Monday, December 8, 2014

My Post Hike Gear Review (The Big Three + 1)

(My complete gear list) I think it's about time I'd post some of my thoughts about the gear I used on the trail. I am quite happy about my initial gear selection. Most of my gear held on for my entire trip, with a few exceptions. I also ditched a few items I decided were not worth the weight.
Without further ado, here is my gear review:

Backpack - ZPacks Arc Blast 60L

Enjoying the view towards what should have been Alta Mountain.
The pack had plenty of room inside for all of my gear. In the Sierras I carried the BearVault 500, and it fit in easily. I had to strap my tent on the outside of the pack during that time, but it was still comfortable enough.
The Cuben Fiber worked perfectly for rain protection. I didn't have a lot of rainy days on trail, and only got completely soaked twice. On both times, though, all of my gear remained totally dry inside my pack. I never carried a rain cover, or inside liner. There was no need.
The belt pouch didn't have the best closing mechanism - at the beginning I had a tiny clip, which I couldn't close with one hand. I switched it to a Velcro version at the Kick Off, and it wasn't much better - The Velcro stopped working after a short time, and at the end I just used a rubber band to keep the pouch closed during the rain. The pouch was deep enough for me to leave it open most of the time, without worrying that anything falls out of it.
The Velcro at the top of the pack also stopped working after a while, but I was still able to close it tightly enough using the clip, so it didn't bother me much.
I know some hikers like to keep adjusting the straps and lift loaders after putting the pack back on. The straps are not easily pulled or released on the shoulder straps, or load lifters, but it didn't bother me much. I just found a setting that worked well for me, and didn't adjust the straps much for most of the trail.
The medium size belt I got was a bit too big for me, especially after losing 35 pounds on the trail, but it was still functional when pulled all the way tight around my hips.
All in all, I am very pleased with the pack. At the end of the trail it still performed well, and showed just minor wear. I have sent it back to ZPacks, and they repaired everything free of charge, and sent it back to me. Great customer service.

Sleeping Bag - ZPacks

I bought the 20 degrees quilt option, with only adjustable straps at the bottom (no zippers). I was a bit cold at the beginning of the trail, but it was mostly because of my sleeping mat (more on that later...). I also got the 850 fill water resistant down (I see they offer it in 900 fill now). I am not sure how much it would have helped in a crisis, but I just kept it packed inside its Cuben Fiber stuff sack, and it remained dry during my entire hike.
On the first few days, I could feel the heat escape through my head. I started sleeping with my down jacket hoodie on (usually without putting on the jacket), and later used my fleece beanie. That did the trick. On cold-ish nights I used both the beanie and the hoodie, and even wrapped the jacket's sleeves around my neck for extra insulation. In the really cold nights, I wore the jacket, of course.
I tried using the straps both directly under me (and over the sleeping mat), and also around the sleeping mat itself. The quilt was way too tight when wrapped around the mat, and it also felt less warm that way. At the end, during the cold nights I had in Washington, I just closed the quilt tightly around me, and it worked out fine and kept me warm.

Tent - Tarptent Rainbow

My tent is a bit old (Bought around 2008), so it is a tiny bit different from the newer Rainbow model. But it's basically the same.
Everything I ever needed for my hike.
Before the trail, I used to set it up as a freestanding tent, using my trekking poles at both ends, and only using two stakes to secure the sides to the ground. I used it that way up until Kennedy Meadows (Mile 702), and it withstood some very windy and stormy nights with no major problems (As long as I was inside the tent, it remained on the ground).
I had a small tear in the Velcro used to secure the trekking pole to the tent (The new model have a different mechanism there), and Henry Shires fixed it for me at the Kick Off. He also sent me a replacement pole section for a section that seemed like it was going to snap soon. I had another pole that seemed just as bad later on, but it held out until the end.
Another problem I had with the tent was with the zippers - the netting zippers stopped working one after the other, and the one on the outer fly as well. The outer one wasn't very important to me, since the Velcro over there did the trick. But the netting zippers were very annoying. At first, I tried cleaning the zippers with some oil, and using a pair of pliers on the sliders, and it worked for a short while. When I got to VVR it kinda gave up, and I emailed TarpTent and got them to send me extra zippers to Toulumne Meadows. But before getting there, while resting in Mammoth Lakes, I went over to an awesome local seamstress that replaced one zipper for me, and kept me going with it all the way to Burney.
In Burney, after a terrible night with effectively no bug netting at all, I finally tried using the sliders I got in the mail, along with zipper stoppers I found at the local seamstress shop, and replaced both zippers on the netting. This time it all held all the way to the end. I think in Bend I finally fixed the rain fly zipper as well.
My trekking poles' mechanism was not very comfortable to adjust, and every evening I had to fight both of my poles just to extend them a bit, and then once more in the morning. Before entering the Sierras I gave up on setting up the tent in the free standing style, ordered 4 Easton stakes, and used them for the rest of my hike. It was worth it, for sure.
Many people worry about condensation inside tents, especially in single-walled tents such as TarpTents and ZPacks. What I liked best about my Rainbow was its size - even on damp and wet nights, when it was covered in dew, both outside and inside, my gear would never touch the inner walls, and would not get wet. In the morning, I would just pack my sleeping bag and mattress while inside the tent, move everything outside, and then try to dry as much as I can on the inside of the tent, using my camp towel. I would then just pack the tent, and only unpack it in the evening, on the next camp site. I never bothered spreading it to dry at noon, or had my sleeping bag get wet during the night, or any of those water/condensation related problems.
In conclusion, it was a great tent, and I was very happy with it. I highly recommend it.

Sleeping Mat - Therm-a-Rest Neo-Air X-Lite small/reg

I started my hike with an older Neo-Air, size small. I bought the small one because I used a small inflatable foam mattress back on the AT, and it worked well for me back then. But the Neo-Air was not as good this time.
At the beginning of the trail I had plenty of cold nights, and I thought that's just the way it's going to be. But pretty soon I was wearing everything I had during the night, and wrapping my jacket around my feet (which felt the coldest during the night). After entering the Sierra's, and realizing both Idan and Yair are much warmer during the night, Yair finally suggested that maybe my mattress is not good enough. The theory was that because I have a sharp drop from the mattress, just under my knees, and because I was sleeping in a quilt, which is open underneath me, cold air is entering freely into the bag during the night.
That first week out of Kennedy Meadows I stuffed unused rain gear under me, around that hole between the mat and the quilt, and it seemed to improve my sleep temperature. When we got to Lone Pine I just bought a brand new normal sized Neo-Air, weighing at 450gr (~80 more than the small), and only a bit larger.
Since then, I was quite happy with sleep system. I am sure I had some pretty cold nights further on the trail, but I only remember one more night of "wearing everything I have", and most nights I was warm enough inside my quilt.
Regarding the comfort level of the Neo-Air - it's awesome. I twist and turn through the night anyway, but the mattress worked fine when sleeping on the side, as well as on my back.
Many people complain about the rustling noise these mattresses make. It never bothered me. Not the noise coming out of my own mattress, nor the ones from nearby hikers (And many others do use the Neo-Air).