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Shadow Creek

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posted by Rob Kroenert alias Rob Kroenert on Sunday 9th of August 2009 03:31:48 PM

This is the outlet of Shadow Creek from Ediza Lake, in California's Ansel Adams Wilderness. Taken in the late afternoon while balancing precariously on some rocks. When it comes to backcountry hiking and camping, I’m not experienced enough to offer much in the way of helpful advice. But lately I’ve been venturing beyond the cozy world of car camping for some short (one or two day) solo hikes into the backcountry, and in the process I’ve learned a few things about the type of gear that works well for me on those kinds of trips. So I thought I’d share my packing list. Maybe it will be helpful to people in similar situations, and maybe those of you with more experience will suggest better ideas. A couple of notes on this list… First, it’s not for trips involving extreme cold. It assumes mild or warm days and somewhat cold nights. Second, photography is a priority for me, which makes it even more challenging to pack light. I can’t take all the camera equipment I’d like without breaking my back. But even what I consider to be the bare minimum – a camera body (SLR), one or two good lenses, and a tripod – is pretty heavy. So that makes it especially important to keep the rest of my gear as light as possible. I’ll divide the list into the three fundamentals (Food, Clothing, and Shelter), then add a fourth category for everything else. FOOD & DRINK Stove and Fuel. Let me start by admitting that I hate cooking. It’s almost impossible for me to spend any time preparing food. Because of this I have issued a formal decree: any cooking involving more than three steps is officially prohibited. That said, I am willing to boil water. And I’m OK pouring that boiling water into something. That’s only two steps, so no problem. Imagine my joy, therefore, when I discovered the Jetboil Personal Cooking System (15 oz stove, 7oz fuel canister). I love it. Light, small, and very easy to use. Boils water in just a couple minutes. Coffee and Cup. Continuing the theme of admissions, here’s another: I’m addicted to caffeine. Really, truly addicted… If I don’t have caffeine soon after waking up I’m rewarded with a dull, throbbing headache at the base of my skull. What I’m trying to say is that I need to bring coffee with me on camping trips. I prefer to get my caffeine in the form of Coca-Cola, but a 12-pack would kind of ruin the whole ‘travel light’ thing. So to get my fix I bring a small package of instant coffee (2 oz) and a little metal cup (2 oz). Dehydrated Meals. Does it count as a third admission if I confess that I have the palate of a 12-year-old? In other words, my taste in food is just not very sophisticated. I haven’t developed an appreciation for fine cuisine, and I still like the taste of basic foods (burgers, pizza, etc.). Without a second thought, I would choose In-and-Out over a fancy restaurant. So it shouldn’t be too surprising that I actually enjoy dehydrated meals. I enjoy them even more when I’m starving after hiking uphill all day. So far my favorite dehydrated dinner is Mountain House Chicken & Noodles (5 oz) and my favorite breakfast is Mountain House Scrambled Eggs with Ham (2 oz). They’re the perfect fit for my three-step decree: boil water (step 1), pour water into the food package (step 2), then just let it sit for a while (step 3). Done and done! Energy Bars. I’m not a big fan of Power Bars or Clif Bars. They just don’t taste good to me. So I usually pack a few Quaker Chewy Granola Bars (1 oz each). Water Bottle(s) . I carry a couple of plastic water bottles – one Nalgene 32oz Narrow Mouth and one Nalgene 16 oz Narrow Mouth. Full, they weigh about 3 pounds. Water Purification Tablets. I know, I know… Water purification tablets don’t kill cryptosporidium, so I should really use a water filter. But water filters take up more space and they’re kind of a hassle. So far I’ve been fine using Potable Aqua Iodine Tablets (2 oz) as a fallback when I’m not able to boil water. At some point I’ll move to a water filter, but not yet. Bear Canister. Most of the camping I do is in bear country, so the law says I need to bring something to keep the bears out of my food. I have the BearVault BV450 (2 lbs), which is perfect for short trips with one or two people. Spoon. There will always be a soft spot in my heart for the spork, of course, but the only utensil I bring with me is the REI Chefware Soup Spoon (1 oz). CLOTHING Shirts. For quick trips I’ll usually just take one short-sleeved T-shirt and one long-sleeved T-shirt. Everyone seems to make a big point of how critical it is to avoid cotton: cotton is slow to dry, it doesn’t insulate well when wet, it doesn’t wick moisture away from your skin, it stinks up easily... Fine, fair enough. But honestly? For me cotton is just more comfortable. If I’m camping in mild conditions I’ll live on the edge and wear a regular cotton T-shirt. Whenever cotton doesn’t seem like a good idea, I’ll go with the short-sleeve North Face Vaporwick Ruckus (4 oz) or the Patagonia Capilene 2 (4 oz). As far as long-sleeved T-shirts, I like the REI Midweight MTS Zip T-Neck (5 oz) because the zip-up part can protect my neck from mosquitoes. Jacket. If I’ll be camping in a place that gets somewhat cold at night, I usually bring along a fleece jacket, either the REI Muir Woods (1.4 lbs) or the North Face Windwall 1 (15 oz). And if rain is a possibility, I bring a waterproof jacket too, usually the North Face Venture (13 oz). Pants. I love the idea of convertible pants. I just don’t like the actual pants. They bug me. They look goofy and the zippers are annoying. But they’re perfect for camping. On a one-night trip, a single pair of convertible pants is pretty much all you need. Um, in addition to everything else on this list, that is. For a few years now I’ve had the REI Sahara Convertible Pants (7 oz) and they’ve held up well. Shorts. For trips longer than one night, I usually bring along a pair of regular shorts in addition to convertible pants. Nylon shorts are so light they don’t add much weight. Right now I’m using the Columbia Sportswear Silver Ridge II Cargo Shorts (4 oz, no longer on the Columbia Web site), which have an extra zippered pocket I like and are long enough to hit my knees (must at all cost avoid the short shorts). Hiking Boots. It’s worth investing some time to find boots that work well for you and are appropriate for the conditions you’ll experience on your trip. There seem to be a bunch of great light hiking boots out there, and I think the only way to find the pair that fits you best is to go out and try on a bunch of them. For the past few months I’ve been wearing the Keen Voyageur (15 oz) and I like them a lot for warm weather hikes in mostly dry conditions. They’re not waterproof, but they’re light and breathable. Socks. Gotta have at least two or three pairs of socks (5 oz). Socks made of CoolMax have been working pretty well for me so far. Although I’ve also tried Icebreaker Merino Hiker socks and like them too. I’m not so much into the idea of using sock liners in addition to socks. Seems like a hassle. Underwear. Here’s another instance where I typically go with normal cotton instead of something synthetic. I know most people say that’s a bad idea, but so far I’ve been fine with cotton boxers. I do have a couple pairs of synthetic REI Midweight MTS Boxers (3 oz) and they’re actually pretty comfortable too. Sun Hat. I think those floppy sun hats look goofy, so I used to just hike in a baseball cap. As I’ve gotten older, though, I care less about how my clothes look and more about not getting sunburned. So now I’ve become that which I mocked: the goofy guy in a floppy sun hat. I have some version of the Columbia Booney (4 oz) that they don’t make anymore. But that hat gets pretty hot, so I’ve been trying to find one I like that’s lighter and better ventilated. Ski Cap. Not really mandatory, especially if the temperature will never drop very low. But a ski cap can be really nice during cold nights and mornings, and it weighs almost nothing. I don’t even know the brand of my ski cap… It’s black and weighs about 2 oz. Is that specific enough? (The clothing list above seems like a pretty good balance of weight and flexibility… You’re only carrying about five pounds of clothes, but you can handle a wide range of temperatures. When it’s hot, you’re in shorts and a short-sleeved T-shirt. When it’s cold, you’re bundled up in pants, a short-sleeved T-shirt under a long-sleeved T-shirt, a fleece jacket, a rain jacket, and a ski cap – which can keep you comfortable even in some pretty hostile weather.) SHELTER Tent. We’ve come a long way from Hawkeye’s green M*A*S*H tent. Now a waterproof two-person tent weighs less than five pounds and fits in a bag the size of a loaf of bread. One-person tents are even lighter, but I like having extra room, and not all hikes are solo (my understanding is that cute single women who enjoy camping do exist, they’re just rare). The tent I use is the two-person REI Quarter Dome T2 (4.1 lbs), along with REI Quarter Dome T2 Footprint (13 oz). The Quarter Dome is a good size for me, but it would be too small for someone taller than six feet. Sleeping Bag. Over the course of my adult life I’ve owned three sleeping bags. Three different brands, two filled with down and one synthetic. And all three have been just fine – the only change I’ve really noticed over time is that they’ve become lighter while still providing the same level of warmth, which is great. Right now I’m using the REI Halo +25 (2 lbs). It's light and compresses well. Ho-hum. Kind of boring. I guess I miss the sleeping bags of my Cub Scout days, with the old-school red flannel lining. Sleeping Pad. I used to have a regular Therm-a-Rest pad, but I recently switched to the REI Lite-Core 1.5 Self-Inflating Pad (1.7 lbs) and I have to say that it’s noticeably more comfortable. And it’s easier to pack because it folds in half. Pillow Stuff Sack. Does the fact that I really like having a nice pillow when I’m camping make me a baby? Don’t answer that. With car camping, it’s no problem – I just bring a real pillow. But for backcountry camping even a compressible pillow, like the small Therm-a-Rest Compressible Pillow (7 oz), takes up quite a bit of space. So for now I’m using the REI Medium Pillow Stuff Sack (5 oz). It’s basically just a normal stuff sack for your sleeping bag, but the inside is lined with felt, so at night you just reverse it, fill it with random clothes, and use it as your pillow. Not nearly as comfortable as a real pillow, but not terrible. (Yep, a clean sweep of REI gear here in the ‘Shelter’ category. There’s a good REI store near where I live in San Francisco, and they happened to have their big twice-a-year sale soon after I decided to upgrade to lightweight gear.) OTHER STUFF Backpack. Choosing a backpack is one of your most important decisions. I think there are really four key considerations – you want a pack that fits you well, weighs very little, holds your gear without much room to spare, and doesn’t fall apart over time. I have the REI Flash 65 Pack (3.1 lbs). It’s too soon to judge durability, but it fits me nicely, it’s light, and it has enough room for everything on this list. Camera Body. On my list of essential gear for a camping trip, a good camera comes right after food, clothing and shelter. Some people find it difficult to enjoy an experience if they’re trying to photograph it, but for me it’s the opposite – I have a tough time enjoying a scenic location if I can’t try to capture it on camera. When I’m camping I carry the Canon 5D Mark II (1.8 lbs), a full-frame SLR that is outstanding for landscapes and even takes HD video. Camera Lens. Choosing a camera body is the easy part. The tough part is deciding which lens (or lenses) to bring. I have to be ready to zoom in on wildlife, so I’d like to take the Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM (3.1 lbs). And I need a wide angle lens for landscapes, so I’d also like to take the Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM (1.1 lbs). But that leaves a midrange gap that should be filled by the Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L USM (2.1 lbs). Add that up and you have over six pounds in lenses alone. Thanks to this dilemma, I recently I broke down and bought the Canon EF 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6L IS USM (3.7 lbs) so that I can get by with only one lens while hiking or traveling. The Canon 28-300mm is an extremely heavy lens, but it’s still lighter than the three lenses it replaces, and it eliminates the need to switch lenses in the field. Still, I have to admit that for some landscape shots I really need that Canon 17-40mm, so my lens strategy is really a work in progress. Tripod. Up until a few years ago I thought tripods were pretty simple. You just buy one of those $40 tripods at Best Buy or Wolf Camera and you’re good to go. So I started there and had to learn the hard way. My long exposure shots were turning out blurry, so I bought a more expensive tripod that provided better stabilization. Then I started getting frustrated with the whole pan/tilt system (‘normal’ tripods were designed for video cameras), and I realized what I really needed was a ballhead that allows a full range of motion with a single tightening control. I eventually learned that a good support system for your camera has four parts – the tripod, a ballhead, a release clamp for the ballhead, and a plate for whatever camera body or lens you’re using. When hiking or traveling, I use the Gitzo GT-1541T tripod (2.1 lbs and only 16” when folded down) with a Really Right Stuff BH-25 LR ballhead (8 oz). The BH-25 isn’t really heavy-duty enough for the Canon 28-300mm, but it can handle the weight on short trips. Other Photography Equipment. I’m starting to experiment more with filters, which are pretty light and don’t take up much space, so I take a Lee Filter Holder, 2 Lee Graduated ND Filters (soft, .9 and .6), and a Hoya 77mm Neutral Density ND-400 X, 9 Stop Multi-Coated Glass Filter. I also take two Transcend 32GB Compact Flash cards, a Canon shutter release cable for long exposures, and a Nikon Lens Pen Cleaning System. All of that weighs about 1.5 pounds. Multi-tool. My favorite is the Leatherman Juice Cs4 (6 oz). All the tools in that thing are just plain cool... But it’s relatively heavy, and – when I really think about it – on backcountry trips I hardly ever use anything except the knife. So lately I’ve just been taking a L’il Guppie (2 oz). That’s right, a multi-tool that hardly weighs anything and has managed to incorporate “L’il” into its name. How can you resist? It has a knife, a tiny wrench, a screwdriver, a bottle cap opener, and can be used as a carabiner. Sold! Bug Repellent. I don’t like having to use bug repellent, but when you need it, you really need it. 3M Ultrathon (2 oz) seems to work pretty well. Earlier this year I made the mistake of camping in King’s Canyon National Park without bug repellent, and afterwards there were so many bites covering my back that they merged into one solid Pangaea super-bite. Sunscreen. Another annoying but must-have item. You don’t need my voice added to the chorus of admonitions to use sunscreen. For short trips I take a mini-tube of Banana Boat Sport SPF 30 (1 oz). Bandana. The bandana may win the award for highest usefulness-to-weight ratio. It can’t weigh more than an ounce, and yet it has all kinds of potential uses – wiping sweat off your face, wiping your hands after you eat, blocking light from your eyes when you try to sleep in the morning, applying pressure to a cut, hiding your identity during bank heists… You name it. Book. Maybe not a must-have for everyone, but I like having something to read, especially if I’m struggling to fall asleep at night (which almost always happens when I camp). I just try to make sure it’s a thin book (<5 oz) – I’m not lugging War and Peace around. Map. I take back what I said about the bandana… Maps win the award for highest usefulness-to-weight ratio. A good map of the area you’ll be exploring is mandatory. Toiletries. A toothbrush, a tiny tube of toothpaste, lip balm, a couple Band-Aids, some toilet paper, and a few Advil. That’s about it. In all, maybe three ounces worth of stuff. For one night camping trips I don’t even take a toothbrush. But before you impugn my personal hygiene, that doesn’t mean I go more than a day without brushing – I take care of it right before the hike and then again when I’m back in civilization the next day. That’s not so bad, right? Right? Headlamp. I used to make fun of a friend for using a headlamp. If you're about to go spelunking, by all means knock yourself out. But for camping? Then I tried one on a recent trip and I’m forced to admit it was pretty convenient... The Princeton Tec Fuel Headlamp (3 oz) has three settings, and the lowest is perfect for reading in the tent at night without having to hold a flashlight or set up some kind of lantern. Watch. If it wasn’t for photography, I probably wouldn’t care so much about the time while I’m hiking, and I certainly wouldn’t be setting an alarm at night. But as it is I need something to wake me up for sunrise shots. I’ve had the Timex Expedition (2 oz) for years now – no complaints. Stuff Sacks and Plastic Bags. A few random bags (1 oz) always help keep things organized, and I like using plastic Zip-lock bags to waterproof my camera gear. Let me wrap up by pointing out some of the things I’ve considered bringing but usually don’t… STUFF I USUALLY DON’T BRING Camp Towel. As Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy taught us, a towel is great to have when you’re traveling. Not only can it dry things, it can be a shade from the sun, a blanket, a pillow, a sack… So why don’t I bring one with me? Maybe I just haven’t found the right towel. The two camp towels I’ve tried were more like shammies, but minus the ability to absorb water. And even if they were absorbent, wouldn’t they get pretty nasty after a day or two? If you just want something to wipe off your hands or face, it seems like a bandana has you covered. I guess I don’t see what a towel brings to the party above and beyond the stuff I usually take with me. Unless, of course, we’re talking about Towelie, in which case it’s a different story. Water Filter. Yes, I know, not bringing a water filter is a mistake. Boiling water is all well and good for cooking dinner and making coffee, but you really need an effective way to purify drinking water. And, as I discussed above, the Potable Aqua tablets don’t kill cryptosporidium, so it’s not a good idea to rely on them. At some point I’ll break down and buy a filter, although I really don’t want to have to drag another thing along with me. So far the Katadyn Hiker Water Filter (11 oz) looks like the one I’ll choose, but I’d love to hear from someone who has good advice on this. Camp Pillow. As I mentioned above, I’ve been leaving my camp pillow behind and just using a stuff sack pillow, which isn’t ideal in terms of comfort but doesn’t take up any space or add weight. I haven’t tried an inflatable camp pillow, but maybe I will at some point. GPS. So far my hikes have been on trails that are so well marked I’d have to make a major effort to get lost. I just haven’t needed to bring a GPS device with me. But on trips to more remote places I may add this to the list. Music Player. Tough call. One the one hand, I don’t want to wear headphones when I’m hiking or when I’m in my tent. I want to be able to hear things. On the other hand, let’s say I’m taking a break next to a creek, maybe reading a book. Might be nice to have some music. And my iPod Shuffle (1 oz) is so tiny, there’s very little downside to bringing it along. Cell Phone. Just doesn’t seem right, even if there’s coverage. I was a late cell phone adopter because I’m not a big fan of being reachable all the time, so I appreciate a cell phone break every now and then. My Blackberry stays in the car while I’m hiking. (Although as soon as I’m back from a hike I immediately grab it for my e-mail fix, of course.) Sleeping Bag Liner. I have an REI MTS Bag Liner (11 oz), which I used instead of a sleeping bag while camping in the jungle in Indonesia one night. It makes a good warm-weather substitute for a sleeping bag, and it’s great for travel that involves staying at sketchy hostels, but only in really, really cold weather would you want to take one with you in addition to a sleeping bag. Sandals. I love my Keen Newport H2s (11 oz), and I’m always tempted to bring them. After a long day of hiking it feels great to change into sandals, and the Keens are perfect for crossing streams. But I get by fine without them so I can’t justify the extra weight. Matches. From a survival perspective, a must-have. But I don’t really start fires very often when I’m camping in the backcountry. So I only rarely bring matches with me. Water Reservoir. I’ve never jumped on board the CamelBak bandwagon. Are we really at a point as a society where we simply can’t bear the idea of reaching into our pack for a water bottle? Do I really want a thin plastic bladder full of water packed next to my camera gear? Are you annoyed by the fact that I’m asking myself questions to make my point? Sunglasses. This is a photography issue. I feel like I see potential shots better when I’m not wearing sunglasses. The 99.99% of the population that doesn’t suffer from the same delusion should probably bring sunglasses on their trip. Trekking Poles. Nope, I’m not down with that whole use-ski-poles-as-you-walk business. Just seems like more work to lug those things around. If I need extra balance for something specific (like wading through a creek), I can find a wooden stick or use my tripod. First Aid Kit. Uh, I’d better be very careful here. Whatever important first aid item I say I don’t need, I’ll end up desperately needing it on my next trip. They might as well write the newspaper article now, quoting this paragraph as proof of my hubris and poor planning right after explaining how an emergency team had to airlift me out of some canyon. Moleskin. On short hiking trips, I’ve been fine using some of those flexible Band-Aids to deal with any potential blisters. OK, that’s where I’m at so far. The total weight of all the gear I take is about 35 pounds for a one or two night backpacking trip. Not terrible, considering the hit I take from the heavy camera equipment, but still not as light as I’d like. I’ll keep working on it, and I hope those of you with better ideas will help me tighten up this list.

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