Gear Talk: Big Three

All of the gear I will be carrying/wearing on the PCT

Let’s talk about gear. It’s no secret that hikers love talking gear – I’ll let this Portlandia sketch explain the mentality:

The natural place to start for gear talk is with the ‘Big 3’. If you aren’t familiar with backpacking, the ‘Big 3’ includes: shelter, sleep system, and backpack. These are the three most important pieces of gear in any hiker’s kit and comprise the majority of the bulk/weight/functionality so you don’t want to skimp here.

*Warning*: Gear talk might bore you to tears if you aren’t into hiking so venture in at your own peril.

Lighterpack for those interested: .

Shelter: TarpTent Notch

Weight: 29 oz (with 6 MSR groundhog stakes)

I’ll be honest, what first drew me to the Notch was the beautiful design. I mean look at this thing. It looks like a spaceship. Henry Shires and the team over at TarpTent have done amazing work with this tent and all their other designs as well. All of their tents are handmade in the USA which is a huge plus to me. The quality of the craftsmanship is evident the second you set this tent up for the first time.

I truly think the Notch is one of the best designed shelters on the market for several reasons.

First, it is double walled. This gives you more protection from condensation and the ability to pitch the tent in a variety of different configurations (fly only, inner net only, or both together). Second, it has two large side vestibules. So while there is limited (but certainly sufficient!) space in the inner net of the tent, the ample dual vestibules provide a great deal of space to store gear so the inner is not cramped. Third, it is trekking pole supported. Multi-function is the name of the game in ultralight backpacking and I knew I wanted a trekking pole supported shelter to put my poles to good use when not hiking. Fourth, it only has 4! primary stake out points. For a non-free standing tent this is incredible and makes for a quick pitch (although not always an easy one, more on this later). Fifth, it is relatively lightweight at 27 ounces out of the box. For a tent with so many features, a sub-2 pound packed weight is incredible. Sure, you can get a lighter DCF tent for twice the price but it’s hard to beat the Notch if you’re looking for a solid, beautifully designed, lightweight trekking pole shelter that won’t totally break the bank.

While the Notch has many great things going for it, I should mentions some of the downsides/cons I’ve noticed using this tent for the past few months. First, the pitch can be very difficult to get right the first few times you set this tent up. Make sure to practice setting this tent up in your backyard or the local park before taking it out on the trail! Don’t make my mistake and try to set it up for the first time after 16 miles of strenuous hiking when your brain is working at about 30% capacity. Getting everything, especially the ridge-line, properly tensioned can be frustrating if you haven’t practiced. Don’t be afraid to use the two extra ridge-line guy-outs to strengthen the pitch. Once you really get to understand the Notch, pitching is actually very quick. Second, because of the struts at the ends of the tent, the Notch doesn’t pack as small as other shelters and will take up more space when rolled up. You can get around this by removing the struts before packing the shelter which will allow you to pack more efficiently but now you have an extra chore of putting in/taking out the struts every time you make and break camp. Third, because the Notch is made from silnylon it will sag when the nighttime temperature drops. So just remember to re-tension all of the guy-out points right before you go to bed and you should be fine.

All in all, the Notch has proven to be a great shelter and I’m excited to see how it performs on the PCT. Most of the downsides are either user-error or relatively minor annoyances so I would heartily recommend the Notch to anyone looking for a lightweight trekking-pole shelter.

Sleep System: Thermarest Z-Lite Sol + UGQ Bandit 20F Quilt

Weight: 10 oz (Pad), 23 oz (Quilt)

What can be said about the Thermarest Z-Lite Sol that hasn’t already been said? This thing is the OG backpacking sleeping pad and it’s so ubiquitous that even non-hikers know exactly what it is when they see it. And there’s good reason why this thing has been around for decades. It just works.

Pros: no set up required, basically indestructible, cheap, very light, multi-function.

Cons: thin, not the most comfortable, middling warmth, bulky.

I recommend every backpacker to at least try out a Z-lite before committing to a much more expensive inflatable air mattress. You’re bound to know someone who has one so just sped a few nights on one to see if it works for you. If you can tolerate sleeping on one, great! You now have a super solid three season sleeping pad for $45. No need to spend $100+ on something more fancy. But it’s certainly not for everyone, I’ll admit. Keep in mind this pad only has an R-value of 2.6 which is just good enough for most 3 season hiking with a good quilt/sleeping bag.

For me, I value peace of mind and ease of use above most things. I’m not a huge fan of setting up and breaking down camp so having a brainless piece of equipment like the Z-Lite just makes my life so much easier. And I never have to worry about leaks. And I can use it as a nice sit/siesta pad while I’m hiking! 

Finally, the Z-Lite is great because you can cut it down to exactly the length you want. A standard length Z-Lite comes in 14 sections so I sliced 4 sections off since I don’t really need my feet on the pad and I wanted to cut down on bulk/weight. If it’s too cold I can just throw my backpack under my feet.

The quilt I’ll be using is the Underground Quilts (UGQ) Bandit 20F down quilt. The UGQ bandit is a relatively new competitor on the quilt scene but from all the research I’ve done, UGQ is a highly reputable and honest company. This is especially important when it comes to quilts/sleeping bags since you really don’t want a company who is dishonest about the warmth of their sleep system. From everything I’ve read, UGQ’s ratings are honest and true. I’ve only had the chance to take the quilt down to the mid 30s where it performed perfectly so I can’t comment yet on how it performs at the rated temperature of 20F. I can say that the construction and comfort is top notch. The seams are impeccable and the loft is great. I’m confident taking this down into the 20s with appropriate layering.

One feature I did opt for that I wasn’t sure about but glad I picked was the sewn foot-box. When most people think of a quilt they think of blanket. Well for backpacking, when temperatures get below freezing, your feet can get really cold. Even with thick wool socks. An open/adjustable foot-box will generally allow more drafts into the foot area. As someone who has cold feet I opted to get the foot-box sewn shut and even an extra ounce of down insulation thrown in. Now I can literally rest easy knowing that my feet will be nice and toasty.

Finally, why did I choose a quilt over a sleeping bag? Well for one, a quilt is lighter because it does not have a back. I am making a concerted effort to lighten my gear as much as possible for this trek and a quilt was a great way to cut weight and bulk from my load. Secondly, I tend to side sleep and always hated doing that in a sleeping bag. I would always get twisted around and become frustrated. Side sleeping with a quilt is a dream. Third, a quilt is just so versatile and easy. Just throw it over you, wiggle your feet into the foot-box and sleep well. If you get warm you can kick your feet out. And if you get cold you can cinch the collar up and wrap the edges underneath you for maximum toast.

Backpack: SWD Longhaul 40 + 10L 

Weight: 28 oz

Sticking with the theme of purchasing gear from smaller cottage companies, I decided to replace my Osprey Exos 58 with the Superior Wilderness Designs Long Haul 40L.

Superior Wilderness Designs is a company run by a couple in Michigan where the packs are hand-sewn (shout out to Brandon and Ashley!). Having hiked the PCT together, Brandon and Ashley decided to start creating packs to fit the exact needs of PCT hikers. Each pack can be customized and created to your exact specifications down to the material and colors used! In addition to the glowing reviews from those who had been using them on trail, this was the primary reason I decided to go with a pack from SWD. Plus, I really do enjoy supporting the community of which I am a part.

I’ve only been able to take the pack out a few times but so far I have been very impressed with it’s ability to carry weight. The max I’ve loaded the pack to is about 28 pounds where I did a 16 mile hike and it performed quite well. 28 pounds should be a fairly typical load with a weeks worth of food and 3 liters of water so I am very confident bringing this pack on the trail. I would expect to start feeling uncomfortable around 32 pounds; however, not prohibitively so. I wouldn’t want to carry much more than 35 pounds in this pack which is the maximum rated load recommended by SWD. Thankfully there should be few, if any, times on the trail where I will need to carry this kind of weight.

The suspension transfers weight beautifully to my hips – even better than the gold standard suspension of my old Osprey pack. I attribute this to the minimally engineered system, just two contoured aluminum stays for structure, a thin foam pad to prevent items from bulging out into one’s back, and a fairly beefy hip-belt to transfer the load. I think I prefer this simple system to Osprey’s fairly engineered suspension which put too much pressure on my lower back and caused discomfort after several miles. It also helps that I was able to request a small hip-belt and a medium torso length which actually fits properly. Most off the shelf ‘REI packs’ only come with standard S/S, M/M, and L/L size hip-belt/torso sizing so if you’re someone like me who has a very small waist and a pretty normal torso you should look into SWD (or other cottage manufacturer) to make a pack to your exact specifications. You don’t want a pack that fits poorly.

I will consider doing a more in-depth review of this pack since there are many features (custom and otherwise) that I would like to highlight in detail. So stay tuned!

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