I just completed backpacking the 165 mile Ozark Highlands Trail in June 2k12 with Matt Boulton. We have many stories about the journey and the gear we took with us. The following gear reviews for backpackers.
Find the full details of the hike and the personal journal of Clint White, a.k.a. Faulted Geologist, at Adventures page.
- Pros - Sturdy, durable, great hipbelt.
- Cons - Few pockets or places to attach gear.
I loaded this pack to the brim with food for two weeks and 5 liters of water to a total weight of around 60 pounds. Everything peoople say about the Arcteryx packs is true… they are bombproof. My only complaint is that the main hip belt buckle slipped constantly, a problem which I solved by tying a square knot out of the excess webbing. Matt said his buckle never really slipped.
Matt has an Arcteryx Bora 65 liter from around 2008. I really like his pack better for a few reasons, and I do not understand why Arcteryx went to the current design. His top pockets unbuckle to become a backpack, while mine are on cinch straps. His has an extra hip belt built in to the top detachable pockets, with the potential to use the buckle as a backup for the hip belt. He has loops on the front of the pack and velcro for attaching ice picks or trekking poles, while mine is just smooth. Aside from these differences, I like my water bottle holders better.
The zippers are really well made. The belt moves with you, a feature you can also get on some Gregory and Deuter packs. The hip belt was the main selling point for me, as the Osprey backpacks were just not comfortable on my bony hip bones. The pack did squeak on some days, but not others, and I think it had to do with how the shoulder straps mount on the plastic grid. Definitely try this pack at a store before buying any other packs. While it is not the lightest pack out there, you might find it is more comfortable and durable.
- Pros - Super easy setup, sturdy, light, compact.
- Cons - None.
This tent is absolutely amazing. I almost went back to the local store that just closed and bought the Fly Creek UL1 Single Person Tent just to have a tent for the kids, but I ran out of time.
The poles are constructed from eco annodized aluminum, and they snap together on their own. I fractured my right wrist while climbing out of a sandstone swimming pool, and I was able to easily set up this tent while handicapped for the remaining 7 days. The entrance is big, and I was able to put my massive pack next to me inside the tent, and I still had room for my 25 inch wide Big Agnes air mattress. The rain fly is really easy to put on, and the vestibule is big enough to hold my gear, boots, and stove setup in bad weather.
Buy this tent without hesitation. It can be used for mosquito-free stargazing and firefly watching without the rain fly, or you can go ultra-ultra-light by leaving the tent behind and pitching just the rainfly over the footprint. Definitely get the footprint to go with the tent so your floor stays nice. Footprints are cheap to replace. This one fits exactly to the underside, stuffs easily in the provided tent sack, and has grommets, loops, and clips for staying stretched out to the size of your tent.
- Pros - Footbox can unzip, adjustable down.
- Cons - Zipper sometimes grabs the fabric.
I was considering a Big Agnes bag to go with the pad when Guy from our now closed Dynamic Earth showed me how to move the down from the top to the bottom of the bag and back up. Thus, the temperature rating for this bag can be user-adjusted on the fly in seconds and re-adjusted that night or the next day. I would rate my 40 F bag comfortable to a range of 35-60 F. The amazon link is for their 30 F bag.
Western Mountaineering bags can also unzip fully and zip to a WM Bag Expander, a pad holder that costs $60, allowing you to use one sleeping bag like two Big Agnes bags. After hearing that, I was sold. Spending the money on one bag instead of two allows you to buy a better pad system if you are sharing with a spouse.
The bag dries quickly if it gets wet while packing in the rain, and the seams, zipper, and fabric is quite sturdy. I had no trouble with staying on the Big Agnes pad, and I am really comfortable using this in my hammock. Buy the right backpack, hiking boots, and sleeping system, then budget on the other items in your pack. Go with the best from Western Mountaineering.
- Pros - Comfortable on rocks, sleeping on side, etc.
- Cons - It takes a lot of air to blow this up.
I am glad to have made this purchase after so many nights of comfortable sleep. While it takes 20-30 full breaths to fill up, it is worth it when you are on rough terrain or if you sleep on your side like I do. The size and weight is the same as other pads, making this an easy decision. It rolls up easily and stores in folds of thirds or halves depending on how thick or long you want to pack it. Choose good sleep and you will hike harder. I have never been on a more comfortable sleeping pad.
- Pros - Pulls water from small pockets if necessary.
- Cons - Broke within two days or 4 liters.
I was excited to use the Katadyn Hiker filter for the first time. The store salesman said the Hiker Pro had issues with the hose connector, so I went with the basic Hiker. All the online reviews went back and forth between this and MSR, stating that both stopped functioning in critical situations.
The second time I used it, the unit took more pumps to clear the same amount of water. Each liter after took more pumps until I had doubled from 50 to 100, then to 150 pumps. No water was going in to the unit. My hiking brother Matt Boulton took the unit apart, and we found a little blue plastic fragment in the pump column. The backflow valve was no longer functioning, so water was going back out to the river source on compression. We temporarily solved the problem by pinching the hose, but it sprayed out of the connection due to the great amount of pressure. This was getting really annoying.
Next, his Hiker handle broke, and his housing started to crack at the seams where the mould was constructed. We were left in the wilderness with two faulty units. We tried combining parts, but both units were nearly unbearable to use. We had to pump for over a half hour at each stop just to fill up our water, cutting heavily in to our daylight hiking hours. Grumble grumble. It is a good thing I brought iodine tablets just in case.
I contacted the Katadyn email address a few days ago and they offered to mail me a new body at no charge. I want to bring one of the new gravity systems with me on the next hike, but the Hiker was so good at pulling water from the shallow pockets we found that I may always pack my hiker with me.
- Pros - Tough and durable, great versatility.
- Cons - White gas is messy.
I was glad to receive the MSR Whisperlight stove as a gift. Most of my friends and fellow hikers use and swear by the Jet Boil system, but I have found some things that the Whisperlite can do that Jet Boil can not.
First off, the Whisperlight saved our wet asses after we were hailed on during a massive Arkansas storm. Our boots were soaked, as was all the wood and tinder in the area. We were surrounded by poison ivy and it was dark. We gathered what we could, and despite our best efforts, could not get the fire to build enough heat to dry the bigger sticks. I eventually broke out the MSR Whisperlite. I put some sticks on top and fired up the stove, drying and burning the sticks enough that we were able to get fire going. I cooked my meal and we dried our boots.
Second, the Whisperlight is good at high altitude and low temperature, so I am ready to go mountaineering or alpine trekking. Cannister stoves like the Jet Boil can freeze up, meaning no melting ice for water or cooking food.
Third, the Whisperlite can accept any pot, pan, cup, etc, giving greater versatility on cooking and heating.
I get annoyed with the fuel cannister when disconnecting due to the fuel contained in the line and the pressure in the cannister. Every time I let the pressure out, the white gas ended up blowing out on my hand. White gas stove fuel is known in the State of California to cause cancer. Now I want the new versatile stove they are selling that allows you to use cannisters during the spring through fall months.
Half way through the trek, my Whisperlite started leaking fuel and not holding pressure. We disassembled the whole thing and found the little black rubber pump cup on the plunger had come off. It took a keychain ring bent straight with a curve at the end to reach down inside and remove the black plunger cup so we could replace it on the plunger. It worked as good as new, but I was almost left with no portable stove.
- Pros - Simple, sturdy, and light.
- Cons - Noisy, vibrates.
I was able to increase my hiking speed from 2.5 to 3 miles per hour by using the trekking poles at all times instead of just for crossing rivers. I also noticed that my hips and knees were much better off when I was using trekking poles due to the re-distributed weight that was now partially supported by my arms.
I really liked the MSR SureLock UL2 poles, but after a week of use they started to vibrate worse and worse. The place where the two poles join was clearly getting looser, meaning that any time my poles hit a rock they would vibrate louder and longer than before.
I think the poles could use a re-design to include a rubber mount for the carbide tips and some kind of silicone ring at the ends of the two aluminum pieces. Since I used the poles all the time, it almost makes more sense to just get ski plles that do not collapse. The only time I collapsed the poles was when I fractured my wrist and could not use both poles for four days. It was nice to be able to stash one on my pack, but I think I would like the new MSR TR3 SureLock trekking poles better.
- Pros - Lightweight, sturdy, quick drying.
- Cons - None yet.
I have around 250 miles on this pair of boots and they seem to be holding up quite well. We were drenched on day 1 of our 165 mile trek. After being pelted with dime and nickel size hail for a half hour and poured on for an hour, both Matt and I had boots that were pools of water from the runoff that went down our pants and under our gaiters. We were able to dry the boots out the next day in less than an hour in the sun. The insoles come out easily, allowing for the insides to air out better.
Matt blistered up really bad after the first days in his boots, but I was blister free until day 7 when the ring-toe got a blister on the tip from my running descents of the Arkansas mountains. I really think it had to do with my speed and how I was placing my feet. I had no other troubles, and the boots dried quickly as I changed socks and pumped water throughout the trek.
My next pair of boots for the 300 mile Ouachita Mountains will be the Lowa Tibet Pro GTX, which come very highly recommended by the leader of the Ozark Mountain Trailblazers. For the money, the Oboz are a great find. They fit just as good as any boot in their price range and were comfortable out of the box. I put at least 70 miles on them before leaving for Arkansas, and I recommend doing so yourself before a large trek.
- Pros - Asymetrical Left and Right, wicks moisture, quick drying, odor resistant.
- Cons - None.
I searched endlessly for the best socks to go hiking in. There are hiking socks, and then there are well-made hiking socks. These are asymetrical, meaning one is marked Left and the other Right. Each sock conforms to the shape of the foot so you do not have extra fabric on the pinky toe side of your foot. Pinched sock material can cause blisters and annoying stops to fix the offending fabric.
I was able to dry these in the sun very quickly, and they even dried out most of the way from sundown to sunup when we stopped for camp. They wash very well and retain their shape, unlike cotton. Best of all, they are mostly a natural material and contain little synthetic fabric.
Do yourself a favor and take care of your feet. I had zero blisters until the 7th day when my second smallest toe got one on the end from how I was blazing down the mountains. I had no blisters after that since I slowed my descent down. I have replaced many things with my Icebreaker Merino wool products, and you should spend the money to find out for yourself why their products are superior in almost every way.
- Pros - Tight fitting
- Cons - None
I tried the official Smartwool hiking liner socks, but the fabric bunched up and felt rough on my skin. I bought some of these ultra thin socks originally, and ended up wearing them through most of the 165 mile hike. They stay snug on your feet and retain their shape. I felt no reason to have a liner sock that was taller than my hiking socks since the only place they should be lining is inside the boot. I was comfortable the whole time. Buy these socks for your liners, get the above socks for the second layer, and then go try on some boots with these socks on.