MSR titanium 0.6 litre titanium pot/mug 82g
Pot stuffsack 27g
Sea to Summit Alpha spoon 9g
Backpacking Light long handled titanium spoon 17g
Platypus 2 litre water bottle x 2 74g
GoLite 700ml water bottle 79g
Steripen Adventurer Opti water purifier 103g
Inov-8 Terroc 330 698g
Merrell sandals 688g
Teko Light Hiking socks x2 182g
Montane Terra Lite trousers 311g
GoLite Skyrunner shorts 132g
The North Face Seamless Brief 50g
Icebreaker Ultralite 140 Merino T 162g
Paramo Katmai Light shirt 207g
GoLite Kings Canyon windshirt 139g
Jack Wolfskin Gecko fleece 225g
Mont-Bell Ultra Light Inner down jacket 212g
Rab Demand Pull-On waterproof 283g
GoLite Reed waterproof trousers 110g
Smartwool Cuffed Beanie 53g
T3 Tilley Hat 156g
Cotton Bandanna x 2 54g
Polypro liner gloves 40g
Pacer Poles 528g
Lifeventure Dri-Store 15 litre stuffsack 58g
POD Ultralite Drysacs 7 litre & 10 litre 75g
Aloksak bags x 3 46g
Petzl Tikka XP headlamp 76g
Silva 7NL Compass 24g
Fox plastic whistle 14g
Notebook, pens 195g
Passport, documents, wallet 100g
Paperback book c.175g
Reading glasses 143g
Guidebook sections 50g
First Aid Kit 150g
Repair Kit 85g
HTC Desire phone 160g
TechTrail Alterra altimeter/watch 74g
Kestrel 4500 weather station 109g
Freeloader Pico solar charger 49g
Leatherman Style CS multi-tool 42g
Wash/teeth kit 100g
Sirius mini binoculars 149g
Canon EOS 450D camera + 18-55 lens 787g
Sigma DP1 camera 317g
Smartcards, batteries & filters 484g
Cullman Backpack tripod 597g
The total weight of all my gear was approximately 12.2kg. I usually wore or carried separately around 2.9kg so my pack’s base weight – without food, fuel or water - was about 9.3kg.