Air-Cooled Day Packs

I have become enamored of new European packs which allow for complete back ventilation. I picked up one by Deuter in Amsterdam last fall and it has become my favorite day and cycling pack. Since I sweat a lot, I generally try and avoid wearing packs while exercising, but this pack has eliminated this problem. The new packs are suspended off your back with a nylon mesh fabric. This web also makes the pack the most comfortable I have ever worn, as weight distributes itself across your back, and the trampoline effect of the mesh absorbs the shock loads you usually get from packs while exercising.

I have found three companies that make them (interestingly all German). I am using one by Deuter called the AC Lite 15. A professional cyclist friend uses one of the small Vaude packs like this and swears by it as well. They all seem to have good allowances for hydration systems, and some have integrated rain covers and helmet holders. The down side is that because of the frame it is not the lightest pack you can get for its size, but even for an ultra-light weenie like me the trade off has been worth it. They are somewhat difficult to find in the US, but I have seen them for sale in some mountaineering and cycling shops. You can get catalogs from the websites and do mail order as well. Each company that makes them also makes traditional suspension pack systems, so inspect the catalogs carefully for the buzzwords like Air Comfort and AeroFlex suspension.

Deuter AC Lite 18

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Deuter
The other companies that manufacture these bags: - Vaude AeroFlex - Jack Wolfskin

Light Backpacking


A collection of great gear for folks who like to travel light:

Maxit Beanie

This is what professional football players wear under their helmets for games in Green Bay in December—very thin, very light, lots of warmth. I always have one in my pocket along with the Duckbill (which it goes comfortably under) and am ready for anything hatwise (except rain, where an OR Snoqualmie Sombrero does best, or the Golite umbrella)

Maxit Beanie
Available from Stretching Inc.

Or $19 from Amazon

“Survival” Ground Sheet

I long sought for an ideal ground sheet to go with the ultralight tarp. Other “space blankets” are either too heavy or too fragile, but this one of augmented tyvek is perfect. If you’ve nothing better to read, you can read the survival instructions on it.

Thermo-Lite Emergency Survival Blanket
Available from Campmor

Kelty Cloud Pack

Extravagant but wonderful—birthday fodder. It is superlight (the Spectra cloth is so tough it won’t even take a dye, so all models are white) and super adaptable—nearly every component can be subtracted or added, so you take only as much pack as you want for the occasion. The waist belt molds to you, and can also be left behind. It’s a pack for going out and staying out.

Kelty Cloud 4500 or 4750
Available from

Or $120 from Amazon (women’s)

Petzl Zipka Headlamp

LED bulbs changed everything in light flashlights (the Photon Micro-Lite 2 is still the best for keychains). Longtime headlamp maker Petzl came up with a new level of ingenuity in this version, which reels in its own strap. For making camp in the dark, reading in a tent, or exploring new trails at night, there’s nothing better.

Petzl Zipka Headlamp
Available from Amazon

Z-Rest Pad

Now the best sleeping or loafing foam pad. The accordion fold means that it lies flat instantly without curling, nests its cells for greater compactness, can be simply halved for double the padding for a seat, and folds up quickly. Wet mossy log, rocky ground, burr-filled grass? Drop this and all is comfy and dry. No reason to get larger than the 3/4 length.

Z-Rest (20x72x0.75 in.)
Available from from Amazon

Royal Robbins Expedition Shirt

There are plenty of non-cotton hiking shirts that dry quickly and disperse sweat. This is the best I’ve found for that, but the winning feature is the side-opening “document pockets” on each side—you can stash a map in one side and your light binoculars in the other, both instantly accessible while wearing a pack. The shirt used to have a dorky look and colors, but that’s been fixed.

Men’s L/S Coolmax Expedition Shirt
Royal Robbins Outdoor Travel Clothing

Pilot’s Finger Light

When you want to keep your night vision, a red flashlight is essential. For a long time I’ve used a red Photon Micro-Lite. This thing from an extreme-gear new supplier is better. It fits on your finger (or can be mounted on glasses) and directs all its bright LED light forward in a sharp cone—designed specifically for reading maps or text in the dark, but also usable for traveling a known trail. When sleeping under the stars, I prefer it for reading because it doesn’t light up the night or blind me. Nifty item.

S-LITE LED Finger Light
Ceejay Engineering


Patagonia Duckbill Cap

It was originally designed for kayakers before helmets took over, so it dries in a trice. Super-light, it can be wadded up in a pocket like a handkerchief, but it does all the duties you want from a hat in terms of shade for your eyes and sun protection, while providing maximum ventilation. Mine goes everywhere with me.

Patagonia Spoonbill Cap
Previously available from Amazon and Blue Ridge Mountain Sports

GoLite Gear

Inspired by Ray Jardine, this backpacking supplier makes commercial versions of his ultralight designs for tarps, backpacks, sleeping bags, etc. and now is prospering from equipping the various “Eco-challenge” type racers plus lazy people like me. Though I had no use for the Jardine approach to sleeping bags (top layer only; I’m happier with a North Face Cat’s Meow), all the other products I’ve tried (see below) have been exceptional.

[The only product Stewart recommended in 2003, which is still available, is the umbrella. Needless to say, GoLite stocks newer -- presumably improved -- versions. If you have any experience with other products from GoLite, please let us know. ]

Go Lite

Umbrella Jardine is right: for sun and for rain, nothing beats the convenience of a light, simple umbrella. I take it along for everything but night hiking. Dome Umbrella $32 * Stuff Sacks (no longer available) Also of silicone-impregnated nylon, they are light and slippery. I got the smallest for stashing my groundcloth (see below), and the largest works as a waterproof liner for the daypack.

Landlubber's Stow Sack (RAY-WAY) $21 * Tarp (model no longer available) Perhaps the most radical Jardine item, this little handful of silicone-impregnated ripstop nylon replaces everything but a winter tent. No poles---you tie to trees or to any-length sticks you find in the woods. It is dramatically more flexible than a tent, pegged tight to the ground for a storm or poised high overhead as I did once for the nicest night I've ever spent in a light rain. I found it worth replacing some of the dark tie-lines with bright yellow lines now available in outdoor stores, so you don't trip in the dark.
Cave 1 One-Two Person Tarp (RAY-WAY) Price: $125 * Daypack (model longer available*) It feels positively wispy empty, but reinforced with Spectra thread it's strong enough for all you'll need or want for a day, with particularly convenient mesh pockets on the back and sides.
Breeze Ultra-Lite Hiking Pack (RAY-WAY) $70 *Please see the more recently-reviewed Gossamer Whisper Uberlight Pack

Ortlieb Dry Bags

The German company Ortlieb produce a range of waterproof items. These are excellent for use while trekking, motorcycling, bicycling, caving, canoeing, etc. I usually put clothing and sleeping bags in Ortlieb dry bags inside my rucksack. I am guaranteed that stuff will keep dry, and it makes it easier to organize the backpack.

I also have a larger Ortlieb bag which I use when I go on motorcycling trips. Useful stuff, and excellent quality/durability. They produce a range of items.

-- Helge A. Gudmundsen  

PD-350 Dry Bags
Available from Ortlieb

Packman Pro 2
Available from Ortlieb

Additional options available from Ortlieb USA

G4 Pack

My girlfriend Gwen got one of the super-ultra-light G4 packs by GVP (as used by ‘Flyin Brian’ in his triple crown hike).

It is truly an ingenious pack. It takes all the lessons of the Go-Lite Breeze and goes a step further. It is a 4000+ cu pack that looks like 3000cu pack and has a waist belt (which many of the ultralights don’t have) and still comes in at 16oz.

The most ingenious part of it is that it uses a Z-Rest sleeping pad as the “frame.” This feature is shared with the Go-Lite Breeze but the G4 allows you to load it from the outside of the bag so you don’t have to unload everything out of the way.

The other key advantage is its configurability. The straps are set up to allow you to add only the bare minimum of foam (or unused clothing) needed for your body type. And you have the option of ordering it made to your specs with various loops, dividers and pockets according to your preference.

The real proof of it being a great pack however is that even with the pack loaded down with camping and climbing gear Gwen, weighing in at 120lb, said it was the most comfortable she had ever worn. (She was a bit skeptical of the whole thing at first and thought it was too light to work at all.)

G4 Ultralight Backpack
Available from Gossamer Gear

Tom Bihn Brain Bag

I spend 16 weeks a year touring back and forth across Canada. I work six nights a week – usually in a different city every night. My gear is in and out of airplanes and vans virtually every day. I have been a serious luggage fetishist for years (have been touring for 30) and have gone through every conceivable combination of suitcase and bag.

For the last four or five years I’ve been carrying a back pack. There were always obvious balance and hands-free comfort improvements with a backpack, but until a few years ago they were all made with hikers and outdoors people in mind. There was nowhere to put your computer, paper, and other essential toys. The Brain Bag is my second computer-oriented backpack. (An important additional virtue of a carrying a back pack is that they seem far less likely to be housing approximately $8000 worth of computer and related stuff and so are less likely to be stolen.)

I’m hard on luggage – even my guaranteed-for-life Tumi suitcase is starting to give out. My carry-on bags usually had a life-span of less than a year. The Bihn bag, after two years, looks brand new. It’s an organizational dream – obviously designed by someone who gives a shit. The computer (in my case a G4 Titanium) fits safely and snugly into a Velcro-closed, floating hard case in the back compartment. On top of it goes the “Snake Charmer” which is a two compartment accessories bag with see-through mesh sides that *perfectly* fits the remaining space. In the front compartment is an organizer for paper, files, etc. (the “Freudian Slip”) that can be removed from the bag easily. Each side of the slip is configured differently, so depending on how you choose to use it, you orient it with the most useful side out. There are three big pockets on the front and a water bottle holder thing. Two of these pockets are subdivided inside for further organization.

All the hardware and material is first class and the thing fits so well that often, at airports or waiting at hotel reception desks for check-in, I forget to take it off.

I love the bag not just because it’s a great bag but also because it’s an intelligently conceived, beautifully designed and well-made thing. A rare find these days.

-- Ra McGuire  

Brain Bag: Big Profesional Backpack

Available from Tom Bihn