My review of all the gear I used on the PCT in 2014! Enjoy.
Shelter: Zpacks Hexamid Solo with “optional door”
This is an older version of the Hexamid solo that zpacks no longer makes- I found it on an online used gear swap two years ago and, since the mesh was torn, was able to snatch it up for $200. I did a fine job of patching the tear in the mesh and was super stoked for my new “ferrari of backpacking tents”. The only problem was that last year I was terrified of cowboy camping so I set it up almost every night, and the cuben fiber (as it does) slowly began to degrade where the pole meets the peak of the shelter. Ah, the price one pays to save ounces! So I emailed zpacks asking them what I should do and, to my amazement, they shipped me some cuben-fiber repair tape on the trail, lightning fast. The tape made the worn areas new again and I was good to go. This year I knew better than to set the shelter up every night (cuben fiber lasts longer the more gentle you are with it) and I had also grown to love cowboy camping, so I didn’t have any problems with wear. I did, however, have problems with the zipper- it wasn’t zipping anymore! Which made a lot of sense, as the shelter was kind of, ah, old. So I emailed zpacks again and they said that yeah, the zippers sometimes wear out, and they offered to replace the zipper free of charge. I shipped the shelter to them and within a week they’d repaired it and shipped it back. Kind of mind-blowing customer service considering that I’d bought the shelter used and then put such a large amount of wear on it! This is why I love zpacks so much, aside from the fact that they make such awesome shelters and bags- their customer service is crazy good. When you’re thru-hiking you often don’t have the time/battery power/reception to spend weeks emailing back and forth with a gear company, trying to find a solution to some problem, and companies like zpacks seem to understand this. I’ve only ever heard of fantastic customer service experiences with zpacks, and as such there is a huge amount of loyalty towards the company among thru-hikers on the trail. It’s for this reason, I believe, that even the most broke of thru-hikers is willing to scrounge up huge sums of money ($500 or so) for their products. Because it’s worth it. It’s just worth it.
The only downside to my shelter is that it sucked balls in the rain. But this is the reason, I believe, that zpacks no longer makes the “optional door” model- essentially one entire side of my shelter is mesh, and the “door” is a piece of cuben fiber I can string up over the inside of the mesh that sort of half-ass keeps out the rain. Last year in the four-day September storms I was often cold and wet in this shelter- this year I knew I would finish in August, before the extended rains, and so it wasn’t an issue. None of this matters to you, however, because the current version has an “extended beak”, which seems to actually keep the water out- I polled several people on the trail who used this hexamid and they said it worked as well as any other single-wall shelter in the rain.
And lastly, if you don’t already know, this shelter is crazy light- I think mine was 12 ounces with the 8 titanium stakes?
Bottom line: The hexamid is unbelievably light and looks like a space-ship. Cuben fiber is fragile! This shelter will last many thru-hikes, provided you only set it up when necessary for bugs or rain. The current extended-beak version seems to work as well as any other single-wall shelter during storms, although my older, obsolete version did not. This shelter is wildly expensive but you may be able to find one used online (try ebay). Zpacks customer service is unbelievably friendly, prompt, and professional. Which is awesome for those stressful moments on the trail when your shit breaks!
Would I carry this shelter again? I’d love to try the newer solplex version for the CDT (it has “storm doors”!), if I can get my hands on one. I want to be prepared for foul weather! Barring that I might go with a less expensive single-wall shelter.
hiking into Castella with my deflated Mariposa
The Gorilla chillin’ in the fog in Three Sisters Wilderness
Pack: Gossamer Gear Mariposa/Gossamer Gear Gorilla
This year I started with the Gossamer Gear Mariposa that I’d carried on the trail last year- the size small had been too long for me but Gossamer Gear was kind enough to lower the straps two inches to fit my torso. I think that they’re coming out with a shorter size, as their size small is about two inches longer than the size small of other companies (ULA for example) but I’m not sure if that’s already happened or when it will. The Mariposa worked wonderfully but is, ultimately, much too voluminous for my needs, and sat on my back like a large, half-deflated marshmallow. It had also garnered quite a bit of wear after 1.5 thru-hikes- both hipbelt pocket zippers were busted, the already thin foam in the shoulder straps had gotten so flat as to pinch my shoulders in a painful way (and my baseweight is 10 lbs) and the webbing that tightened the shoulder straps was worn almost all the way through where it rubbed up against the zippers of the hipbelt pockets. So in Ashland I switched to the Gossamer Gear Gorilla, size small with the straps lowered two inches to fit my torso, and it turned out to be my Ultimate Pack of Dreams. The volume fit my food and gear perfectly- it was like the Mariposa that I loved but shrunken down to exactly the size I needed. I had no problems with this pack at all, and carried it happily for the rest of the trail. It also is, I believe, the lightest framed pack available on the market (that is not made out of cuben fiber).
The one drawback of dealing with Gossamer Gear is their customer service- in my two years of carrying their packs I’ve found their customer service to be inconsistent, occasionally unprofessional, and sometimes lacking entirely. Many other hikers have had a similar experience and for this reason the company has a reputation, among thru-hikers, for unreliable customer service. Basically, if your pack breaks or is defective or if your order is wrong or if you need to return something- it might work out ok, or you might be SOL. It’s also impossible to navigate their website checkout on a mobile device- which is a real problem if you’re thru-hiking, as you’re most likely conducting all your business on a smartphone. All of this is a real bummer, as I think that their framed ultralight packs are currently the best on the market, and I wonder if they’re not actually interested in garnering loyalty among thru-hikers, as we can be needy and demanding and we actually use our gear until it breaks, and are directing their products more at the section-hiker crowd instead.
A note on framed packs vs. unframed packs: with an ultralight baseweight (ultralight means that your baseweight [everything you're carrying except food, water and fuel] is 10 lbs or less) you can choose a pack either with or without a frame, and you’ll probably be comfortable either way. The choice, then, is highly subjective, and I suggest that you try both and decide for yourself which works best for you. I hiked the first 500 miles of the PCT last year with a frameless pack and ultimately decided that the superior water-carrying ability of a framed pack was worth the extra 8 ounces- a frameless pack puts all the weight on your shoulders, while the simple aluminum stays of packs like the Mariposa or Gorilla help move the weight to your hips. I have yet to hike with someone carrying a frameless pack who doesn’t HATE carrying water. And yet, at the end of the day, many ultralight hikers DO carry frameless packs- so I suggest that you try both and see what works for you.
Would I carry this pack again? Yes, I’ll carry the GG Gorilla on the CDT next year. I’ll carry it until it falls off my body. And then I’ll probably switch to a pack from a company that is more thru-hiker friendly.
pictured: my whole sleep system
Sleeping bag: Zpacks 10 degree long regular width
It’s cold on the PCT at night people. REALLY COLD. Like 20 to 40 degrees. Every. Single. Night. Northern California is the ONLY place on the trail that has reliably warm nighttime temperatures. Unless you’re built like a bear and are a SUPER warm sleeper, you’re going to want a warm sleeping setup. Last year I carried a drafty quilt and was cold most nights. This year I carried the 10 degree bag from zpacks and it was AWESOME. Paired with my new neo-air, I was never cold. Ever. Although this also was in large part due to the neo-air- last year I used just a thin foam pad and on cold nights there probably wasn’t a bag warm enough to block the cold coming up out of the ground. This year, between the neo-air and the zpacks bag, I was warm 100% of the time, even on those 15 degree nights sleeping at 12k feet in the Sierras. If you’re a cold sleeper (as I am) I highly recommend the inflatable pad + warm sleeping bag setup.
The zpacks bags to do not have hoods, so I made sure that my down jacket had a hood, so that I could wear that when I was sleeping. Some people like down hats, or just a regular hat. I’m 5’7″ and ordered the long, so that I could pull it up around my ears. The regular would’ve just come up to my neck.
The bag started to get a little flat in Oregon from dirt and oil, so I washed it (in a regular washing machine with gentle soap) and dried it until it puffed up (in a regular drier on low heat) and then it was like new again. And no longer smelled like hamster pee.
The 10 degree long only weighs 21 ounces!
Would I carry this sleeping bag again? Yeah, I’ll definitely carry this on the CDT.
Sleeping pad: 1/8 inch foam pad from Gossamer Gear/Neo-Air x-lite size small
I like sleeping on hard, flat surfaces. I’m a back sleeper and, as a woman, I have an easier time retaining body fat on the trail. (Women = lower metabolic rate = a distinct advantage during thru-hiking and other endurance sports yessss.) I also just kind of like sleeping on the ground, and for these reasons I prefer to sleep on the thinnest pad available, aka the 1/8 inch foam pad from gossamer gear, which weighs in at a whopping two ounces. The only problem with this setup is that, except for on those rare warm nights, it’s pretty cold. So I carry the size small (aka child-size) neo-air x-lite as well for the cold nights, although I find it to be about as comfortable as sleeping on a half-inflated throw-pillow. It gets the job done, tho. With the neo-air I am NEVER cold. And I can bounce it forward during the warmer sections (like Northern California).
(Interesting note- I’ve met a handful of other hikers who are able to sleep on just the 1/8 inch foam pad, and all of them are women.)
Would I use this same setup again? Sure, why not.
Polycro ground sheet/Dirty piece of tyvek
I carried both of these for a while- the polycro is the ground sheet that goes inside my shelter when it rains, the tyvek was one line of defense between my fragile neo-air and the angry, poky ground when cowboy camping. The tyvek turned out to be kind of extraneous b/c I could use my 1/8 inch foam pad for the same purpose.
What about next year? I kind of want one of the Hexamids with the bathtub floor, in which case I wouldn’t need either of these things.
Phone/Camera/Blogging/Maps machine: Samsung Galaxy s3 in an otterbox case
My second year using this phone. I became more proficient at typing on the keyboard and Guthrie taught me how to take better landscape photos with the shitty camera. I blogged on the wordpress app, which saves the posts to your phone until you have reception to post them. The photo quality is shitty, however, when you upload via the wordpress app for android, so I started an instagram account and put all of my photos there. I used AT&T as a carrier, as AT&T and Verizon have the most coverage on the trail.
Would I use this phone again?
Yah, unless I can upgrade for free or whatevs, in which case I’ll get one of the newer androids that have a BANGIN camera. IPHONES CAN SUCK IT
Navigation: Guthooks’ app/Halfmile’s app/The water report (in the desert)
Guthook’s app is $25, I think, for the whole trail, Halfmile’s app is free. The water report is free online and you can cache it to your phone. Between the water report (in the desert) and the two apps I had a veritable flood of information, more than I could ever want or need or use. Both apps have tons of info on mileage/water sources/campsites/road crossings/elevation profiles/resupply locations (and the hours, policies, and mailing addresses of those resupply locations). I carried no paper maps or guidebook pages of any sort and in two PCT thru-hikes I have not used my compass once. I also saved battery power by following cascadia footprints, sharpie “vandalism” on trail signs, trail blazes, the marks from people dragging their trekking poles, rock cairns, the cellophane corners of Nature’s Valley granola bar wrappers, the foggy memories of southbounders, and arrows made of sticks in the dirt. The PCT is very well marked.
Chargers: Sunstactics s5 solar charger/Anker 10,000 mAH external battery
I used a Sunstactics s5 solar charger in California, and as far as solar chargers go, this one, I’m convinced, is currently the BEST. It weighs just 8 ounces, is a simple elegant machine with very few parts that can break, attaches easily to the top of my pack, and charges, in uninterrupted sunlight, at about half the rate of a wall outlet. This charger was perfect for me, as I have an android, although apparently Iphones don’t do as well with it- something about having to unplug the iphone and plug it back in every time you have to pass under a patch of shade. (This has to do with a bug in the iphone, not the charger.) The charger is expensive (about $150), but if you’re going with a solar charger this is def. the one to get. And suntactics customer service is AMAZING. I had a problem with mine around Northern California, called them up, and they had me mail it back in and shipped me a new one in, like, THREE DAYS.
The one drawback of this charger (or, I imagine, any solar charger) is that when you’re passing through intermittent shade your phone’s screen will light up and/or your phone will make a “bloop” noise every time the charge goes away (in the shade) and then comes back (in the sun). This will actually drain your battery faster than you’re charging it. The one solution I found to this was to turn my phone OFF, and then walk in and out of the shade to my heart’s content. This would allow my phone to “suck up” any little bits of juice that it could, without having to make all those battery-draining bloops. A full day of this would charge my phone from zero to about 50%, which was a real lifesaver at times.
In Oregon and Washington (and some parts of NorCall) the trail is too shaded to charge via solar charger at all, and so I decided to switch, in Oregon, to an Anker 10,000 mAH external battery. I got the 10,000 mAH one because it weighs just 8 ounces, the same as my solar charger, and I didn’t want to up my base weight. This is also enough mAH (whatever that is) to charge my phone to full power 4 times, as well as keep my steripen charged, and that’s as much as I’ll ever need, at my pace, between resupplies. The battery was only $25 on Amazon and I ended up loving it- it was much more hassle-free and reliable than my solar charger. The only downside was that it took, I think, around 15 hours to charge fully via a wall outlet, so it required an overnight stay at each resupply, unless I rationed it while I hiked.
What about next year? As much as I love the solar charger on the CDT I may just bring the external battery, as it’s simpler and more hassle-free.
Sansa Clip Mp3 player
Don’t make fun of my dinky little plastic Mp3 player, y’all. I know there are lots of Ipod products out there that are sleek and elegant and expensive and hold masses of music and “get the radio” and all but this Mp3 player weighs just an ounce, has a slot for a memory card, and most importantly, it has a MOTHERFUCKING CLIP. It’s also been through 2 thru-hikes and lots of rain and inconsiderate handling and it still works like a champ. Sansa Clip 4 life!
Next year? I need to put some audiobooks on this thing. And more Taylor Swift.
Steripen Ultra Water Purifier
This thing is awesome. Unlike the most hardcore badasses of the trail, I still have to treat my water almost all of the time, and the steripen is what I prefer. I don’t like chemicals, and I don’t want to squeeze anything! The steripen ultra charges via USB, and a single charge has always been enough, for me, to make it through a section. My steripen ALMOST made it through two thru-hikes, until… it got too wet in the rain? Or something? And kind of fritzed out. Then I tried to return it to the REI in bend and they stared at me like I was a junkie. But 4600 miles of constant use is pretty good for a single piece of gear, I’d say!
And on the CDT? I’ll use the steripen.
Petzl e-lite headlamp
This headlamp sucks. It makes only a small amount of wavery, confusing light, and it requires those big flat watch batteries that are expensive. But it only weighs an ounce, and I carried it because, on occasion, one needs a headlamp. Mostly I don’t like night-hiking, though, or even being up after dark, and this year I was efficient enough to rarely have to do it. When I did night-hike I tried to make best use of the moon.
Next year? Same headlamp. Why not?
Going stoveless/Plastic screw-top container for soaking food
I guess I am a masochist, because I never allow myself to have hot food on the trail. Last year I carried an alcohol stove made from a pepsi can for much of the trail, but was inspired by Instigate’s peanut butter jar soaking system and so eventually ditched the stove. It worked for me and my FAVORITE thing to eat on the trial this year was chia seeds, oats and chocolate hemp protein powder soaked in my little container. I could seriously eat this 5x a day and not get tired of it. For dinner I soaked dried spinach and peas with instant refried beans or instant curried lentil soup and ate it with tortilla chips.
Next year? I might get another alcohol stove and dehydrate really great homemade dinners for myself. The CDT is brutal, and food is great for morale. Or I might just stick with my little screw-top container, b/c I hate hassle and carrying extra stuff.
Brooks Cascadias Running Shoes
These shoes work perfect for me, and I also like that you can find “deals” on previous years’ models online. I change them every 700 miles, only get blisters the first month, and rarely, if ever, have foot pain. Before my first thru-hike last year I wore a women’s size 10, and for the trail I sized up to a men’s size 10- both longer AND wider, so they were perfect, as your feet spread and also swell while thru-hiking. I never laced my shoes tight- I kept them loose enough that I could slip them on and off without untying them. The few times I did lace them tight I developed foot pain within 10 miles or so. On each pair of cascadias I sawed off the bump in back that hits your achilles tendon and then stitched it up with dental floss- that bump is useless and bothers my heel. Cascadias work for lots of people on the trail, although if you need a really wide toe-box Altras are a good alternative.
Next year? Cascadias. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.
Injinji toe socks
Addicted to these b/c they keep you from feeling the grit between your toes. I also wore other thin no-cushion wool or synthetic socks on occasion. No-cushion is key for me. Sock cushion gives me hotspots! Hot tip: the men’s injinjis in PINK are ALWAYS on sale online. CDT? Yah.
Dirty Girl Gaiters
Love them. When I wear these I rarely (if ever) have to stop and dump rocks out of my shoes. They also come in wild patterns, and the wilder and more colorful your hiking outfit is, the happier you will be. GUARANTEED. CDT? Yes.
Western Mountaineering Hooded Flash Jacket
Ah, my love/hate relationship with down as an insulating layer. So lightweight, so cozy and puffy when it’s dry! So useless in the rain!
And on the CDT? I don’t know! Isn’t there something better?!
Golite rain jacket
Pretty much useless after two years of occasional use, wicks water through almost immediately. I should probably replace this for the CDT.
Nike hyperwarm tights
I love these tights. They are very warm. And heavy. And fleecy on the inside. This is an item I bounce when it’s warm, and I will def. carry them on the cold sections of the CDT.
Boa one-inch inseam galaxy-print running shorts
A thru-hiker’s running shorts are, for four to six months, the closest thing a thru-hiker has to home- aka VERY VERY IMPORTANT, and one develops much feelings and emotional attachment to one’s running shorts! My intentions with running shorts (and they should be your intentions, too) are A) EXCITING COLORS/PATTERNS AS THIS HELPS WITH MORALE B) NO CHAFE C) AS SHORT AS POSSIBLE D) FEEL AS THOUGH I’M NOT WEARING ANY PANTS.
I found these particular beauties on runningwarehouse.com, for $27. You can get all sorts of crazy patters, and neon ones! These shorts have a one-inch inseam, which is ridiculous, but they DO come with a liner, so you don’t have to worry about flashing anyone. I bought the men’s size large to make them a touch longer, although next year I’ll probably get the medium because they have a really high slit up the side and are always blowing up and showing the liner anyway, so I might as well get the size that fits me. THESE SHORTS ARE A DREAM aka THEY REALLY DO MAKE YOU FEEL AS THOUGH YOU’RE NOT WEARING ANY PANTS. I wore these shorts all day long every single day for my entire hike, and only one little seam began to unravel, towards the end. In contrast, last year I wore patagonia running shorts and by Washington they had disintegrated completely. I’ll wear these shorts on the CDT, maybe in some neon color?!
Railriders adventure shirt for the desert
I got the men’s size small, because it was on sale. Fit me like a tent but was the best desert shirt ever. Not awful looking, as far as desert shirts go/in fact vaguely fashionable/light and breezy/does not turn to cardboard when saturated with sweat/makes me feel as though I should be leading a camel train across the sahara in the seventies
Giant, cheap straw hat that completely disintegrated in the desert winds
Everyone should wear one of these hats, at some time in their life, while on some great, arduous mission across the desert. Coupled with my vaguely middle-eastern feeling adventure shirt, this hat really made me feel “in character” for my grueling journey across the sun-scorched, wind-blown no-man’s land that is the first 700 miles of the PCT. Make sure, however, that your hat has a string. Otherwise the desert winds will carry it away and you’ll surely die.
Nike dri-fit sports bra
Werks good, smashes boobs. Have worn for 5,320 miles now. Nike logo is flaking off in an aesthetically appealing way.
Mosquito headnet that I use exclusively as a stuff sac/no deet/no protection from the mosquitoes
I will continue to cultivate my psychological resilience in the face of intense mosquitoes; this helps me feel superior to other hikers
Gossamer Gear trekking poles
8 ounces for the pair, collapsing mechanism was annoying and sometimes dysfunctional, one pole snapped in the snow, one tip broke completely off. Last year I carried Black Diamond ultra distance poles, which weigh one ounce more but never broke and I never had to replace the tips, and I’ll most likely carry these next year on the CDT. You can read my thoughts on trekking poles here.