The Importance of Good Form

I’m considering taking up hiking/backpacking once it warms up a bit. Do you have any kit & trail suggestions?
For building a backpacking kit on a limited budget, my favorite place to start is this: Lightweight Backpacking: The Importance of Good FormIt was an accidental discovery of this book that started me on the current hiking & backpacking spree. I was researching build-it-yourself teardrop camping trailer plans, which Kuffel Creek also publishes. That project has been sidelined for the time being.

Lightweight Backpacking – free to download! – is a very budget-oriented down to earth guide to lightweight backpacking, putting together a kit, packing lists, sample menus, etc, originally written for boy scout troops. There are a lot of packing guides out there but they are geared towards people with bottomless wallets, or trust funds. A lot of the ultralight gear these days is made of high tech space age stuff that costs a lot more than even “normal” gear.

In addition to topics covered in that guide, there are a million and one other things to talk about and as many opinions on the subject as there are hikers. I can only offer my biased view or what has worked for me, but there are plenty of other avenues that work just as well.

Shelter: As you know I’ve opted for a hammock with tarp, instead of a tent. You can get decent tents cheap, I guess, but cheap tents are going to be heavy if rugged, or crappy if light.  To get a nice, rugged, tested, LIGHTWEIGHT tent, you have to pay some real money.  If you’re hiking for two, like I frequently am, you need a larger heavier, more expensive tent. I went with hammock because it’s modular – if I’m going solo, it’s half as much shelter to carry. And several other reasons. The Kuffell Creek guide starts getting into building tarp tents using sheet plastic, but I see too many compromises there, especially in the buggy south.   You will want a hammock that has a integral bug net.  If you want more info on hammock, I can give you my essay on that separately.   {Hammock post here}

Cooking:  Lightweight cooking pots can be EXPENSIVE because they are made out of titanium these days. Screw that. If you are on a budget, a cheap aluminum coffee percolator with the guts removed (REI has them), or a “grease pot” from the Wall Mart kitchen department will set you up with a perfect size cooking pot for <$20. You can’t get a titanium spoon for that.  That said, nicer anodized aluminum pots, as well as titanium pots have come way down in price since I started building my kit, and I have graduated up.

Food tip: If you are going to be doing a lot of hiking – longer hikes or frequent hikes – consider buying a food dehydrator.  The Freezerbag Cooking method is by far the lightest “eating system” I have run across.  By rehydrating food and eating it out of freezer bags, you replace all cooking with mere boiling water, reducing fuel demand while eliminating cleanup and utensils needed.

Stove: Starting out I opted for an alcohol stove.  They are cheap, weigh nothing, and you can get the fuel anywhere (HEET at gas stations or denatured alcohol at hardware stores). If you are doing a true long distance hike, the BTU efficiency of a cannister stove offsets their initial cost eventually, and the weight of the fuel offsets within a few days. But for short hikes or budget hikers you can’t beat the ultra-cheap alcohol stove. Trangia (aka swedish army stove) stoves are relatively heavy being made of brass, but have built-in reservoir. Everybody goes thru the learning curve of attempting to make their own “pepsi can stoves“, even I did, but I settled on one called “white box” stove available on ebay. It’s a heavy-er duty version of the pepsi can stoves made from an aluminum beer bottle.

Update: I have since sucked it up and purchased a cannister stove, as my hikes became longer and I more weight conscious.  Some simple math shows that the amount of fuel needed for a week long hike with two hot meals per day renders the alcohol stove option too cumbersome and heavy.  The upcharge is around $50 – you have to make that call for yourself.  This is the stove I now carry: Snow Peak Lite Max

Pack: There are millions of options and opinions. Mine – a Gregory Z55 – is 3.3 lbs empty and it’s 2 lbs lighter than the one I had before it.   Some hardcore ultralighters consider anything heavier than 3 lbs as too heavy, but if your upper limit is 3.5 – 4lbs you have a LOT more inexpensive options.   The biggest mistake is getting one that is too big. Mine is 55L and I’m usually packing gear for 1 1/2 people. Common advice here is to assemble everything else first, then get the lightest weight pack you can afford that will fit it all, and no more. Side note – I spent about $180 on mine in 2008. If I were buying one again today I would seriously consider a product called a “Gearskin” by Moonbow Designs for about the same price.

Edit to add:  The Gregory Z55 is no longer showing up at REI.com, but I have heard good reviews about the REI Flash 50 or 65.  It is very similar in design and to the Gregory Z, with some better features (bottle pouches…) and price.  The straps & belt are lighter, for overall less weight, but I can’t speak to the comfort of the Flash.  This would also be high on my list if I were shopping for a new pack today.  Your mileage may vary.

Water:
Chemical treatment is light, cheap and easy for short hikes of up to a few days.  Some use this method all the way to Maine.   Starting out, I used iodine tablets.   Some people don’t like the taste but i never noticed – you can add flavored powders I suppose.  AquaMira drops have become very popular as well.  If you are treating, then you have to use canteens or bottles…its very much a pain in the ass to try and fill a camelback from a stream. The US Army plastic canteens (my first hiking canteen) are actually quite lightweight, clip on with a biner.  Soda bottles are practically free if your pack has bottle pouches. I also carry a Platypus for campsite water.

If you prefer to use a camelback, you almost HAVE to have some kind of pump. I found that water sources on the Appalachian trail in GA are usually very shallow or trickles (not as much a problem on lower trails that have more stream crossings). The ability to pump would be an asset when you can’t submerge a bottle. And its the only convenient way to fill a camelback without taking it out of your pack. I got a water filter with pump for this season, and have been very happy with it. You trade a little weight for convenience, but its also something that can break down so always have the tablets or drops for backup. Kathadyn Hiker Pro is the model I got. It’s been around a few years so its cheaper than the new whizbang MSR products, and more bullet & idiot proof.

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