Posts Tagged ‘gear’

Sleeping Pads

March 26th, 2010

Choosing the right backcountry sleeping pad is vital for two reasons:

Cushioning while sleeping on the naked earth, and just as important

Insulation against the chilly ground, which can be really cold.
Certain mattresses offer more insulating value than others, so make sure you look into this.

There are estentially three types:  Self-inflating, foam and manual-inflating.

Self-inflating mattresses, blowup or foam pads all of which can vary in weight and thickness.  So you need to balances weight against comfort and price of course.  While self-inflating mattresses are two or three times pricier and heavier than manual inflators and foam pads but are more popular.  Self-inflaters inflate in minutes at the twist of a valve, though you usually have to firm them up with a few breaths.  Thermarest is the leader in this category and the ProLite 4 is their flagship backcountry pad.   It weighs 24oz and has a mummy shape.  You can also buy a kit that converts the pad into a chair.


Common are ridged pads that look like a washboard and are very popular and durable, and an egg-crate pattern, which is comfortable but provides little pockets where moisture or water can collect if it gets wet or you have lots of condensation inside a tent on a cold night.   Thermarest also makes one of these.


I personally own the insulated air core inflatable mattress made by Big Agnus.  It comes in a mummy shape that fits into a Big Agnus sleeping bag, but I have the rectangular version.   It’s about the same weight as a Thermarest and is a little less expensive.  It offers about 2.5 inches of loft off the ground.  It also packs up really small and comes with a stuff sack. Thermarest makes an award winning inflatable called the NeoAir. It is very warm and comfortable, but also expensive at $150.

Another tip if the weather is really cold is to lay out a emergency space blanket on the bottom of your tent, then put your mattress on top.  These blankets can be purchased for a couple bucks and pack up really small. They kind of look like aluminum foil.

So best of luck choosing a sleeping pad that’s right for you.


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Using GPS

December 17th, 2009

There are many different styles, types and sizes of GPS units available.  Here are a few practical things you can do with a good GPS unit while exploring the woods:

  • Pinpoint your exact location in longitude and latitude even when its dark, foggy, or you don’t otherwise have the slightest idea where you are.
  • Determine the distance and direction from your location to another specified point.
  • Mark where you park your car, so you always know which way to get back.
  • Establish your altitude, and track your elevation history as a profile.
  • Mark locations along your route, or intended route, with “waypoints”
  • Show what direction you need to go to get back on track.
  • Offer traditional navigation assistance with a built-in digital compass, if available.

But here are a few other real-trail things that GPS ads won’t always tell you:

  • You must still carry a map and regular compass. GPS units don’t always work the way you might expect, and you don’t always have the coordinates you need for a destination, so you need a paper map for reference and a compass as backup.
  • GPS units don’t work well, if at all, in buildings or under tree heavy cover. So if you’re in a forest, you may need to find a clearing to set your position, which isn’t always easy.  One thing to look for is a high sensitivity receiver when purchasing a unit.   This can help with some of these problems.
  • GPS units go through batteries if you keep them on for extended times – which you need to do for tracing routes, for instance.  Always carry extra batteries.
  • When a GPS unit indicates you are one mile from a designated spot, that is an “as the crow flies” mile, not a trail mile.
  • Don’t take it out for the first time without learning something about it at home first.
  • The first thing a GPS unit does when you turn it on is to start looking for satellite signals, trying to nail down its position. You may get a signal meter like on a cell phone, or it will tell you how many satellites it is communicating with – most need 3-4 out of the 12 to be accurate.

The basic GPS skills:

  • How to set a waypoint of your current location;
  • How to enter the coordinates of a different location from a map or other reference source;
  • How to determine directions from your current location to another waypoint;
  • How to use the built in compass and altimeter;
  • How to replace the batteries.

One of the great things you can do with a GPS unit is record your “track” as you walk.  This is analogous to a digital bread crumb trail and can be set at any interval you choose.  The immediate benefit to this in the field is that you retrace your steps if you wander off the path and don’t have any waypoints marked in the vicinity.  Most websites dealing with this topic suggest setting the interval to .10 miles – meaning every .10 miles it records your position.  All these points are strung together at the end of the trip and can be saved as a .gpx file.  These .gpx files can then be uploaded to popular trail sites such as or   You can also link pictures to your GPX tracks if the clock on your digital camera and your GPS unit are matched. and talk you through this and it’s really easy.  Another huge advantage is that you can search out trips that people have already uploaded and download them to your GPS unit before you go out.  You can also preview the waypoints (marks along the track) and view the track in Google Earth – allowing you to get a 3d view of the trail and elevation profiles.   Very cool stuff.   See the trails section of this website for examples of this in action.

Additional resources:

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Sleeping Bags

November 19th, 2009

Down versus Synthetic:

Goose down is very warm. It is lightweight to carry and can be easily compressed for travel and quickly regain form when shaken out.  However, goose down is also more expensive and loses its insulating properties when wet – a consideration if sleeping outdoors or traveling in inclement weather.

Synthetic filled bags are cheaper than goose down and retain their warmth even in wet conditions. They dry faster than down and are good choices if  sleeping outdoors on the ground such as with a tarp tent or bivy.  However, synthetic bags are heavier and larger which can be a downside if you are hiking long distances with the bag.

Rectangle, Tapered or Mummy?

As with the insulating materials, the shape of bag you choose will depend on your specific needs with pros and cons for each type.

Rectangle bags are most similar to bed sleeping and most familiar to the average user.. However, rectangle bags are the biggest and not the best option for carrying on extended hikes.

Tapered bags are somewhat narrower towards the feet area of the sleeping bag. This shape provides less freedom of movement but more warmth because of the restricted space.

Mummy bags are the smallest and lightest to carry. They are very snug to the body (as the name suggests) with a hood that can be fitted around the head to conserve the greatest amount of body heat. While the average user may find the mummy bag uncomfortable to sleep in because of the restriction, they are the best choice for cold weather camping and long hikes because of their warmth and small size.

Which Temperature Rating?

Sleeping bags will list the coldest temperature they are suitable for sleeping in. Depending on if you are camping in the summer or colder months you will need to choose a bag accordingly. Also take into consideration if you are normally cold or hot when sleeping and make the adjustments.

In most cases it is recommended to choose a warmer bag since you can always open it for venting if it is too warm. The temperature rating is based on using a sleeping pad under the sleeping bag which conserves body heat from the ground.

I use the North Face Cat’s Meow +20 degree synthetic bag

Kids Bags?

You may be temped to keep camping costs down by buying a discount sleeping bag for your children. But, if you want your kids to grow up enjoying camping out, buying a discount sleeping bag could lead to their discomfort, and even a dislike of camping.  Don’t be tempted to use that slumber bag you use for sleepovers, either.
Think of it as an investment in the future, and in your camping future! When you buy a kid’s sleeping bag, make sure it fits your child properly, and has some room for your child to grow. A sleeping bag like this should be able to grow with your child for several seasons, and still keep your child warm in the coldest camping conditions you face. You can find a kid’s sleeping bag in both mummy and rectangular styles, so choose what makes your child feel the most comfortable and secure.

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Bear Canisters

September 26th, 2009

You need to take some precautions with your camping and hiking gear if you’re camping in bear country. Bears have a tremendous sense of smell, and they are so strong they can rip out a car window or tear off a car door a lot easier than you might think. Don’t store any food inside your vehicle or tent.  Bears have learned how to get to food caches suspended from tree branches, so this old backpacker trick is no longer safe, either. Most parks recommend these bear canisters for all food, and some even require them. If you’re going camping in an area with bears, don’t take any chances.

What is a bear-resistant food canister?

Bear canisters are light weight (less than 3 pounds), cylindrical, high impact plastic, aluminum or carbon fiber containers designed to fit inside or on the outside of your pack.  One canister of this size can hold 5-6 days of food for one person or up to 3 days worth of food for two people.

Canister use is now required by many park agencies, including Yosemite, Kings Canyon and Inyo National Forests.

Reminders on using canisters

Besides being careful to lock all bear attractants in the canister you should store the canister a safe distance from your camp – 100 feet. However, do not hang them from a tree since ropes or bags attached to the canister will enable a bear to carry it away, possibly out of sight.

Remember, when you are using a canister ALL scented items – food, toiletries and garbage – must fit inside the canister throughout your entire trip unless you are in attendance or actively preparing your food.

  • Carry the first two meals outside of the canister: lunch and dinner.
  • At the trailhead, make sure that ALL food, trash, toiletries and scented items will fit inside the canister the first night.
  • Put the canister and your kitchen at least 100 feet from your sleeping area.
  • Leave the canister on the ground.  Do not hang the canister from a tree.
  • Never leave canisters open and unattended, rather leave them locked unless actively retrieving items or putting them away.
  • Likewise, never leave backpacks unattended along the trail while making a pit stop.
  • Remember to check pockets of clothing and backpacks for any forgotten scented items and place them in your canister.
  • When it is time to eat, take out only the foods that you need for the meal, repack the remaining contents, and re-lock the canister while cooking and eating.

Popular and approved models include:

Garcia Machine Backpacker’s Cache
Bear Vault

Additional resources:

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Water Purification

September 15th, 2009

Giardiasis is the most common and widespread disease and is caused by microscopic parasitic cysts called giardia.  Giardiasis has an incubation period of seven to twenty-one days. Some of the symptoms for giardiasis include bloating, diarrhea, headache, vomiting, cramping, low-grade fever, and loss of appetite.  It’s a good idea to have purification tablets as well as a filter as a backup in case the filter gets clogged.     Here are some common methods of purification.

  • Boil the water – This is the good old standby. The main disadvantage of boiling your water is carrying enough fuel to provide ample water for your trip. It also makes the water taste flat.
  • Chemical Disinfectants – Iodine or chlorine dioxide. Some of the most popular and effective brands are Potable Aqua Tablets, and Aqua Mira.  One of the main problems with using iodine or chlorine is the taste they give the water. If using iodine, one effective method for reducing the taste of the iodine is a secondary tablet placed in the water after the initial treatment is complete.  The KlearWater treatment is a liquid that is made from chlorine dioxide, which doesn’t impart a chemical taste to the water.  One disadvantge is that you need to wait 30 minutes for the treatments to be complete.  Not as big of an issue if you plan ahead a bit.
  • Filtration – This is the method I’ve used for years. The flavor is maintained, or even improved, by the use of water filters. Unfortunately, there is no such thing as the perfect water filter.  Because there is no perfect water filter for every situation, be sure to compare and buy one suited to your needs. Where will you be using it most? How often will you use it? How easy is it to use by yourself? How comfortable is it to use? These are all very important considerations.  Another thing to think about is the ability to clean the filter in the field. Another thing to consider is the availability of replacement filter cartridges.  My personal favorite is the Katadyn Hiker PRO.
  • Ultraviolet (UV) Light – This is a relatively new process for treating water in the backcountry. Innovations in design have minimized the size and weight of these water treatment devices, making them an excellent choice for the backcountry.  The SteriPen Adventurer has some excellent features geared specifically for those of us who need something durable and lightweight as well as effective. It weighs only 3.6 ounces with the included batteries and will purify .5 liter/16oz of water in 48 seconds, or 1 liter/32oz in 90 seconds. It will destroy viruses, bacteria and protozoa, but it is less effective in murky water. If you will be treating water that isn’t clear, it is imperative that you filter the water through the optional SteriPEN Prefilter or fabric, such as a bandana or cheesecloth, before using the SteriPen.

Here are several more tips for water usage in the backcountry:

  • When brushing your teeth, be sure to use purified water.
  • Remember that you do not need to treat water used in cooking or hot drinks as long as it comes to a rolling boil before you drink it.
  • Filtering your water directly from a stream or pothole can be very difficult.  you can use a high sierra cup to scoop water into a nalgene with sill filter, then treat with iodine, or filter pump into another nalgene.   If you are in an area of stagnant water, try lifting up rocks or digging holes in the mud to allow water to come in.

I normally bring two nalgene bottles.

Additional resources:

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Stove Types

September 15th, 2009

There are two types of lightweight stove:

1) Canister Stoves, which burn liquefied gas (butane or butane-propane mixtures) you purchase in ready-to-go sealed canisters found at outdoor stores and other outlets.  These stoves feature instantaneous lighting.   Best for: Weekend backpackers, pedalers, and paddlers who primarily camp in warm weather, at low elevations, and who would rather trade dollars and a few ounces for an extra measure of convenience.

2) White Gas Stoves that burn a gasoline-like liquid bought in quart or gallon cans, and poured off into the stove tank in the quantity you need. These usually require some form of priming to light properly.  Best for: Ounce-counting adventurers bound for long trips (5+ days) in a variety of conditions and topography, including high, cold places. Also best for people concerned about the monetary and environmental costs of using canister stoves.


Canister: Although canister gas provides really light heat for short trips, on longer trips with more canisters, the weight of the canisters soon mounts up and makes the stoves heavy overall. For example the small Peak 1 canister for 3.5 oz (100g) of fuel weighs (3.1 oz) 88g empty. That’s nearly as much as the fuel it contained! Larger canisters are not as inefficient.

White Gas: Although the stoves themselves are heavier than most canister stoves, the difference is not so large if you factor-in the following: 1. You can tell how much fuel is in the tank and can save weight by carrying no more fuel than you need. You don’t have the weight of the extra canister you must take when you aren’t sure how full the other canister is!
2. A fuel bottle carrying 14.5 oz (420 g) fuel weighs only 4.8 oz (140g). Compare that with the canister figures!

Running Cost

Canister: Running costs are very high compared to white gas. This becomes a significant factor on long trips or if you use stoves a lot.

White Gas: Very cheap to run — a gallon of white gas can be bought for little more than the price of one 8-oz canister.

Cold Weather Performance

Canister: Not great once temperatures approach freezing, better when fuel contains propane and uses iso-butane instead of n-butane as the main component of the mix.

White Gas: Performance unaffected by cold.

High Altitude Performance

Canister: Reduced exterior air pressure improves gas flow, even at low temperatures. Convenience and no need for priming are assets in cramped high-altitude tents, and when people are functioning below par due to altitude effects.

White Gas: White gas stoves seem to function at high altitudes if you have appropriate working conditions, such as base camps in which to use them. Not as nice to use inside tents as canister gas because of fumes and large flames during priming.

Additional resources:

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