Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Hiking Poles

On my AT thru hike I got persuaded by the REI sales-person to buy the most expensive Leki poles in the store. I remember vaguely she did offer several alternative models, all from Leki, but I decided I'd pay a bit extra, and go for the best. (I think that is my general mind set, and it probably cost me a lot of money during my recent gear frenzy as well.)

After deciding I want the Super Makalu model, apparently the didn't have a pair in stock, but the other store near Union Square had one, so I had to go over there on the following morning, and finally bought the pair. I remember I walked back up manhattan with the poles in my hand, wondering if I'd even know how to use them properly.

Well, they worked really good on my thru-hike. No complaints at all. I even enjoyed the excellent Leki service at trail days '02, when they replaced most of the poles' sections, and used them on all my hikes ever since (I even enjoy taking them to short day hikes, despite the fact I might look like a dork, because it reminds me of the good days I had on the AT).

After buying the Tarptent Rainbow I started using the poles for setting it up as a freestanding tent, this way using

Several years ago I managed to get the lower section of the left pole a bit bent. The pole still worked well enough, and the only problem was that I couldn't get it fully collapsed. I didn't want to try and bend him back by myself, fearing it might weaken it, and was content using it the way it is. I still happily used it on my hikes in Corsica (GR20) and around the Mont-Blanc in Europe (TMB), so I guess it held up nicely. After finishing my recent TMB hike, I found a big outfitter in Chamonix that was handling Leki, so I took my bent pole over there, trying to score some warranty service, or a replacement. They just took my pole and bent it back to shape, so I guess I could have done it myself year ago. Oh well.

All this time, however, I always knew the poles were very reliable, but a bit heavy. I just needed the right excuse to purchase a newer, lighter pair. I always had my eyes on the Gossamer Gear LT4S Trekking Poles, though at $190, they are expensive. When I finally made my mind to try the PCT on 2014, I checked out their site, and saw they were out of stock. An email to their support crew reassured me that they are getting back in stock shortly, and indeed they appeared again early in October (Or maybe a bit before). Just at that moment I heard about the Locus Gear CP3 Carbon Fiber Trekking Pole, which offer a flick lock mechanism, and are only slightly heavier. They are much cheaper, and offer a much more reasonable option for shipping to Israel (I think that it turned out about 550 NIS including shipment to Israel with the CP3, compared to 750 NIS for the LT4S shipped to an address in the US).

So yeah, I didn't know which poles I should order. I guess the reasonable thing to do was to go with the cheaper, just-as-good option, and be done with it. But I was rather set on my LT4S (I also did read some comparisons on BackpackingLight between the two models, and people said that for long distance hiking they would rather have the LT4S). I emailed a couple of trail angels from San Diego (Scout and Frodo), way before the beginning of the 2014 preparation season, and asked them if I can ship the poles to their place, until I finally get there before my hike, and they agreed. So at least that settled the crazy shipping costs Gossamer Gear were quoting for sending the poles to Israel (another $70+, I think).

Just yesterday I got notified by the fedex site that the shipment has arrived to Scout and Frodo in SD. So I guess I have to fly over to the USA now, if only to collect my hiking poles...

Buying an insulating jacket

Back in 2002 I started my AT thru-hike really early in the season (I had to catch a David Bowie concert in February 22nd in NYC, so my thru hike arranged itself around that), and I had some really cold days and nights early on. I did not carry a special down, or even synthetic, jacket. All I had was this simple EMS fleece outer layer. During the colder times I just put everything on, from polartec baselayer, to hiking clothes, fleece and rain gear on top. I was cold, but it worked.

This time around I decided I'd like to have a simple, light-weight, insulating jacket. The highs are higher on the PCT, and I expect to be camping in snow at least several times, so I should be prepared for it. Besides, it will replace the heavier fleece layer.

I checked out Outdoor Gear Lab's down jacket comparison, and marked some brands to check. At first, I was really looking into the water repellent down that was recently introduced into the market. The only company that offered such jackets was Sierra Designs, except for the Ghost Whisperer by Mountain Hardwear, which seems to be an awesome jacket. But I wanted to have the hooded option, which did not contain the treated Down. I decided I'd wait until the winter 2014 season options be available, hoping that the treated down will appear in more options and more brands.

About a month ago I noticed that Mountain Hardwear have finally renewed their offerings, and are not selling a Hooded Ghost Whisperer with Q Shield Down (Their brand name for water repellent down). I was really looking into buying it, trying to figure out the best way to have it shipped to Israel without paying too much. The web site did not ship outside of the US, but REI and Backcountry Gear did, for about $50 more. I was also looking into a delivery company that gives you an address in the US, and then ships the stuff to Israel itself. I used it once to buy a pair of New Balance shoes. Their rates were $30 for the lightest package, and up. And they were also going through customs and VAT when bringing the package over, so there's no point in hoping it will slip under the radar.

After many evenings trying to decide which jacket I should purchase, and how should I get it over here, I finally decided on a synthetic one. I know down is lighter and compresses better, but I figured that since I got the down quilt, I can spare some poor geese their feathers, and manage with a heavier option after all. I did buy a rather light Thermostatic Hooded Jacket from Mountain Hardwear, so I'm not complaining much. The weight difference is 306g (on my home scales) to 212g (the Hooded Ghost Whisperer, according to their site's specs), so it's about 100g difference. And it's also about $70 cheaper, which is another little perk.

About the shipping, I made the mistake of using the delivery company, hoping the light weight jacket will be only $30, but at the end the bulk of the package caused it to be $50, and then I had to pay another $50 for the VAT in Israel. So next time I'll just order directly from Backcountry Gear. Lesson learned.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The big three

It wasn't easy deciding which backpack/sleeping bag/shelter I'd like to carry on my hike. I made many comparisons between different manufacturers and tried to pick out the best gear I can afford.

I have a Gossamer Gear Mariposa Plus backpack, from around 2008. Mine looks a bit different than the current model, both in shape (The closure system) and in materials (Mine is made out of SilNylon, and not this tougher dyneema fabric). I initially bought it before heading out to hike the Israel National Trail, and I highly recommend it.

It can really handle above average loads, for an aspiring (but-not-quite-there-yet) ultra-light hiker such as me. On my INT hike I think I had a rather light total pack weight, cutting down to carry only essentials, and carrying a Rainbow Tarptent. But since then, I went out to several shorter hikes in the desert, where I had to carry up to 8 Liters of water on my back. Picking up the backpack when it was fully loaded was no fun, but it held.
ZPacks "Arc Blast" Ultralight Backpack

I figured that after 5 years, it's time for me to find a new backpack, and I was contemplating just ordering the newer Mariposa model, or maybe a Gorilla, but during my recent hike on the Tour du Mont Blanc, with my old backpack, I noticed that I sweat a lot along my back, even when the weather itself was not exceptionally hot. I recalled reading about the ZPacks Arc Blast, with its outer frame that enables ventilation along the back, and figured I should look into it.

Back in Israel I found a hiker who owned an Arc Blast, and I drove over to have a look at it. I was very impressed. It seemed strong and roomy. I was almost hooked on the idea of ordering it. I just needed to finally do it, to mark the beginning of my PCT gear purchasing season.

Sleeping Bag:
Now, the sleeping bag is another story - Back on the AT I used some unheard-of sleeping bag brand I bought in Israel, and it worked, I guess. There was nothing ultra-light about it, but it was a decent 20 degrees synthetic bag (-7c), and I managed to carry it (almost) all the way to Katahdin (At some point I used a fleece blanket instead, and just shipped the bag ahead towards the White Mountains, but that's a different story).

Ever since, I kept on using it for short weekend trips in Israel, also carrying it on my two week walk along the Camino de Santiago, for no real reason (You can easily get by there with a thin sleeping bag liner instead). But I knew I'd have to find something more serious for my next big hike.

The opportunity came in 2011, when I was planning my hike on the GR20, in Corsica. I knew the time has came for me to buy a new sleeping bag, that would be especially light for the upcoming hard trail. Just then GoLite had one of their sales, and I managed to buy their Ultra-Light 3 Seasons Quilt at almost half price, for $160 dollars. Back then it was rated as a 20 degrees bag, though now they sell a similar quilt and rate it for 30. Anyway, it was a great price for a good and light bag that many people have used on hikes along the PCT and CDT. It was a pain getting it here, though - I had to use relatives in Florida to actually make the order, have them send it over to other relatives in NYC, whose parents visited them, and carried the bag to back to Israel for me. A royal pain in the ass. The pain in the ass being me, mostly.

The quilt served me well in Corsica. But sadly, one year later I lent it to someone who came in for advice on the GR20. I lent him a lot of gear - my backpack, tarptent, trekking poles and mattress as well. But he managed to get just my quilt stolen. He was in quite a fix there, in a rain storm on the mountains of Corsica, finding out he has no quilt in his backpack. But he managed to finish his hike. I got stuck without a decent sleeping bag again.

So now I was on the lookout for a new sleeping bag/quilt. Golite didn't have their sales when I was looking around lately, and I was trying to decide mainly between them, Katabatic Gear, enLIGHTened Equipment and ZPacks. Trying to compare price, weight and degrees rating is hard. Especially when the most expensive bags are the best, naturally. I was mostly looking out for hydrophobic down, which is a rather new thing from the past two years or so, which protect the down from losing all its loft when wet, and effectively reduces the main reason to prefer synthetic bags over it.

So that eliminated GoLite (They just now released a hooded jacket with a water repellent down, so I bet next season more of their product will use it).
ZPacks 20 Degree 850 Fill Power Down Sleeping Bags
I've heard many good things on Katabatic Gear, and also enLIGHTened Equipment are well known for their high quality quilts, and much more reasonably prices quilts, but at the end I decided I will go and add the ZPacks 20 Degree 850 Fill Power Down Sleeping Bag to the already-decided-upon Arc Blast, and just went ahead and ordered them together straight from the site. Shipping to Israel was also a factor, and I think ZPacks had the cheapest shipping cost for me.

I was thinking about replacing my old Rainbow (which weighs around 1Kg) with a shelter that weighs almost half of it. I used the excellent SUL/XUL Solo Fully Enclosed Shelter Comparisons table maintened by, and tried to figure out for myself how much less comfortable I'm willing to be (I've never slept under a tarp) in order to shave off some grams. My mind was almost set on some kind of Hexamid Solo combination with a beak, or maybe even the Skyscape X, but at the end I couldn't justify such a crazy expense, and I decided to stick with my current tent for now.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Here we go...

I first heard about the PCT while thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail in 2002. I recall being in the 501 shelter, meeting up with Bag of Tricks and (I think) Woody Woodpecker while cooking myself some dinner on my cat stove. Woody was telling me about his PCT hike in the previous year - how you have to watch out for Grizzly bears, cook away from your sleeping location, cross snow covered mountain passes. I liked the stories, but I haven't thought much about the PCT back then. I was still a long way off from Katahdin, the northern end of the AT.

I don't think I really "decided" to hike the PCT for a long long time after that. I just kept telling myself that it might be an interesting adventure to have one day. Over the years, I kept recalling my time on the AT, having dreams about finally getting back out there, and generally hoping to hike another long trail again.
At first, I vaguely hoped to try it after I graduate from university, but then it didn't work out. I somehow hoped every year that "next April" I'll be out on the trail, but every April came and gone, and I was never actually doing it, for various different reasons. Only about half a year ago I finally decided (and got a blessing from my partner) to actually start working towards realizing this dream. So right now I am in the planning phase of this great adventure. Some scary stuff indeed.

So here is a quick run down of stuff I have done so far in preparation to my coming hike:
  • Ordered a ZPacks Arc Blast backpack and Sleeping bag - still waiting for them to ship it over here. I expect I'll have to pay a ton to release it from customs.
  • Bought and already gotten a Sawyer Mini Filter.
  • Bought and gotten Mountain Hardwear Men Thrmostatic Hooded Jacket
  • Got in touch with 4 other Israelis who plan on starting the PCT in April 2014. One couple and two other guys. I hope to get over to Campo, CA with at least one other hiking partner, at least for the first few days.
  • Borrowed Yogi's PCT Handbook from one of those Israeli hikers, and have finished reading the pre-hike section of the book. Got some interesting insights about preparations I still need to do
I still need to finish up those next several chores:

  • Decide which cellular provider I'm going to use, and get a SIM card with a suitable plan for the hike.
  • Buy a Personal Locator Beacon (Probably ACR ResQlink 406)
  • Print out the maps for the trail, divide into sections.
  • Buy a new pair of hiking poles (My old pair is a bit bent, and really heavy)
  • Use the PCT Planner web site to plan my hike at least until Kennedy Meadows
  • Get some sort of travel insurance
I will try and write short posts about my latest decisions and dilemmas, before I actually take off to start my hike.