Gear Systems

We hike using lightweight gear systems, inspired by Ray Jardine in his book Beyond Backpacking. In general, there are two main principles: 1) with the exception of emergency survival gear, all gear should be used everyday in order to justify carrying it and, 2) each item of gear should serve multiple purposes and work as a piece to a larger system.

The Pack
Until recently, there have been few choices in packs besides internal or external frame. Packs have been getting bigger and bigger, designed to hold increasing loads. Somehow, it was manly to carry lots of stuff that wasn't needed--and to forego thinking through chosen gear items to save bulk and weight. Beginning with GoLite, about a decade ago, Ray Jardine's designs were marketed for the rest of the hiking world to enjoy. It's certainly taken years for the world of lightweight packing to catch on--and for light to become the new heavy in terms of trendiness.

Here's the concept behind the pack: it's the basis of the lightweight system. The lighter the load inside the pack, the less burden required of the pack and therefore the lighter it can be. With loads under 35 pounds, most frameless packs will be comfortable. Often the sleeping pad will be placed around the inner rim of the internal compartment to act as a frame (note the dual purpose of the pad). The idea is that one can build an entire lightweight system that can reasonably fit into this smaller pack.

We both use the GoLite Pinnacle, which is a mid-sized pack option. It has one main compartment, one smaller zippered compartment in front, and two hydration pouches on either side of the pack.

The Sleep System: Shelter, Quilt, etc.
Our sleep systems are slightly different in design than what might be expected. Instead of an enclosed tent, we use a lightweight tarp as a sleep shelter. The GoLite Cave II, made of silicon-impregnated lightweight nylon, is our choice. It is lightweight and roomy, sleeping 3 comfortably. Despite its thin look, this shelter can withstand rain and wind when pitched correctly. Since there are openings on either end, condensation is minimal. Also, wet clothes can be hung on the inside to dry well overnight. There's no floor built-in to this shelter, which allows it to be set up during a storm without getting the floor--a thin piece of plastic--wet.
Instead of traditional sleeping bags, we use sleeping quilts. Quilts are essentially the top section of a traditional sleeping bag.  The logic is that the sleeping bag beneath you doesn't insulate much better than the ground does. Except for providing additional cushion, the bottom part of the sleeping bag doesn't serve much use. Jared uses the GoLite Ultra 20 quilt which weighs only 21.5 ounces! Dave uses the original GoLite Fur 1, weighing a much heftier 35.3 ounces. Many backpacking mummy bags weigh 5-7 pounds or more, so this is quite the savings in weight. There is no "mummy top" on quilts because the quilts are intended to be used as a part of the sleep system. A lightweight fleece beanie is worn to retain heat. Additionally, extra clothing is worn to sleep as needed to provide added insulation.

Selecting the correct site to pitch the tarp is key. Packed-down dirt is less comfortable and actually provides less insulation than do more lightly-packed surfaces, or those with organic "duff" added to suit. After choosing the correct site, and using natural duff cushion, the sleeping pad does not need to be very thick. We both use a small Thermarest RidgeRest, a 1/2 inch closed-cell foam pad which can be cut to half-length (the bottom part doesn't do much and isn't needed).

Clothing Systems
Our clothing is also designed to work together in a system. Here are the various parts to the system:

Shell Jacket & Pants: These are made of a lightweight, breathable nylon and are used throughout each day. They work well as "starter" clothing to wear in the morning chill as we break down camp and begin hiking. Since they breathe well, they work well until the sun gets too powerful. They can be worn directly over the skin in warm weather to serve as protection from bugs and brush. They function well as mosquito protection as they are too thick to be penetrated, and can even be too slippery for ticks to climb on. The legs and waist of the pants have elastic which prevent ticks and other bugs from crawling inside. All this means we aren't required to carry chemical repellents. Dave uses the original "Ray-Way" GoLite Bark jacket (see review) a Trunk pants. Jared uses the GoLite Virga jacket and Reed pants.

Breathable Shirt: Ray Jardine recommends a long-sleeve, buttoned polyester shirt. While this has many benefits, there are many more synthetic fibers in production today that are lighter, stronger, and offer more ventilation than traditional polyester. We choose shirts that weigh around 5 ounces and breathe well. This shirt becomes the primary layer, so it's important to find something with adequate ventilation.

Hiking Shorts: After miles and miles of hiking, it's only natural to experience chaffing around the legs. A great solution to this is to wear bike shorts as the base layer--they're lightweight and close-fitting, preventing the legs from touching each other with each step. They are very thin and will dry easily while hiking. We both wear some sort of shorts over these: Dave wears impact-resistant climbing shorts while Jared prefers convertible pant/shorts.

Insulated Jacket: This item isn't always required, depending on the time of year and the location. It functions as additional insulation, worn at night underneath the quilt. When hiking in weather that might only require donning the jacket right before sleep, consider leaving it at home. Don't forget that the quilt can be used outside of the tarp to much of the same function as a jacket. Don't bring more than you truly need, but make sure you're confident without it before leaving it at home! We typically don't bring an insulated jacket on Sierra hikes during the summer, but sometimes the late summer can bring unanticipated snow and cold.

Rain Jacket: This item is made of a silicon-impregnated nylon, much like the tarp shelter. It does not breathe well, so is difficult to use while hiking except while in very cold weather. Still, it's a very necessary item through late spring and early fall, and for unpredictable summer storms. The jacket can also serve as added warmth when worn during extra cold nights.

Rain Pants: These are rarely used except for in the worst of rain storms. Still, similar to the rain jacket described above, there is good reason to have them along.

Socks: Thin socks work best. They breathe well, don't cause extra sweat, and dry quickly. Thin socks, when combined with ventilated running shoes, mean that stepping in a creek or hiking in the rain don't put a damper on the day. Additionally, drier feet mean a reduced risk of blisters or fungal growth. Double up pairs if your feet are cold. Dave prefers DeFeet Wool-E-Ator socks while Jared uses Wigwam wool socks.

Beanie: A lightweight fleece beanie functions well during the night to retain body heat. It can be pulled over the face for added warmth, or to keep bugs from bitting. In the mornings, they're worn as we start hiking so that a heavier jacket isn't required, and because they can instantly be pulled off when the body suddenly realizes it's too hot.We both use homemade fleece beanies following Ray Jardine's simple design.

Mittens: We've made these out of the same lightweight fleece material as our beanies. They're worn to sleep and during early morning hiking. Breaking down camp in the morning can leave the fingers numb for a while, which is why it's great to have a warm pair of mittens to put on right after handling the freezing tarp stakes. Don't think of these as a luxury--there's not much to them--but they sure are helpful!

Sun Hat: Nerdy-looking? Yes. Useful? Absolutely! A good sun hat is required when hiking lengths above the tree-line, where there is little natural protection from the sun. Without a sun hat, sunscreen is required to avoid burning the face and back of the neck. We usually forget to put on sunscreen and get burnt, but also it's a hassle carrying the stuff and smelling like it all the time. Jared uses the Tilley Air Flo Hat and Dave uses the Headsweats ProTech Hat.

Head-Net: Any simple no-see-um mesh mosquito net will do. This, combined with the shell jacket and pants, means that the whole body is protected from those irritating mosquitos. We can avoid using bug spray, especially in the evenings, by suiting up with the final touch of the head net.

Hiking boots are an item from the past, providing more hurt than help to lightweight hiking. We used to wear these heavy footwear, justifying their clunkiness as "ankle support". However, when a pack is lightened overall, there is no longer a need to support the ankles from extremely heavy loads. Certainly pack loads
under 35 pounds do not require hiking boots for ankle support. We choose running shoes because of their light weight and durability. Ray Jardine estimates that for every 1.75 pounds removed from a single shoe or boot "can add about a mile to the hiker's daily progress", without any additional effort. I'm not sure if I agree with his numbers completely, but the concept is definitely true to a significant extent. Consider hiking a mile with concrete blocks strapped to each foot, and then hiking for the same amount of time in normal street shoes. It's similar to baseball players warming-up with a weighted "doughnut" on the bat, allowing the unweighted swing to deliver more of a punch from the same effort. Additionally, running shoes offer the hiker more agility than boots which often caused delayed responses to stumbles.

Another benefit of running shoes is the breathability.  While many boots are waterproof, they'll eventually get wet inside from creek crossing, a bad seal, or from normal sweat while hiking. When boots get wet, they don't dry quickly. Meanwhile, your feet are more likely to develop blisters. Running shoes are designed to get wet because they can quickly dry while you hike in them.

We both prefer Salomon running shoes. Although they tend to be pricier, they are reliable and comfortable on the trail. 

Cooking System
We mostly rely on energy bars as a source of food. See the JMT Menu page for a good overview of our daily intake.  However, we do have one hot meal each day, usually in the late afternoon before we've reached camp. Our meal of choice is usually Near East couscous, which only requires that water be boiled (or really just heated near boiling). To do this, we use a Pepsi Can Stove (pictured to left). Weighing in at around 0.1 ounce, this stove is durable and runs quite efficiently on denatured alcohol fuel.

We boil water in the REI Ti Ware 0.9L Pot with lid, which weighs a combined 4.75 ounces. This titanium pot is actually larger than required for two meals, but can be useful for other tasks that require a reservoir (cleaning, etc.). We use a few stakes from the tarp shelter (or some rocks) to prop the water pot. Simple aluminum foil is used as a wind shield.

This system usually allows us to stop, heat water, eat a warm meal, repack (the Pepsi Can Stove only takes a minute to cool), and get hiking again, all within 30 minutes or less, if desired.

Hiking 20+ miles in a day with significant elevation change requires drinking a lot of water. When it's hot, even more hydration is required.  Hiking requires knowing when and where your next water source is. We try to arrive at the next water source without any water remaining. It's pointless to carry water from Source A to Source B if you don't use it in between. Of course, it would waste time if we were to stop at every water source to refill. Thus, we plan ahead and choose where we will refill next, ensuring we drink enough before getting there. We each carry two 2-liter collapsible Platypus containers. These can be used with a hose/mouthpiece; we've found this helpful for keeping us hydrated. It's very convenient!

There are many lightweight hiking enthusiasts that do not treat there water in the backcountry. While we agree with their claims that choosing the correct water source is key, and that a resistance to many of the microbial foes can be attained, we do not feel it is worth the risk. We use a 0.22 micron filter, which definitely adds weight, but is sure to prevent infection when used properly. Our filter of choice has been the reliable old PUR Hiker (since bought by Katadyn). Usually twice a day, we generally pump water at stream crossings.

Bear Protection in the High Sierras
Bears are generally not a problem until careless humans teach them to find food unnaturally. In the past, we were able to put our food on one end of a rope and suspend it from a high tree limb. Bears have learned how to down these lines, so bear bags are no longer allowed in most Sierra wilderness areas. Several areas in the Sierras now require food to be stored in proper containers. Failure to do so can result in a citation along with a hefty fine. Worse yet, failure to properly store food leads to "problem bears" being shot and killed.  There are some storage lockers at established camps along the PCT, JMT, and other major trails, but these constrain where you may camp. Ray Jardine and other well-known lightweight hikers sleep with their food, making noises to scare off any curious bears that wander nearby. While this would probably work, it's not completely safe. They do this to save pack weight, but we don't feel that weight savings justifies the risk to either humans or bears.
There are a few major personal bear canisters that are approved by most National Parks. Consider the BearKeg, the Garcia, or the BearVault products. We both prefer BearVault products (BV-400/500) because they are lightweight, transparent, and have a large opening on top. While each of our canisters adds a couple of pounds, we never worry about going hungry due to a bear getting into our food supply.
Many people don't quite understand that bears aren't only attracted by food scents. They're curious creatures with good noses. We use the term "smellable" to label any item that needs to be in the bear canister. These items include food, food wrappers, scented products (lip balm, sunscreen, insect repellent, etc.), first aid kit, and clothing that has come in contact with food. When using sunscreen and insect repellent, we are sure not to apply any within 3-4 hours of going to sleep. We often used 5pm as the cut-off time for the final application. It's important to thoroughly check all clothing pockets and backpack compartments for food/wrappers before going to sleep. We prefer to keep all smellables seperate at all times, in their own bag, which makes it easier to get to sleep.
Subpages (2): Dave's Gear Jared's Gear