The Ultimate Hiker’s Gear Guide

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My first backpacking trip was a hike to a trail shelter in Shenandoah National Park in the early seventies. My brother and I carried frame-less canvas backpacks with webbing shoulder straps that my dad padded with upholstery foam. I don’t recall the sleeping bags or much else about the gear we used because my brother and I were much more interested in the creek near the shelter.

Dad poured over Colin Fletcher’s new book, The Complete Walker, and so did I. We studied his techniques and emulated them. We wrote away for catalogs and made a few pilgrimages to Vienna Virginia from our home in Fall’s Church to a backpacking and camping gear shop (what was the name of that place?) to buy what we could afford and that wasn’t much.

Forty years later we are inundated with a torrential stream of gear and advice making the “right” choice nearly impossible. Colin Fletcher’s simple gospel has fractured into dogmatic schisms, each with their holy book, magazine or website. Now there are backpackers, lightweight backpackers, ultralight backpackers and many flavors in between. I’ve read many backpacking books, tons of articles and blog posts and have grown tired of their often circular logic, rehashed advice and wondered if advertising dollars skewed their opinions.

Andrew Skurka’s new book, The Ultimate Hiker’s Gear Guide, will change the way we sling a pack on our backs and hoof it into the wild just as Fletcher’s Complete Walker once did. Fletcher’s first books recorded his monumental treks (The Thousand Mile Summer and The Man Who Walked Through Time) and these expeditions resulted in The Complete Walker. Skurka’s stunning 30,000 miles of trekking over the past decade have resulted in The Ultimate Hiker’s Gear Guide. His writing is as focused, practical and essential as his twenty pound pack – there’s nothing in it you don’t need.

My most successful backpacking trips have been those for which I had honest, accurate, and correct answers to three critical questions: 1. What are my objectives? 2. What are the environmental and route conditions that I will likely encounter during my trip, such as temperatures, precipitation, and water availability? and 3. What gear, supplies, and skills will best help me achieve my objectives and keep me safe and comfortable in those conditions?

Skurka’s writing may lack Fletcher’s prosaic warmth but is at least as effective. It’s a great counterpoint to a lot of outdoor how-to books that, in their attempt at warmth, become cloying and unfocused.

The first section of the book asks and answers the questions that many don’t think to ask until they are out on the trail with too much and/or too little gear, blistered feet, and soaking wet with no hope of getting dry; why am I doing this? Skurka uses his first real backpacking experience (a through hike of the Appalachian trail!) to explain what you are getting yourself into. He offers direction and advice that, if heeded, will save readers a great deal of discomfort.

An extensive analysis of the construction, function and use of gear follows. Skurka explains why and how things ought to work in a way that makes choosing gear relatively painless. While he does mention specific models and manufacturers, he goes well beyond the model number. The final section of the book offers gear lists for several different environments.

If you don’t think this sounds like anything new in one way you are right; there isn’t much new information in the guide because you don’t really need new information. When The Complete Walker was published forty plus years ago there were only a handful of books on the subject; now the amount of information out there can bring your trip planning and gear research to a standstill of indecision.

In this age of limitless information I value expert advice and observation presented between the covers a book. Those covers ward off distractions and focus our attention on information that really matters.

The Ultimate Hiker’s Gear Guide is my new go-to resource for backpacking gear information that’s truly useful.

-- Clarke Green  

The Ultimate Hiker’s Gear Guide: Tools and Techniques to Hit the Trail
Andrew Skurka
2012, 224 pages
$14

Available from Amazon



Evernew Water Carry Bladder

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The Evernew Water Carry bladder is the equivalent of a Camelbak that you don’t have to drink out of with a hose, and it’s the best solution for carrying water on a day-to-day basis that I’ve found. A few months back I got sick and tired of trying to find a place for my bulky stainless steel water bottle in my day bag, and decided to try out the Evernew bladder after a friend recommended them. They are especially popular amongst the ultra-light crowd given their light weight (mine weighs around an ounce when not filled) and superior packability (they can be rolled up to the size of a hi-lighter). Another bonus is that TSA won’t take it away from you when it’s empty (or at least they didn’t take it away from me on my most recent trip) allowing you to refill it once you get through security.

The beauty of the Evernew bladder is that when it’s empty it takes up absolutely no space, and when it’s full the flexible nature of the polyethylene means that it conforms to whatever space you put it in. At first I was worried that I would quickly tear a hole or somehow spring a leak in what I assumed to be a less-than-robust plastic, but after 6-months of hard use both of mine are still going strong. I’ve dropped them on sharp granite, shoved them to the bottom of my pack filled with rigid objects, stored them rolled up and have yet to find any signs of impending failure. The cap has never come loose, and I have never had one leak. Another benefit is that they can be retrofitted to work just like a Camelbak, all you have to do is buy the hose accessory that screws on.

The bottle I use on a daily basis holds .9 liters which is my sweet spot, but you can also find them in 0.6 and 2L varieties. They are designed so that when full they can stand on a flat surface unlike the bags that come in Camelbaks. Given that Evernew is a finicky Japanese supplier, these bottles can be hard to come by, but are well worth it if you can find them in stock. I do know that Platypus has a similar system out that is equally well-reviewed, but I can’t personally comment on their quality.

Many will rightfully point out that this bladder is made out of plastic. Like many of you I try to avoid plastic products, but in this case the Evernew is hands down better than anything else I’ve tried. Unlike other containers I’ve used it contributes absolutely no plasticky odor or taste to my water. While this may not be an indication of the relative likelihood of contamination I do what I can to minimize any risk (notably, I never fill it with boiling water, or leave it in the sun for too long).

-- Oliver Hulland  

[Note: Evernew is a finicky company, and stock of these water bottles frequently come and go. Several people have recommended these Platypus bottles available from Amazon as equally useful alternatives.--OH]

Evernew Water Carry Bladder
.9 L, 2L
$8, $10

Available from Pro Lite Gear

Manufactured by Evernew



Katadyn Pocket Microfilter

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While bottled water is available in most large towns throughout the world, in many remote locations the water quality is questionable. Even where bottled water is available it seems extremely wasteful to throw away a dozen plastic bottles every day. We used the Katadyn Pocket Microfilter to fill up our own canteens. On a bike trip through SouthEast Asia we were able to avoid purchasing about 20 of those liter bottles of water every day by having the pump. And of course in places without bottled water, this was a life-saver.

The Katadyn Pocket is different from everything else on the market. The first difference is the price. It costs is two-to-three times the price of it’s competition! Also, it is not lightweight. And really it’s not all that easy to use.

So what’s so great about it? Katadyn has been making this filter for decades. It has been used by the Navy Seals and other special forces for years. The aluminum construction makes it very durable.The filter is fully field-cleanable. That means there is no expensive filter cartridge to replace after a month of use. The ceramic cartridge in the Katadyn Pocket has a life of 13,000 gallons or 50,000 liters. So this filter will last for a lifetime of any adventure.

There are a few things that need to be done regularly to keep the filter in good working condition. The pores of the ceramic filter element absorb the contamination and must be scrubbed clean periodically. Generally I give it a light scrubbing after pumping about ten liters of sink water. If the water source is slightly salty or dirty then the element must be scrubbed more frequently. I can tell it needs a cleaning when the filter becomes difficult to pump. When I first began using the filter I would scrub it too often and too hard, removing more of the ceramic coating than necessary. The first filter wore our faster than the 50,000 liter limit and I learned my lesson. Now I am careful to scrub it lightly and evenly so the wear occurs at the outer edges of the filter at the same rate as the center.  Katadyn provides an organic lubricant that is applied to the pump handle at the bottom and the point where the rod enters the pump. While the lubricant is a tiny little tube it seems to last a long time.

Katadyn Pocket Water Microfilter
$280

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Katadyn

Sample Excerpts:

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Filling the water bag in a hotel bathroom in Thailand




Nissan Thermal Cooker

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Ever wish you could whip up a pot of chicken and dumplings, go on your bike ride or canoe paddle or even just hike, and have it piping hot and ready for you when you get back to the car? Ok, more likely it rained or snowed on your ride/paddle/hike and you’re shivering and wish you had any hot food back at the car. This is experience speaking.

Nissan, the makers of vacuum mugs to keep your coffee warmer longer, also makes a 4-quart powerless crockpot. No plugs. No heater. It’s wonderful.

Here’s how it works: pull the inner pot out of the device and put it on the range at home (or the stove at camp). Insert ingredients. Heat ‘em up to a boil. Put the inner-lid on, then insert the inner pot into the outer pot. Seal the outer-lid. Put the whole device in your car (or your boat, or your dogsled). Have some fun for 3-6 hours. Open the pots and dish out the steaming food.

Incredibly, the first time this device was debuted in the U.S., it was marketed towards tailgaters and, well, flopped. But I had heard about it, and even though it was unavailable on this continent, managed to have a pot shipped over from Taiwan.

Avid outdoorswoman that I am, I had other uses for this kitchen gadget then side dishes for the football stadium parking lot. One morning, I shucked into my wetsuit and paddled into Emerald Bay in Lake Tahoe and back, fighting the chill May wind both ways. After landing the boat, I hopped on my mountain bike and rode the famous Flume trail from the highway up to the snow line. I saw thunderclouds across the mountains and booked down to the car, 2,000 feet below, almost making it before the rain began. I was shivery; just short of hypothermic. I was also happy that before I’d launched the bike, I had the foresight to boil elbow mac, burger, and canned tomatos in the Nissan Thermal Cooker. Hot food = life.

The crock pot has recently come back on the market, and is again being hyped as a tailgater essential. Bah. Tailgaters and church-potluckers aren’t going to shell out $149 for a crockpot. People who do endurance races in the northern climates: now there’s your target audience. And don’t forget that this crockpot is more electricity-efficient than the normal kitchen plug-in models; it takes none once it’s hot so it makes a great kitchen addition for the average treehugger.

-- Rita Nygren  

Thermos Thermal Cooker
$166
Available from Get Prepared Stuff

Manufactured by Thermos

Sample Excerpts:

Simple recipes:
1 lb hamburger, browned
2 cans diced tomato
1 lb of elbow mac
Combine ingredients, bring to boil, seal, wait 3 hours. Serves 2-4 people.

Rice-a-roni (any flavor)
Butter
Canned chicken
Fresh veggies, diced
Prepare rice as directed on box. When you get to the cover and simmer stage, dump in the chicken and veggies, then seal in pot. Cook a little longer then directions call for. Servers 2.

2 cans chicken broth
1 can chicken
2 cups wild rice blend
2 cups Simply Veggies (freeze dried vegetables)
Bay leaf
Salt & pepper
Combine ingredients and boil, leave over heat for 5-10 minutes. Seal in pot. Wait 2-4 hours. Serves 4-8 people.




Tom Bihn Western Flyer

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After three weeks of coast-to-coast holiday visits, I am finally unpacking the trusty carry-on bags that have transported two seasons of clothing options and gifts given and received. Yet again, my Tom Bihn Western Flyer has stolen the show. I got this bag a while ago when my fiance and I were searching for maximum carry-on limit luggage (mine is actually one of their mid-sized bags, not MLC) that was attractive, durable, and functional. Since then it has been a go-to weekend bag and was an indispensable component of a four month stint in Southeast Asia.

Why is the Tom Bihn Western Flyer better than my favorite suitcase, messenger bag, or backpack? This bag combines the elements of all of these into one super tidy, easy to use package. Like a suitcase, I can pack everything I need for travel. The main compartment is big enough to store days worth of clothes and a change of shoes. I packed for a ten day trip in Nepal in just this bag! The front compartment has a divider to split the compartment in two and generally keeps my toiletries, electronics (chargers, etc) and books organized and easy to reach wthout digging through my unmentionables. The front pockets are weather sealed and hold my travel pillow, headphones, keys (and all the other bits and pieces I pick up along the way). The bag has an optional handle, shoulder strap and hide-away backpack straps. Because I like the balance and comfort of a backpack, these padded straps are out all the time and keep my hands free for a coffee and/or a roller bag.
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And the Tom Bihn is better than my other options because it is super durable. I don’t treat my luggage lightly, and after several beatings, pushings and pullings, and weeks of over-stuffing, the bag looks as good as new. This is part due to the super tough over-sized zippers that don’t complain. But all of this is just in MY experience, and is suited to my particular form of travel. Better still are the materials. My inability to destroy this bag comes from the U.S. 1050 denier Ballistic nylon (translation: destruction-retarding) exterior and the light and tough Dyeema/nylon ripstop that lines the interior.
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Though I love my Western Flyer, I’ve been impressed with a number of their products, and can’t help but mention ONE accessory that provides further function. The Packing Cube Backpack functions like a normal packing cube for both the Western Flyer and the slightly larger Tri-Star. I normally do not bother with packing cubes, but this one also has thin, light backpack straps. If I am only traveling with one big bag, this gives me the option for a lightweight day pack without taking up any space. Plus, it looks really cool.

-- Kristyna Solawetz  

Tom Bihn Western Flyer
$210+ (price varies with extras)

Available from Tom Bihn

Packing Cube Backpack
$40

Available from Tom Bihn

Sample Excerpts:

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The front pockets of the Tom Bihn Western Flyer.

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Tom Bihn Packing Cube Backpack




Western Mountaineering Down Booties

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I am not prone to getting cold very often, but when I do it is almost invariably my feet that suffer. And there is nothing more uncomfortable than cold feet, or the inordinately long time it takes to warm them up again.

After having mentioned this repeatedly to my fiancee I was recently given a pair of Western Mountaineering Down Booties as a gift. They are, I will be the first to admit, absolutely ridiculous looking when worn, but also the warmest things I have ever had the pleasure of wearing on my feet. Designed for winter camping, they are filled with 800-fill power goose down that provide an impressive amount of insulation (which, when puffed up around your feet, also gives the impression of wearing clown/astronaut shoes).

Unlike other models designed solely for wear around the house, the WM down booties have a tough and water proof bottom (with a thin layer of foam insulation) that can be worn while camping or on quick trips to the mailbox. Another useful feature is an elastic collar that wraps around the ankle that traps in hot air (similar to a down collar in a sleeping bag). This amount of warmth the down provides is impressive and far greater than any other slipper I’ve tried. The fact that they weigh 6-oz total (while being significantly compressible) means I can easily travel/camp with them.

While the booties are not cheap they are definitely worth the cost to keep my feet warm around the house (while also allowing me to turn down the thermostat a degree or two) or while out camping on a cold night.

-- Oliver Hulland  

[Note: For those looking for something more appropriate for wear in a sleeping bag I have heard great things about the domestically produced Goosefeet Down Socks. --OH]

Western Mountaineering Down Booties
$80
Available from Backcountry

Manufactured by Western Mountaineering



Sea to Summit eVent Compression Sacks

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I’ve used these Sea to Summit eVent compression sacks the last few times I’ve travelled abroad or while backpacking, and found them to be an essential travelling companion. Their main function is to keep stuff dry while also compressing and organizing the contents of my pack. The Sea to Summit sacks are unique in their use of eVent fabric (a semi-permeable membrane) which allows for greater compression and the formation of a vacuum like seal.

Before compressing the sack with the supplied compression straps, the Sea to Summit bag’s roll-top is sealed. Then, by pulling the straps taut, air is driven out of the one-way breathable eVent membrane that lines the bottom of the bag. As air is pushed out something akin to a weak vacuum is formed (eVent is impermeable to water and semi-permeable to air). I found that even after loosening the straps the contents remain compressed (it will eventually equalize as air seeps back in, but very slowly). This dramatically reduces the amount of space soft compressible items like socks, clothes, sleeping bags, etc. take up.

I currently own two, in small (10 L) and large (20 L), and have been blown away at how much I’ve been able to compress into my pack. They are super light (4.5 oz and 5.9 oz, respectively), and as tough as any other compression sack I’ve tried. While travelling in Bangladesh they kept my moisture sensitive camera gear dry even during downpours, and all my tests at home found them to be 100% waterproof (just be sure to not compress anything with sharp edges). While they are more expensive than traditional dry sacks, the superior compression and vacuum-like seal really make it worthwhile when trying to minimize pack space while maximizing protection.

-- Oliver Hulland, December 2011  

Sea to Summit eVent Compression Dry Sack
XS (6 L), S (10 L), M (15 L), L (20 L) XL (30 L)
$19-$45

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Sea to Summit



P-38 Can Opener

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I have carried a P-38 since I first encountered one about 40 years ago in my introduction to US Army combat rations during Basic Training at Fort Jackson in South Carolina.  Each case of combat rations had a dozen or so P-38s or more officially “OPENER, CAN, HAND, FOLDING, TYPE I”.  The older P-38s were made of steel and the later ones of aluminum.  In either case the P-38 folds flat and attaches easily to a key ring.  In addition to opening a can, I personally have used it many times over the years as a screwdriver, lever, and knife.

– Steven Cochran

I have always carried a pocket knife. The current one is a slim Schrade two-blade model, small enough not to wear holes in my pocket. And I have a Leatherman tool in a belt case for days when I have multiple chores.

But my other every-day carry item is an Army surplus P-38 can opener. It opens cans, of course, since the old C-rations and K-rations used cans, while the more recent Meals-Ready-to-Eat rations do not.

It scribes lines. It opens envelopes, after a fashion. It cleans fingernails and serves as a small scraper. And it has tightened hundreds of loose screws.

The P-38 can opener: a mark of competency since 1940 or thereabouts.

– Chas Clifton

I was issued my P-38 in the summer of 1960, and it has always been on whatever keychain I had in pocket since then.  It seems as if I have had the occasion to use this simple device at least twice a week. Breaking through the sometimes impenetrable packaging that seems to cover everything we buy these days, to an ideal fingernail cleaner, and, occasionally a great can opener.  There is nothing out there that is as light, inexpensive, durable, and useful as my trusty p-38.

– Casey Goeller

 

[We've reviewed the P-38 in the past, but it's a tool review we get sent so often and with such enthusiasm that it seemed overdue for an update. Here's an article (or two) for those interested in the story behind the P-38. --OH ]

GI P-38 Can Opener
$2

Available from Amazon



Swaygo Caving Pack

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Caving is one of my weirder hobbies, and it has introduced me to a fascinating array of tools including one of my favorite possessions; the incredibly durable waterproof roll-top caving pack from Swaygo.

On any trip underground you’re almost guaranteed to ruin one piece of gear or clothing. It’s a tough environment, and as such it requires unusually tough gear. The Swaygo is one of the toughest tools I own. The minimalist roll-top bag is made entirely out of polyurethane impregnated and coated nylon, that is tough as nails (and closer to a car tire than anything else I can think of). It has RF welded seams, and the roll-top is locked by a carabiner (unlike a previous bag I used that had plastic clips that failed mid-trip). The roll-top combined with the impregnated nylon makes the bag waterproof, and the toughness of the skin means that even in scrapes and falls the gear inside is kept safe and sound.

Unlike other roll-top bags, the Swaygo is designed with durability, flexibility and tight squeezes in mind. The shoulder straps are made out of webbing, and connect to the bag via three carabiners. The carabiners provide additional utility in that when you are crawling or climbing and need to drag the bag behind you, the top carabiner can be looped and clipped to your leg; when pulled this shortens the shoulder straps, drawing the webbing through a grommet creating a single long leash that minimizes snags during tight crawls.

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While not designed for comfort, the bag itself feels great while caving. It’s designed to be worn with the rolltop on the bottom, minimizing the bulk at the top of the pack when crawling or duck-walking thereby further reducing snagging while also keeping most of the weight at the bottom of the pack.

Swaygo packs come in three sizes. I own the Push (740 cubic inches) which was perfect for my needs (it swallowed my pocket camera, three extra sources of light, a Nalgene water bottle, granola bars, and extra wool underwear). But for those who need something larger on longer trips, they also make the Pit (950 cubic inches) and the massive Sink (1,200 cubic inches) for $10 and $20 more, respectively.

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After a recent caving trip I learned of a cave rescue in Tennessee that was made possible, in part, by four Swaygo packs. By inflating the packs with air and lashing them to the injured caver, the cave-rescue team was able to float the patient out of the cave using their packs as pontoons. I mention this only because in a tough situation I know I can depend on a bag as well-designed and built as the Swaygo. It’s built by a caver, for cavers, and as such it has the refined utility that, for me at least, is the definition of a cool tool.

-- Oliver Hulland  

Swaygo Pack
Push (740 cubic inches)
$109
Pit (950 cubic inches)
$119
Sink (1200 cubic inches)
$129

Available from and manufactured by Swaygo Gear



Starbucks VIA Instant Coffee

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Since learning how to roast my own beans I have come to appreciate the broader art of coffee making. However, I don’t always have time to roast coffee weekly or bring along my burr-grinder and kettle to brew a fresh cup. This is especially the case while camping and travelling.

The best solution I have found for caffeinating while abroad or on the go is Starbucks VIA instant coffee. Unlike the distasteful and often saccharine Nescafe instant coffee (among other brands), VIA tastes like freshly brewed coffee. I recently compared it to fresh brewed Starbucks and found that I actually preferred VIA to the fresher, darker brew (perhaps because food scientists at Starbucks have eliminated the Barista variable).

Not only does the VIA taste better than other instant brands, but it also dissolves better. The fine powder (described in the marketing as soluble micro-grounds) dissolves equally well in cold water as hot, allowing for instant iced coffee in the summer (or when I need to run out the door and don’t have time to wait for the kettle to boil). Each packet is supposed to make a strong 8-oz cup, but I find that it tastes best when diluted in about 12-oz of water.

VIA comes in small foil packets that are very similar to the previously reviewed Smart Spice packets, and like the spices the individual foil packets keep the coffee fresh when compared to the larger containers of instant coffee. The form factor is incredibly small (4 grams per packet) and as such the folks at Backpacking Light swear by it as a replacement for camp coffee.

The only downside to VIA is its expense with each packet costing around 60 cents which when compared to Nescafe’s 12 cents a cup seems a bit costly. However, it’s still cheaper than buying a cup at the coffee shop, and probably on par with how much my beans cost from the store. Finally, I’d recommend that people stay away from the sweetened variety of VIA as they are more expensive, less compact, and not as good as the simpler stuff.

VIA represents a quantum leap in the quality of instant coffee I’ve tried, and I remain blown away that I find myself choosing instant coffee over fresh-brewed stuff. I highly recommend that people set aside any lingering instant coffee prejudice and try a cup for themselves.

-- Oliver Hulland  

Starbucks VIA Instant Coffee
12 packets for $11
Available from Amazon

50 packets for $30

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Starbucks