– I am a confirmed internal frame pack user these days.
When I started backpacking in the 1960s (!) virtually everyone used aluminum external frame packs. The best were from Kelty and Jansport and they were fine packs and generally regarded as a great step forward compared to previous alternatives – none of which I ever used. My Kelty Tioga pack was a true classic and served for years. I could – and unfortunately did – carry huge loads in this pack. On two long trips when I had more youth than brains (I possess less youth now, if not more brains) I carried loads as heavy as 75 pounds, with sleeping bag, pad, and other gear at the bottom and tent and ground cloth attached to the top.
Nearly everyone I’ve met regards modern internal frame packs as a tremendous improvement, especially now that manufacturers are focusing on getting the weight down. (For awhile the good packs weighed upwards of 7 pounds – way too much, and mostly due to design overkill.) They are almost infinitely adjustable. Those new to these packs may find that annoying at first, but once you learn your pack you can quickly fine tune it to different loads, different terrain, and the effects of your recent overeating.
More than with the old external frame packs, the fit of the particular pack you select can make a tremendous difference. When I acquired my Crestone II I had been looking at another pack by the same manufacturer. I was very disappointed in the fit and carry of that pack and almost didn’t try the Crestone. However, once I loaded it up and tried it on I realized that it was a completely different pack – and one that fit me very well. So, think of fitting an internal frame pack more like you might think of fitting a pair of hiking boots. Certain brands and models have a particular fit that may or may not be right for you.
The recent trend toward reducing pack weight has brought welcome changes. While my Crestone II probably weights about 7+ pounds, my current main pack (see below – the Auspex) weighs in at just more than half as much at four pounds. Yet is is a very comfortable pack. Most of the weight loss comes from using lighter materials, thinner foam, and fewer zippers and attachments.
In the last few years ultralight packs have come on the market. I have one (though I haven’t tried it as of this writing) that weighs less than 3 pounds, and some of my friends use even lighter models. I think they offer some very interesting possibilities but I’m still a bit leery of the very lightest models. One ripped out seam at the wrong time and your trip could turn out to be very miserable.
- My main pack has been a great Mountainsmith Crestone II – no longer made. It is large, comfortable, well-designed and built, but rather heavy by today’s standards.
- I also have a smaller Gregory pack with about 3000+ cu. in. capacity. I’ve used it for trips of up to 3 or 4 days.
- My current first-line pack is a newer, lighter, and slightly smaller (compared to the Crestone II) Mountainsmith Auspex which has a 4000 cu. in capacity and weights about 4 pounds. I have used the Auspex on a number of trips including 2-day ski-camping trip; a week-long canoe/backpack trip in British Columbia; and a 9-day Sierra backpack and more – and I continue to be very happy with this pack. It is comfortable and rides well and can easily manage at least a 5-6 day load.
- With the addition of the small Mountainsmith Boogeyman (1 pound, 1000 cu. in) pack strapped to the Auspex, I have carried up to nine days of gear and could probably squeeze in up two 14 days worth if necessary.
- Gear nerd that I am, I just acquired a
at about half price. This is a smallish (3000+ cu. in) pack that weights less than three pounds. Although the suspension is fairly conventional the pack material is a very light nylon and the pack bag design is quite basic. I had the opportunity to use this pack on a couple of short trips during the summer of 2005. I can report that it performed very well even though I was likely carrying more than the recommended weight. It is a very comfortable pack, it is reasonably easy to load and unload, and the external pouches are useful. On the downside, the lightweight material is, as I anticipated, less durable than that used on heavier packs. I picked up some small rips (but not big enough to case a major problem) on the heavier material at the back of the pouch where I store my tripod. I will continue to use this pack on trips where I’m comfortable using a bit of extra care in order to save some weight.
- Pack cover
– no pack is waterproof so I carry a cover. I augment the cover with plastic trash compactor bags in camp. The cover and/or trash bags are useful for keeping things organized and protected in camp even when it is not raining.
– having been caught in real storms a few times I often like to carry a real tent. Over the years I have collected quite a few:
- I have a Sierra Designs Tiros tent for serious conditions, such as winter camping. It is a very solid little two-person, but really a bit heavy for backpacking.
- I picked up a The North Face Coriolis a few years ago. It is a smallish three-season tent, but it has a great fly/vestibule system and is very stable in wind.
- Since I solo backpack at least once each season I also have a Walrus Zoid 1.0 tent. This is a wonderful little tent with a nice vestibule. (Though my old – and now worn-out – Sierra Designs Divine Light GoreTex tent still sets the standard for me.)
- This is not a complete list. A friend and I have an informal contest to see who could outfit the largest number of people for backpacking. If I include all of my tents – including some that are officially retired – I think I could house at least 15 people…
- Tent alternatives
– Despite what I said above, I sometimes forego the tent in the interest of simplicity and light weight.
- I use a Moonstone bivy sack on some trips and I have become more fond of this approach recently. (Note: I won’t claim that this specific bivy is the best on the market – partly because it no longer is on the market and partly because it is a very basic model. For example, it has no side zipper, making entrance and exit a bit of a squirm – but saving a bit of weight.)
- (5′ x 8′) Integral Designs Siltarp. During the summer of 2003 I combined the Siltarp with my bivy sack. It worked well on a week-long trip to the Pioneer Basin in the Sierra Nevada. I did not encounter real rain – just some light sprinkles – but the Siltarp can be set up in so many ways that I think I’ll continue this experiment. (If nothing else, devising new and different ways to set it up provides hours of campsite entertainment…) Update: I used this setup in heavy afternoon Sierra thunderstorms during the summer of 2004 and I can report that it works quite well – if you don’t mind the claustrophobic feeling of parking yourself in the bivy for a few hours. Photo: Siltarp set up as a windbreak at Fourth Recess Lake.
- On very short trips when I am absolutely, positively, bet-my-life certain that it will not rain I may simply take a ground cloth and sleep in the open. Of all the options, this one is the best.
- Ground cloth
- Cheap plastic cut from rolls at the hardware store works well and can easily be customized. On short fair-weather trips I use these sheets under my sleeping bag and leave the tent at the trailhead.
- Tent footprints are a good option when I can find them on sale. (They are a lot more expensive than plastic sheeting.) I use a footprint under my bivy sack since gravel and branches could easily puncture the bottom.
- Sleeping bag
– I have three.
- My smaller and lighter Marmot Arroyo is a 30 degree bag that weighs around 2 pounds and packs very small. Buttressed by extra clothing, this bag has been sufficient for Sierra summer trips, even when the temperature falls to below freezing. (Update August 2005: I think I have discovered a downside to using marginally warm bags like the Arroyo. As such bags age – at least in the case of the Arroyo – the down loses some of its resiliency and the bag is not quite as warm as when it was new. When the bag’s temperature rating is very close to the actual temperatures in which you use it, eventually it seems that the bag is no longer quite warm enough. While this may not dissuade some from using such a light bag, it is good to be aware of this.)
- The older one is a Marmot Never Summer bag which is supposedly good down to near 0 degrees. Sleeping bag temperature ratings are inexact, and I find myself a bit cold near the lower end of this bag’s range. Sometimes (e.g. – winter) I’ll also bring along the Arroyo bag to buttress the Never Summer bag.
- During August 2005 I finally decided that my Arroyo was losing loft to the point that I was cold a bit too often at altitude. I found a great deal on the Marmot Helium, a 1 pound 13 ounce, 900 fill bag that is made lighter by using lightweight fabric and only a half-length zipper. It is rated to 15 degrees and looks like it should work at that temperature, and it weighs virtually the same as the Arroyo and packs almost as small. I used it for the first time on a late-August 2005 trip into the Yosemite backcountry and I’m quite impressed with this bag.
– the lightest 3/4-length Cascade Designs Thermarest pad I can find – except in snow conditions when I take a thicker, full-length pad. In real snow conditions (read “winter”) I’ll take both.
– Newer LED lights have, at the risk of overstating the case, revolutionized evening activities in camp. Rather than carefully hoarding battery power by shutting off the flashlight whenever possible, people now often just leave the darn things on for hours since they can last 30-100 hours (or more!) on a set of batteries. Of course, as in all things, there is a downside to this “improvement” – artificial light cuts you off from the beautiful mountain night. I like to turn headlamps off and enjoy the darkness.
- I long used a Petzl Zoom headlamp. It is large and weighs nearly a half pound, due to the burly construction and the large battery. However, it does cast a bright beam that can light the trail/route far ahead.
- A few years ago I tried out a Princeton Tec Solo headlamp. This small unit uses a couple of AA batteries and includes two reflectors; one that casts a more focused beam. Eventually a LED bulb/reflector unit became available as an option and I found myself using this almost all the time.
- My main light is now a Petzl Tekka Plus LED unit. It is very small and weighs something like 2.5 ounces and, as with all LED units, it burns forever on AAA batteries. I have never actually used up the batteries, although I change them annually just to be on the safe side. To increase battery life it provides three output settings, the longest of which supposedly provides several hundred hours of battery life.
- I also picked up a Black Diamond Gemini headlamp on sale recently. This lightweight unit runs on AA batteries and combines a traditional bulb with two LED bulbs. I bought it when I knew I was going to start an October 2003 hike at sunset; I wanted the bright light for route-finding but the LEDs for longer battery life around camp.
- Candle lantern
– largely supplanted by the LED headlamp these days, except in winter when the candle lantern slightly but perceptibly warms a tent. (Update: I think it is safe to say that I no longer use a candle lantern.)
- Nylon cord
– useful for many things; replacement boot laces, clothesline, etc.
- Backpacker’s chair
– sometimes I take one of those lightweight jobs that uses the Cascade Designs Thermarest pad, but not so often now that I’m striving for a lighter pack.
– though I rarely need it. (I haven’t found a good reason yet to purchase a GPS unit.)
- Topo maps
– though don’t make map-reading the focus of your travels. Look around and use your senses to find your way when possible, especially when traveling cross-country.
- Bear-proof food canister
– I resisted carrying them for many years, but they do provide almost complete peace of mind in bear country. They are now required in certain parts of the Sierra. On the plus side, they do make great camp stools.
- I have used the Garcia models since the beginning. I own two so that I have one to share on longer trips. These are fine, though there are more recent models that may be better. The opening on the Garcia models is a double-edged sword. It is pretty fool-proof and I can’t imagine how a bear could possibly get one open. On the other hand, opening requires a tool such as a knife or a coin. In addition, the small size of the opening can make loading the canister a bit tricky.
- I own the small version (model BV-250) of the BearVault canister. This unit is about 2/3 the size of the normal canisters and weighs less than 2 pounds. It uses a different lid that unscrews. I was overjoyed when this canister was introduced; it is a great piece of gear, especially for solo backpackers or those who travel with others on very short trips. The standard bear canisters are quite large and bulky, especially when you try to squeeze them into smaller light or ultra-light packs. This model is enough smaller that it doesn’t create a problem. A solo backpacker who packs carefully should be able to squeeze up to one week’s worth of food into this canister. Be careful to avoid screwing the lid down too tightly – it can be a “bear” (groan…) to unscrew it.
- Other models are available, including some in the same low price range and others that are extremely expensive but which may save a few ounces.
- Large plastic trash-compacter bags
– useful for many things; wet stuff in the tent, protecting pack and other gear outside the tent, etc.
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