Wednesday 28 January 2015

Pacific Crest Trail Gear in 1982 ... and what I'd take now

The North Face Back Magic II pack in the North Cascades

At the end of the film Wild (see my review here) as the credits roll there are pictures of Cheryl Strayed on her actual hike in 1995 which show just how accurately the film makers replicated the gear she used. Looking at these images and going through my slides for a talk on the PCT I'm giving in Inverness I thought again about the gear I used and what I would take today. Late last year I wrote an article about this that appeared in the January issue of The Great Outdoors. Here it is.

Thirty-three years ago I was planning my hike along the Pacific Crest Trail, which I began in April 1982 and the story of which is told in my latest book, Rattlesnakes and Bald Eagles. Returning to a walk so long after it took place was an interesting experience. In my journal I’d listed all the gear I started out with, including its weight. Reading through this I was somewhat shocked at just how heavy it all was, some 43lbs (20kg) in total, and also surprised at some of the weights. How did my first aid and repair kits weigh well over a kilo? Today their weight is about a quarter of that. I wish I’d kept a list of what was in them!

All the gear worked fine though and most was fairly lightweight for the time. A few items could have weighed less and a few I could have done without but overall I doubt I could have cut the weight by more than 3-4kg at most. Today I would expect my gear to weigh half what it did back then, partly because over the years I’ve refined what I carry but also because it was my first long distance walk overseas and I was undoubtedly erring on the side of caution and taking everything I thought I might need, and because of new designs and, especially, new fabrics. In 1982 materials like Dyneema, silnylon, fleece, microfibers, Pertex, cuben fibre and titanium didn’t exist in outdoor gear. 

Here’s what I took – and what I’d take today.


With 23 days supplies for the High Sierra
I started out with a 100 litre capacity Berghaus Cyclops Scorpion, a tough internal frame pack with zip-off side pockets. I knew I’d be carrying two weeks food at times so I wanted a big pack. As it was the Scorpion still wasn’t large enough for the 23 days without resupply through the High Sierra when I had gear strapped all over the outside. It was comfortable though and handled ridiculously heavy loads quite well. It’s 2155g weight seems quite high today but was on the lighter side for a big pack at that time. And the current similar Berghaus pack, the 100-litre Vulcan weighs 2900g.  The internal frame broke after around 1500 miles – probably due to the pack bouncing down a pass at one point – and as I couldn’t get it repaired I replaced it with an 85-litre external frame The North Face Back Magic II, which weighed even more at 2700g but which was also comfortable.

Today I would look for a smaller pack as my gear would be more compact. I’d also look for a lighter weight one. The 60 litre Lightwave Ultrahike that weighs 1230g and which I used on the Scottish Watershed in 2013 would be one possibility. Others I’d consider are the 1200g Six Moon Designs Fusion 65 and the 1330g ULA Catalyst, or, if I thought I needed more capacity, the 1550g Lightwave Wildtrek 70 and the 1652g Montane Grand Tour 70. 


Told I might need a free-standing tent in places (this wasn’t so) I took a single-skin Gore-tex dome tent, the Wintergear Eyrie, which weighed a hefty 2268g. It was easy to pitch, stood up to the few storms well and was very roomy. Condensation was a problem at times in wet weather towards the end of the walk but otherwise it was excellent. Although nice to have I didn’t need such a substantial shelter though and could have taken a lighter, smaller tent – there were several available at the time. Today I wouldn’t take a tent at all but a shaped tarp like the Mountain Laurel Designs Trailstar with a mesh inner for mosquitoes, which were a problem early in the summer. The Eyrie still exists in slightly modified form and a very expensive price as the 2520 gram Terra Nova Gemini Bivi (Wintergear tents became Terra Nova ones).

Camp in the North Cascades near the end of the walk

I also took a fairly heavy Gore-tex bivvy bag, which was only used a few times to protect my sleeping bag from condensation in the tent. Today if I took one at all it would be something like the 210 gram Terra Nova Moonlite Bag Cover.

Knowing I should be able to sleep under the stars at times I carried a 425g reflective Sportsman’s Blanket to use as a groundsheet. This was well worth the weight as I slept out on many nights. Today though I’d take a much lighter silnylon groundsheet which I’d also use in my shelter.

Bivouac in the Yosemite wilderness with Larry Lake

At 1020g my down-filled Mountain Equipment Lightline, rated to -5C, wouldn’t seem very heavy today. It kept me warm, with clothes, in temperatures down to -10C and lasted the whole walk well. The Lightline still exists, the latest version weighing 1225 grams and with a comfort rating of -6C. It would probably prove excellent on the PCT today but I’d now take something lighter such as the 755 gram Mountain Equipment Xero 300, 860 gram Montane Featherlite or 874 gram Rab Infinity 500. 

Therm-A-Rest self-inflating mats were still new in 1982. In fact there was only one model, available in two lengths. The foam inside was solid so it was warm for sleeping on snow. The 709g weight was high though. Therm-A-Rest is now a big range of mats from which I’d take either the 310 gram NeoAir X Therm S or the 430g Prolite Plus S. 


In 1982 I was advised that the only stove fuel I’d find along the way was white gas (such as Coleman Fuel) or petrol. Stoves running on these fuels were standard for backpacking then and I took the lightest available, the 539g Svea 123, which looks like a brass can. This was before the days of hose-connected fuel bottles and the Svea had a small tank under the burner that held 120ml. The stove worked fine throughout the trip, including for melting snow at high camps in the Sierra Nevada. It’s still available from Optimus and is a lovely stove. The weight would put me off taking it again though. Gas canisters and alcohol fuel are available now so I’d take a stove that runs on one of these, probably the 225g Trail Designs Caldera Ti-Tri that I used on the Pacific Northwest Trail and the Scottish Watershed.

As the Svea 123 held so little fuel I also took litre and half litre Sigg fuel bottles so I could carry enough for two weeks when needed. These were the only metal fuel bottles available at the time.

My aluminium pots and cup were quite light but were so badly scratched and dented by the end of the walk I never used them again. Today I’d save a little weight and take my much tougher titanium pots that are veterans of several long walks and weigh 220g.


The lightweight footwear revolution was just beginning in 1982. Fabric boots and brands like Brasher didn’t exist and the first trail shoes weren’t yet in the shops. Heavy, semi-stiff leather boots were standard for backpacking. I’d worn a pair, Scarpa Bronzos, on my first long distance walk, Land’s End to John O’Groats, and I chose them again for the PCT. That this was a mistake I discovered very quickly. The PCT begins in hot desert country and my feet were soon swollen, blistered and very sore. Luckily I was carrying a light pair of New Balance running shoes for camp and town wear and quickly found that my feet were better with these on my feet and my boots in my pack. However there was much snow in the mountains when I often used crampons and snowshoes so my boots were needed. Eventually both boots and shoes wore out. Out of the snow and happy with the shoes I bought a pair of new-fangled trail shoes made by Asolo, despite the staff in the store warning me they weren’t suitable or safe for backpacking. These proved fine though and just lasted the final 1000 miles.

Asolo Trail shoes & torn Cool-T shirt in Oregon


Wool and cotton were still the main materials for outdoor clothing in the early 1980s but new lighter fabrics were starting to appear. The first thin, lightweight, breathable, fast-drying and windproof clothing made from a 50/50 polyester cotton mix had recently been launched by Rohan. The outdoor trade was not impressed, saying the stuff wouldn’t last and was too insubstantial for the outdoors. I thought otherwise and was delighted when Rohan offered me clothing for the trip. I had trousers (Bags – still made of the same fabric in the same design today), breeches, shorts and a windshirt and they all worked well. Why I took both trousers and breeches I now have no idea! Rohan sparked a revolution in clothing and today such garments are standard. I’d take similar garments again, made from 100% synthetic fabrics though.

Rohan also supplied me with synthetic base layers (not that the term was used back then) that were faster drying and much more comfortable than cotton or the wool garments then available (merino, which I’d use today, was a long way in the future) but which I have to admit did stink after a while.

My warm garments were a Helly-Hansen nylon fibre-pile jacket, which looked like a shaggy type of fleece, and a down vest. The combination worked well and I’d use a similar one today.

For rain Rohan made me up a set of experimental lightweight Gore-Tex garments. They don’t seem particularly light now but at the time 800-1000 grams was standard for Gore-Tex. There was only one type of Gore-Tex too and no alternatives. The Rohan garments just lasted to the end. Today I’d take much lighter garments, probably no more than half the weight.


I carried an ice axe the whole way. At a hefty 765g it was the lightest I could find. Today I’d take the 245g Camp Corsa, and probably not carry it the whole way either. For the High Sierra I bought crampons and snowshoes and needed both as it was a late snow year. Once out of the high mountains I dispensed with them. I didn’t have trekking poles, which hadn’t appeared then. I should have got some ski poles for use with the snowshoes but didn’t realise they’d be useful until it was too late.

                                                             Weight             lb oz                   Grams
Berghaus Cyclops Scorpion pack                                   4  12                 2155
Pack liner                                                                          2                     57


Wintergear Eyrie Gore-tex tent                                      5    0                 2268
Mountain Equipment Lightline sleeping bag                    2     4                1020
Wintergear Gore-tex bivvy bag                                      1     3                  539
Sportsman’s Blanket                                                    -     15                 425
Therm-A-Rest ¾ inflatable mattress                               1     9                  709

Total                                                                         15    13                7173


Svea 123 gasoline stove                                                 1      3                 539
Sigg 1 litre fuel bottle                                                             5                 142
Sigg ½ litre fuel bottle                                                            4                 113
Field & Trek Lightline aluminium pots & Sierra Cup                 11                312
Stuffsacks, spoons, pot grab, lighter, matches                        10                283
Field & Trek 2 gallon Water Bag                                              4                113
Sigg ½ litre aluminium water bottle                                          4                113
Wide mouth 1 litre plastic water bottle                                     4                113

Total                                                                            3      13              1728


Scarpa Bronzo leather boots                                         4       8                2041
New Balance 420 running shoes                                    1       1                  482

Total                                                                            5      9                 2523


Rohan Cool T shirt                                                                5                   142
Rohan Long T shirt                                                               6                    170
Gordale chlorofibre long johns                                                7                   198
M&S Viloft briefs x 2                                                            4                    113
Rohan polycotton shorts                                                       5                    142
Rohan polycotton Knickers (breeches)                                   9                    255
Rohan polycotton Bags trousers                                          10                    283
Helly Hansen Double Pile jacket                                     1     4                    567
Snowdon Mouldings Down Vest                                           14                    397
Rohan polycotton Action Jacket                                          12                    340
Rohan Gore-tex jacket                                                  1     5                    595
Rohan Gore-tex salopettes                                            1     3                    539
3 pairs wool knee length socks                                      1     7                    652
Field & Trek Viloft Thermclava balaclava                                3                      85
Goredale Chlorofibre balaclava                                              2                      57
Cotton sun hat                                                                    2                      57
Damart gloves                                                                     3                      85
Wintergear Gore-tex Overmitts                                             3                      85
Nylon Stop Tous                                                                 2                      57

Total                                                                        10     10                  4819


First Aid/Repair Kits in plastic tubs                            2        7                 1106
XL Food stuffsack                                                              4                   113
Simond Cougar ice axe                                             1      11                   765
Compass & whistle                                                            2                     57
100 foot nylon cord                                                           11                   312
Head torch + 3 sets batteries                                            14                   397
Sunglasses                                                                       3                    85
Notebook, pens, documents                                              12                   340
8x20 binoculars                                                                  8                   227

Total                                                                          7       8              3402

Grand Total                                                            43       5             19645

For the crossing of the High Sierra I added the following (no weights recorded)

Sherpa Featherweight Snowshoes
SMC 12 point crampons
A16 Gore-tex gaiters
Polarguard bootees

At Mammoth Lakes I added 120 feet of 7mm rope for river crossings.

After around 1500 miles I replaced my damaged pack and my worn-out shoes and boots with the following:

The North Face Back Magic II pack
Asolo trail shoes

Camera Gear (no weights recorded)

Pentax ME Super SLR
Pentax MX SLR
Pentax 28mm lens
Pentax 50mm lens
Pentax 75-150 zoom lens
Camera Care Systems cases
Kodachrome 64 transparency film


  1. Chris, you mention that the 100 ltr Scorpion was not quite sufficient for a 23 day without resupply section in 1982, but say you'd probably choose a 60-70 ltr today if doing it again. Even with the far more compact other items of gear of today, that 'and' 23 days of supplies in a 60-70 ltr pack seems far beyond my capability at the moment, because if anything, after several hikes overseas in the last few years, I've gradually 'upped' the litre capacity of my packs in response and bitten the bullet of higher pack weight for the ease of access / ease of packing (among other things) that the larger ones give me, rather than scaling down my packs. I seem to be be in reverse gear in this regard :D

  2. Alexander, I've never gone for small packs with everything jammed in tightly for the reasons you give. I reckon a 60-70 litre packj would be fine for the PCT unless 23 days food had to be carried. 1982 was exceptional for the snow. If doing it again and the High Sierra was snowbound I would reckon on splitting the traverse with a descent to Onion Valley to resupply as my companions did. That would mean 10-11 days food at a time, an amount I've carried in a 60 litre pack on summer trips.

    1. I am with you there Alexander. I too prefer bigger capacity packs for the reasons you mentioned. They also seem to have better strap and back systems that make carrying heavy loads much more comfortable. My old Berghaus C7 series pack is heavy, but I have carried 30kg+ in it comfortably. It's also bombproof which has been useful over the years. If I needed more capacity I would strap my shelter to the outside rather than buying a bigger pack though. I looked at UL options like the Mariposa Ultralight from Gossamer Gear, but am not convinced of their robustness or versatility. Am still searching for my next pack :)

      Great post Chris... Iove reading about gear from 30+ years ago and how it 'compares' to today's options.

    2. I thoroughty enjoyed your book on your Monroe trek. As you mention you are reversing the current trend towards light weight. After years of other sport I came late to long distance hiking(60yrs old at the time) and missed the earlier traditional packs.
      I now have ZPacks ArcBlast after scaling down from the ULA Circuit which is also great bag.Clearly if you are carrying many days food you need more capacity.On the JMT 7 days food in a Bear barrel has been my most days of food carried.
      HYOH but I do hope you mention in your talks that with experience there is a lighter gear.I have honed my gear over ten years and it has probably cost near £1K but my base weight is 6Kg and my bag is not crammed.
      With this concept I have done half the AT, the JMT, GR5,a GB End to End and 12 of the UK national trails,Cape Wrath trail.
      Enjoy your hikes , English Stu

    3. Glad you enjoyed my Munros book Stu. That's an impressive list of walks. I'm not really reversing the trend towards lightweight. My load is far lighter than it was back in the 80s and 90s. I certainly do mention lighter gear in my talks, as I did in this piece and have done in other pieces and books over the years. I haven't tried the ArcBlast. It looks good. Last year I mostly used the Mountain Laurel Designs Exodus and the Six Moon Designs Fusion 65. On my last long walk - the Scottish Watershed - I used the Lightwave Ultrahike 60. I wrote a piece about the gear I used here:

  3. Great read, Chris. With regard to passing through the Sierra with a big load, I wonder if you'd need to account for that much food, as you'd probably pass through faster with the reduced weight of the load on your back*. Think I had planned 12 days between Kennedy Meadows and Tuolumne Meadows back in 2004 (and almost managed to carry sufficient food, but nipped down to Lone Pine/Bishop for more chocola… sorry, candy bars!). Also was fortunate in that the restaurant at Reds Meadows had opened for the season so I was able to eat myself sick there.

    * I know… who'd want to rush that section – best on the trail!

    1. Thanks John, If there'd been little snow I'd probably have planned on 12-15 days through the High Sierra. I don't know that progress would have been that much faster with a lighter load. Reds Meadow was closed and Tuolumne Meadows only opened the day we arrived (hence going to Mammoth Lakes - we knew Tuolumne was unlikely to be open). If I was doing it again with that much snow I would plan on going down to Bishop to resupply, as two of my companions did. I'd also use skis.

  4. Chris, do you think external frame packs will make a comeback?

    1. A few good examples of external packs have come out in recent years and they compete weight wise. Zpacks Arc Blast.

      I currently use an Exped Lightning 45, external frame, for desert hikes where I have to carry a lot of water. It can carry 40 lbs without getting uncomfortable and the weight compares to many UL packs.

    2. Stevie, I wouldn't describe those packs as external frame in the traditional sense of a rigid aluminium frame on which you can hang different packbags or stuffsacks and which rises high above your head. I've used the Exped Lightning and it performs much like similar internal frame packs.

  5. Great gear info from someone who knows his stuff. Thanks

  6. Hello, thank for the article and explanations. I plan a long multi-day hike in terrain that will probably include some snow even in summer but also zillions of mosquitoes. And Iwant to be superightweight because my own body weight is large already.. Also I admit i prefer a (heavier than a tarp) closed tent with mesh windows than a tarp setup out of fear of snakes or maybe this is irrational fear, what do you think?

    1. I'd take a tent with a mesh inner for the mosquitoes - it's not irrational to fear them! Or a shaped tarp like the MLD Trailstar with mesh inner. Some closed tents with mesh inners are very light, especially ones that can be pitched with trekking poles. I don't think snakes would be a problem with a tarp though - it's on the trail, especially in bushes or long grass, that you need to watch out for them if they're found in that area.