Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Outfitting for the AT - Packing It All Up

Picking a pack requires some strategy. One can do all the research and pick a bag based on the industry's marketing niches and end up with one that just doesn't fit their body, or fit the gear, food and water they plan to carry. Old timers tell you to buy your pack last. Get all your food, shelter, clothing and cooking equipment together, take it to an outfitter, pack several packs the way you would, put the pack on your back, and walk around with it long enough to tell if it fits.


This is a great strategy till you decide to support the lightweight cottage industry that uses cutting edge materials in creative new ways to produce high quality products for folks adopting a lightweight/ultra lightweight philosophy. Stuff made in America. Companies like ULA, Zpacks, Gossamer Gear, Six Moons Designs, TarpTent, GoLite ... By and large, these products are not available from outfitters, and must be ordered direct. Often times the person on the other end of the phone is the owner. What makes this work is great customer support from people who actually use their products, and generally easy return policies.

You still have to figure out the volume you need. Easily accomplished by loadingall your gear, clothing and food into a box, and calculating the volume.

Also vitally important, and not discussed too much, is the total weight you'll be carrying. Many bags achieve their light weight by employing lighter suspension systems that are not designed to carry expedition-weight loads.

Adding it all up.

By eliminating stuff you don't need, and buying lightweight versions of the stuff you do, it's not too hard to get a base weight of between 15 and 20 lbs. Folks adopting ultralight concepts like those discussed at backpackinglight.com, often achieve base weights of 10 lbs and less. Base weight includes pack, sleeping system, shelter, cooking gear, extra clothing that you carry, and misc stuff for first aid, hygiene, navigation, entertainment ... To all that, you still need to add food and water.

Water is generally available all along the Appalachian Trail, with a few notable exceptions in the heat of the summer. Folks usually make do with a one liter bottle they replenish frequently, another empty one in their pack for times of drought, and an empty 3-4 liter bag for carrying water from a stream to camp for cooking, cleaning, etc. A liter of water weighs a little over 2 lbs.

Food planning is a whole separate article, suffice to say that folks on long-distance hikes generally carry 1.75 lbs of food per day, and on the AT, they generally replenish every 4-5 days. There are a couple of sections where one can go seven days between replenishment. That works out to about 12 lbs in a worst case scenario. Add it all up and you're anywhere between 29 and 36 lbs. Not too bad if you consider that the standard back in the day was 50 lbs, but many of the lighter packs cannot handle those loads comfortably, and one wants to check that out before plunking down their cash.

The pack I had, an Osprey Atmos 50 is a 50L/3000 cu in bag that weighs 3.5 lbs with a comfortable suspension. Osprey changed the suspension in 2009, and the new models are rated at better than 40 lbs capacity. But with the model I have, anything north of 30 lbs starts to overpower its hipbelt. Considering I would consume any extra pounds in a few days, that was not a deal breaker. It's volume was an issue. If I was hiking solo, reduced the size of my cooking gear, and use a small, single-person shelter, I might fit seven days worth of food in that pack.  I needed a larger volume pack.

I did my homework, spent some time in discussion forums at Backpackinglight.com and Whiteblaze.org, and decided to try the Ultralight Adventure Equipment Circuit. A 4200 cu in, internal frame bag, weighing 2.25 lbs, and capable of carrying 35 lbs, it is a popular pack for AT thru-hikers, and it promised me increased carrying capacity and over a pound in weight savings. ULA's site has detailed instructions for measuring one's torso to assure the right sized pack, and the owner is more than happy to discuss pack selection and fit by phone or by email.

The bag is constructed of Dynema Gridstop - a tough, light nylon - and a Cordura nylon bottom for wear protection. It sports a roll top enclosure, big pockets on the hip belt, big exterior ripstop nylon pockets on the sides and a front mesh pocket that spans the full height and width of the pack. The hip belt position can be adjusted to fine tune the torso fit, and the bag has top and side compression straps, along with myriad hip belt and shoulder straps adjustments to help stabilize the load.

When I got mine, I spent some time adjusting the hip belt position to get the shoulder straps to wrap around my shoulders just right. I loaded it up and went for a walk. I played with the hip belt adjustments and the load lifters, and found it to be very comfortable.

A keeper for sure.

That front mesh pocket swallows a lot of stuff. I fold my tent loosely and stuff it in there along with my rain jacket. That keeps a wet tent out of the main compartment, allows me to dry it during a lunch stop, and I can get it out and pitch it in the rain without opening my pack. The side pockets hold water, water filtration and snacks. The hip pockets hold a small camera, a compass, my phone, deet, and a number of small items I want to access while hiking.

I use the 2.4 oz ULA pack cover to help keep everything dry. But to make damned sure my sleeping bag and clothing stay dry inside the main compartment, I've always used a large, heavy gauge trash bag or trash compactor bag I could fold down inside.  I just ordered two extra large, cuben fiber, roll-top dry bags made by Zpacks that work great as a pack liners. Cuben fiber is a material used in racing sails. It's light, tough and waterproof. The bags weigh 1.65 oz.  They measure 18" wide x 36" tall when flat, and roughly 6" deep x 12" wide x 29" tall when full.  - A perfect fit for the Circuit.

I stuff my sleeping bag in the bottom, pile my clothing on top, fit heavy stuff like cooking gear up by my shoulder blades, roll the top of the dry bag down, and I have plenty of room for my food bag.

A lightweight, high volume, well fitting pack, made in the US of A. Good stuff.


"I see a vision of a great rucksack revolution thousands or even millions of young Americans wandering around with rucksacks, going up to mountains to pray, making children laugh and old men glad, making young girls happy and old girls happier, all of 'em Zen Lunatics who go about writing poems that happen to appear in their heads for no reason and also by being kind and also by strange unexpected acts keep giving visions of eternal freedom to everybody and to all living creatures."  Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac

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