I had been a white gas stove guy from way back in the days of Svea stoves – yup, I just really dated myself! More recently I had used a series of fine little MSR stoves, but a few seasons back I was persuaded to try the little MSR canister stove. It is very small, light, quite simple, and it works very well for the most part. Since I usually can minimize the amount of time I need to run the stove – especially when I’m only cooking for myself – I’ve been able to complete fairly long trips with a single canister. Downsides are that it is still somewhat loud – which seems to be the price you pay for a hotter stove – and that the canisters are expensive, hard to manage (you can’t really know how much fuel is left after some use), and raise some concerning disposal issues.
A few years ago my ultra-light backpacking friends began showing up for trips with some stoves that I couldn’t have even imagined people using a decade ago. All of them were alcohol burning stoves and they ranged from simple, small burners from commercial sources to tiny, featherlight home-grown designs created out of soda cans. At first I was skeptical, having relied on more traditional equipment for some decades, but as I watched my friends use these stoves I began to see their value, particularly for the solo backpacker who mostly needs to simply boil a small amount of water.
I finally took the plunge last month and ordered the very inexpensive (about $20) Trangia mini stove. This consists of a small and simple aluminum wind-screen/stand and a small brass stove that is not much more than a fancy bowl into which you pour a bit of alcohol and then light the whole thing. (Yes, there are lighter stoves and lighter stand and windscreen options, but I didn’t want to begin by, for example, constructing my own stove – as some friends do!)
The “stove” fits neatly into the bottom of my tall Snow Peak solo pot and leaves plenty of room for my spoon, a lighter, a small square of cloth I use as “small towel and pot grabber,” and a tiny plastic bottle of soap. The wind screen is a bit more awkward, but I use the space efficiently by packing it with something else stuffed into it.
Fuel is simply alcohol that you can pick up at your local hardware store, though REI and probably other outdoor stores stock it as well. One can will probably last most people at least a full season. The fuel comes from agricultural sources rather than gas/oil wells, so while the actual effect on the world is small, it seems like a positive step. These stoves also save resources in one other important way. It would take many, many regular fuel canisters to power the stove for the same amount of time that one can of alcohol will last. So, one can of alcohol and one small bottle to carry what you need on the trail is all you’ll use.
The first time I tried it on the trail last week I found myself using more fuel than necessary – at first by a factor of two. Over the course of a four-day trip I got a better handle on how much fuel is needed to boil a particular amount of water, and once on the final morning I manged to bring the water for a cup of tea to a boil just as the fuel burned out. I carried 8 oz. of fuel for this trip and used about half of it – and didn’t use it all that efficiently. I think that it would be quite reasonable to use an ounce or less per day with some care. Unlike the home-brew stoves, the Trangia burner includes a screw-on lid that supposedly allows you to put out the stove before it finishes burning and then store it with the remaining alcohol available for the next use. I didn’t try this. It also includes a detachable top that has a rotating piece that lets you manually lower the flame to simmer. I would rarely have a need for this since I mostly just boil water on the trail.
The stove does take longer to bring a given amount of water to a boil – perhaps 50% or more additional time. If you travel solo (or travel with a group but cook individually) this isn’t a big issue since you’ll probably just add a few minutes to your cooking time. I quickly learned to get my water in the pot and start it boiling first and then to take care of other food preparation issues like getting out the dinner and so forth. Another advantage is that the longer cook time is essentially silent! You’d be surprised at what a difference this makes.
If you have ever had a stove “go bad” on the trail – yes, it happens – you may appreciate the retro simplicity of the alcohol stoves. There are no moving parts, no jets to clean – basically it just holds the alcohol and you light it.
My verdict after one use is that:
- I’ll definitely use the stove for solo travel.
- I did not find the slightly longer cooking times to be an issue.
- I enjoyed the silent operation of the stove.
The Black Diamond Zenix IQ Headlamp must be overstocked or discontinued, because I see it at least once per week over at steepandcheap.com for a price in the low $20 range.
I have this headlamp and I’ve been quite impressed with it. I’ve used it on a number pack trips, for night photography jaunts, and for car camping and it has worked like a charm. It is one of the newer LED headlamps that puts out enough light to actually navigate a dark trail – unlike the earliest models which were designed more or less for around camp use.
It has two basic modes of operation. In one the more powerful central lamp comes on and in the other a pair of smaller LEDs at the edges of the light unit come on instead. The former provides brighter light but consumes battery power more quickly, while the latter is only bright enough for camp chores but is draws less power from the batteries. In both modes you can switch between several different brightness levels and a blinking mode. (The latter is useful for giving your backpacking partners a severe headache – or for a long lasting emergency signal light. A friend of mine used a lamp with a similar feature to guide me to camp once when I arrived many hours after dark.)
If this headlamp has a downside it might be the smallish and somewhat difficult to press control button. Once you figure out where it is it works fine, but it is still difficult to operate even with light gloves on. Well, it might have one other. At a time when some of the very small and dimmer backpacker LED headlamps weigh around 1 ounce, this one is a bit bulkier and heavier – but still quite a bit smaller and lighter than the headlamps we used in the pre-LED era.
But in actual operation – at least for typical backpacking use – if you are looking for a long lasting headlamp that puts out enough light for actual hiking, this could be the one for you.
I always carry a pack cover. Packs leak in the rain, and the pack cover has other uses as well. I’ve owned a series of pack covers. They have gotten increasingly light over the years. Some early ones were constructed of fairly heavy material and included stout stuff sacks.
This year I picked up a Granite Gear Cloud Cover pack cover. It has a very minimal design, being basically a simple cover with a stretch drawstring and a small built-in stuff sack. Constructed of silicon coated nylon, my size medium (the largest available) weighs just under four ounces and takes up almost no space in my pack.
I encountered light rain a few times this summer, so I did have an opportunity to try it out. The first time was as I approached Duck Pass in the Sierra Nevada near Mammoth. The weather changed quickly and I was caught slightly unprepared. Normally I will put on the pack cover once it looks like it might rain soon – better safe than sorry. However, for some reason this time I thought I’d make it over the pass before (or if) the rain started. I was wrong. All of a sudden I could see sheets of rain across the valley and by the time I stopped near a tree and got my pack off it was already raining pretty hard. Fortunately, the Cloud Cover is easy to attach. Simply spread it over the back of the pack and cinch the drawstrings.
This simple cover did a fine job of keeping the pack dry – or, more accurately, kept it from getting any wetter.
There are only two minor concerns I have with this piece of equipment. First, not unexpectedly with such light gear, I suspect that the Cloud Cover will require me to be careful so as to avoid ripping the lightweight material. This is not so much a criticism as it is a recognition of one of the trade-offs inherent to ultralight gear. Secondly, I wonder why Granite Gear chose to make this only in white. This type of nylon already has a tendency to pick up dirt and the white color will only accentuate this.
I’m glad I picked up this the Granite Gear Cloud Cover. It is lighter and smaller in my pack and it does a fine job of protecting the pack from rain, at the expense of perhaps being less durable than some of the heavier alternatives.
I never used to use trekking poles, despite recommendations from friends who said that they saved their knees from stress and provided additional balance in dicey situations. A few years ago I finally picked up a pair of REI poles… and then carried them in my pack without useing them for a season or two.
Finally, in the past couple of years I made an effort to use them more consistently – perhaps because as I passed the age of 50 I occasionally experienced some knee stress. While I was once anti-pole (but not anti-Pole! ;-), I have now pretty much switched over to the other side and I use them more often than not when backpacking. (I have not yet gotten to the point where I use them for day hiking, however.)
Earlier this year I picked up a new pair of REI Peak UL Trekking Poles. They are phenomenally light, weighing only about 3/4 pound per pair. In large part, the weight reduction is due to the carbon fibre pole material. This, of course, increases the price; they are not cheap at a list price of $130/pair.
They worked quite well for me on the three pack trips I have taken so far during the 2005 summer season. In fact, they seem bit less prone to bending and scratching than my old metal poles.
One odd feature is the addition of small compasses to the top of the handgrip on each pole. At first I thought this would be completely useless – and I wondered who the heck would need two cheap compasses! However, I have to admit that it is convenient to be able to quickly get a general fix on the compass points while hiking. (This sort of compass obviously is only good for general direction and can’t replace a real compass for serious orientation.) I still feel a bit silly carrying two compasses though.
I sometimes use a tarp and bivy instead of a tent and, when I do, the poles must serve as supports for the tarp. They seem to work fine in this role but, since I us the poles pointed end up, I think that the compasses will eventually become scratched. Oh, well.
My older metal “ultralight” trekking poles collapsed a few inches shorter than the Peak UL poles. This isn’t an issue while hiking with them, but they do protrude a bit more from the top of the pack on those occasions when I carry them instead of using them. This is a bit more of a significant issue – though still not a deal-breaker – when using a smaller ultralight pack.
The only other problem I encountered has to do with the “DuoLocks” that let you adjust and secure the pole sections by twisting them. I found that if you loosen them too much you sometimes cannot tighten them again: you’ll loosen them up and adjust the poles, only to find that when you turn them to relock the sections they never do lock up. When this happens the solution is to separate the pole sections and manually expand the locking device a bit – just enough so that it is a bit hard to reassemble the poles. Put the poles back together and turn to lock. To avoid the problem, I only loosen the DuoLocks just enough to adjust the poles.
I like my REI Peak UL Trekking Poles. The poles work quite well and they seem to provide a good combination of very light weight and sufficient strength. While the built-in compasses may seem a bit goofy at first, there are situations in which they are a convenience. It is important to not over-loosen the poles to adjust them, and these poles do not break down quite as short as some of the other 4-sections models.
For many years I’ve been annoyed at having to carry a full-size Garcia bear canister, even when traveling by myself and on short trips. The Garcia models are just fine functionally and they certainly work effectively (and make great camp stools, as well) but they are bulky in my smaller packs.
Earlier this year I picked up the small model of the BearVault canister, called the BearVault Solo. Its diameter is about the same as the Garcia, but at 8″ high it is only 2/3 as tall. This makes a big difference in the pack. It is also nearly a full pound lighter; 1 pound, 14 ounces vs. 2 pounds, 12 ounces.
Other differences range from cosmetic to functional. At the cosmetic end of the spectrum, the BearVault is made of bluish nearly transparent material. A more functional consideration is the design of the lid. The very secure Garcia lid attaches by 3 small locks that must be twisted with a coin or similar. The BearVault lid screws on. Just before it is screwed on all the way, a small tab on the lid must pass by a small tab on the body of the canister. This blocks the lid from unscrewing unless you press in the edge of the lid to deform it enough to let the two tabs pass by one another, a feat that no bear (not even a Yosemite bear!) is likely to be able to perform.
The lid works well for the most part, though I did notice two minor issues – neither of which would keep me from using the BearVault. First, it can be difficult to press in the tab on the lid when it comes time to open up the canister, especially if your hands are cold. Secondly, the threads on the canister seem to be subject to friction on occasion, perhaps due to dust or other material getting on the threads. When this happens it can be difficult to get the lid closed all the way and, I assume, it would be quite difficult to remove it. When this happened to me I resisted the temptation to force the lid on; instead I unscrewed it, wiped the threads a bit, and tried again. It worked fine. It might be possible to somehow lubricate the threads a bit, but I haven’t experimented with that yet.
(Update: BearVault tell me that they do ship a thread lubricant, but that it isn’t really designed for the newer model that I own. They also suggest wiping the threads with a bandana every day or so, which seems like a simple and effective solution to me.)
Another experiment that I forgot to try on the two trips on which I used the BearVault was to see how well it works as a stool. This is not unimportant! As I mentioned above, the Garcia makes a pretty nice, if somewhat heavy, camp stool. The BearVault Solo might be a bit too short for this but I’m not certain. I might be a bit concerned about the effect on the threads since they already have a tendency to bind a bit.
Despite some minor issues, I like the BearVault a lot. I’m very happy to reduce the size of my canister by 1/3 and save a pound of weight. Despite its smaller size (433 cubic inches* vs. 615 cubic inches for the Garcia) I’m confident that I could easily get 4-5 days of carefully selected food into the BearVault. It is a great solution for short trips and/or for those who travel solo – and is my first choice now unless a longer trip requires me to use my larger Garcia.
*A larger BearVault that is comparable in size to the Garcia unit is also available. It weights 2 pounds 6 ounces, carries 693 cubic inches of food, and has dimensions that are very slightly larger than the Garcia.
I once again succumbed to “gear lust” last week and picked up a Marmot Helium sleeping bag. It will probably replace two of the bags that I currently own – more on that below.
The Helium is a 15 degree-rated bag made with 900-fill down, some of the lightest available. By using this type of down, along with very lightweight fabric and a half-length zipper, Marmot is able to keep the weight of the regular size bag to 1 pound 13 ounces. This is quite light for a bag with this temperature rating.
I was a bit concerned about the half-length zipper since I frequently use a sleeping bag more like a blanket in less-than-cold conditions. However, after using it on a weekend trip in Yosemite I think that this zipper will provide enough adjustability for my purposes – though it is clear that I will need to sleep in this bag and not under it.
The Helium also has a different design for the hood portion of the bag. First of all, there is no velcro to attach the two sides of the zipper, but it doesn’t seem necessary. Secondly, the hood does not open flat – it is designed with a rounded hood shape with a smaller opening than I’m used to. Third, the location of the drawstring is not at the zipper but in a spot supposedly less likely to put it in your face.
Over the years I have had several down bags: A very old The North Face Superlight, another The North Face bag that I can’t identify by model, a Marmot Never Summer bag, and a Marmot Arroyo.
Two of them were not what I would consider sufficiently filled when I got them. The North Face Superlight (purchased as long as 20 years ago) was underfilled, but I opened up some seams and added down to turn it into a warm enough bag to use in light winter conditions. The Arroyo had a similar problem. It is a very lightweight bag (under 2 pounds) rated to 30 degrees and using 800-fill down. When new, it was usable at this temperature as long as I was willing to wear some extra clothing on cool nights. However, as the bag got older the down’s loft seemed to deteriorate to the point that there are unfilled spots, making it only marginally warm at temperatures just above freezing.
The Helium does not have this problem. It lofts up nicely, filling all of its baffles. I think that it probably will be usable at the rated temperature. In addition, it manages to weigh almost the same as the Arroyo, and fit into the same small stuff sack. At this point, it is hard to think of a good reason to use the Arroyo – and the Helium is likely to be virtually as warm as the heavier Never Summer bag.
Oh, the price may the an issue. The list price on the bag is about $380, which is perhaps twice the price of heavier but comparably warm down bags that don’t use 900-fill down. However, I found mine on sale for about $250. In my experience good down bags can last a long time – frequently a decade. At $25/year it is not such a bad price after all.
It’s hard to find any real problems with the Marmot Helium bag. It is as light and compressible as my old (nearly) 30-degree bag. It fluffs up nicely with even loft all over. It has a well-designed hood section. It promises to be significantly warmer than the bag I was using. The cost is high for this state-of-the-art item, but a cheaper bag may seem like a poor bargain on a cold night on the trail.
Last year, trying to keep up with my ultra-light friends, I purchased a Gregory G-Pack on sale. I finally had an opportunity to use it a couple of times this month.
This pack holds about 3000 cu. in and weighs under 3 pounds. While made of extremely lightweight material like most ultra-light packs it has a more traditional suspension system than many of the extremely light packs. I appreciate this. It has adjustable and padded shoulder straps, a sternum strap, a padded waist belt, a frame sheet, and padding on the back.
The main sack is pretty basic. It is constructed of extremely lightweight silicon impregnated material. It seems very flimsy but seems to hold up well enough. (You can actually see your gear through the material in the right light!) There is a surprisingly large removable top-flap pocket. While there are no side pockets, the whole back of the pack is covered by a large pouch that can hold quite a bit of gear where it is accessible. The pouch is secured by 3 straps that attach vertically to the top back and sides of the pack. (The pouch attachments have been updated on the current version of the pack.)
The pouch turns out to be a slight source of weakness, at least in my case. The main part of the pouch is made of a mesh material and seems strong enough. In the center back portion it is constructed of a more typical woven nylon material. This material seems a bit subject to damage from abrasion, for example from rubbing against rocks. In my case this is more of a problem since I use the pouch to carry a fairly large (by backcountry standards) tripod. The material in question tore a bit in one spot after a few trips.
I don’t regard this as a criticism as much as an observation. Obviously, Gregory cannot make a pack that weighs less than three pounds that is as durable as old-style packs that often weighed more than twice as much. It seems that one of the trade-offs for using such a lightweight pack is that you must be a bit more careful about how you handle it. That seems like a reasonable compromise to me.
The pack carries quite comfortably. Normally, people recommend that you carry less than 30 pounds (sometimes much less) in a pack like this. However, I’m certain that I have carried more weight than that (I typically carry 8-9 pounds of photo equipment) and I did not encounter any problems. I would certainly feel comfortable about using this pack on a 4-5 day trip.
All in all, I think the G-Pack is a fine pack for those who want to lighten their loads a bit and who are willing to exercise a little extra care to avoid damaging the lightweight material.
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