Katadyn's BeFree Filter

Gear Review: BeFree Water Filter

The Sawyer Mini Squeeze is one of the most popular backpacking water filters on the market. And I hate it. In fact, of all the water filtering or treatment systems I own (seven), it’s my least favorite. Sawyer is a wonderful company, but I’m not a fan of the Mini at all. To learn more about why it’s my least favorite filter, check out my prior blog post about the MSR Trailshot filter. I also refer to the Mini often in this review as a comparison.

I have been on a quest to find the perfect filter since I began backpacking and I’ve finally found it! Water filtration nirvana is mine! Enter: Katadyn’s BeFree 1.0L (the L stands for “Liter”). I had the opportunity to use this award-winning filter on an overnight backpacking trip recently and absolutely fell in love.

The BeFree is simply designed with a bladder and screw-on cap with integrated filter. It weighs 2 oz. and contains a hollow fiber filter 0.1 micron.  The Mini has the same filter and advertised weight, but the Mini requires that you carry accessories in order to operate it properly, which adds to the weight. More on that in a minute. For the BeFree, simply fill the bladder, screw on the cap and then squeeze the bladder to force the water through the filter and out of the cap. You can squeeze water directly into your mouth or into another container. MSRP is $44.95.

A company called Hydrapak – a wonderful company with innovative, collapsible/flexible bottles that I love – makes the bladder, which is much more durable than it looks and feels. I have owned a Hydrapak Stash 1-liter collapsible water bottle for a year now and have used it relentlessly on backpacking trips, with no signs of wear and tear. The flexibility of the bladder on this filter means you can quite literally crumple the whole thing up and toss it in your pack without worry, or roll it up and secure it with a small rubber band.

What I hate most about the Sawyer Mini, and most other manual filters that I own, is the amount of time and work it takes to filter two liters of water, which is the amount I usually carry at one time. The Mini has a very slow flow rate and takes a surprising amount of effort to use.

Katadyn claims the BeFree filters two quarts of water per minute (1.9 liters). That timing doesn’t seem to take into account that you need to refill the bottle to filter two quarts. In my own test, it took exactly one minute and 30 seconds to fill the bottle, filter the first liter, fill it again, and filter the second liter. That’s pretty amazing! That’s faster than any filter I own. Even my Steripen takes 90 seconds to clean one liter of water. The BeFree is also very easy to squeeze and you don’t feel like you are going to pop or break the bladder (unlike with the Mini).

BeFree Filter Flow Rate
Not squeezing hard and getting a good flow!

A common problem with many filters is how you go about cleaning the filter when it begins to clog up with sediment, which causes the flow rate to go way down. The Mini is the most difficult of my filters to backflush. It requires multiple syringes of CLEAN water that have to be injected with force through the filter to flush out the sediment. If you don’t have clean water, good luck. Forcing dirty water through the filter compromises it and renders it unsafe until it can be properly flushed and cleaned out. If it’s pretty clogged up, it’s difficult to get enough filtered, clean water out of it to turn around and flush it multiple times. As I mentioned earlier, their weight of 2 ounces doesn’t include the bladder nor the syringe — just the filter itself.

A growing number of filters on the market utilize much simpler methods of cleaning the filter. Katadyn’s BeFree falls squarely in this group. All you have to do is fill the bottle with water (dirty or clean), screw the cap/filter on and shake it around. Another option is to remove the cap/filter and swish it in any lake, river or stream. That’s it! This also means that you don’t have to carry around the extra weight of a flushing device, like a syringe.

There are a couple of other nifty features and uses for this filter. The Hydrapak bladder has measurement marks on it that are helpful when measuring water for cooking. The high flow rate of the BeFree makes it so convenient to use that, on a recent trip where I had a two-liter hydration bladder full of clean water and the BeFree, I chose to use the BeFree for all of my cleaning, cooking and drinking water needs. Although I had to refill it with non-potable water a few times, it was still easier, more convenient, and less cumbersome to use than the clean water in my big bladder.

While you could use the BeFree as a stand-alone water bottle and fill it as needed, I don’t think that will be convenient for most backpackers.  There is no carabiner attachment point on the BeFree so you can’t hang it from your pack (I hope Katadyn adds this feature onto future models). If you fill it and take it with you, you will need to put it in an exterior pocket of your pack. The flexible, collapsible nature of the Hydrapak bladder makes this option less than ideal. Although it does stand up on its own when full.

Katadyn's BeFree Filter Review
When full or nearly full, the bottle does stand up on its own.

I prefer to fill the BeFree and filter the water into my pack’s integrated water bladder, then roll up the filter and stuff it in the top of my back- or side-pocket. Or I will use it to fill my Hydrapak Stash bottle (which is 50 percent lighter than most hard-sided bottles such as a Nalgene).  You can filter the water into any preferred water container and stash the BeFree in your pack or pants pocket.

The opening of the BeFree is larger than a standard plastic soda bottle-sized opening but not as wide as a wide-mouth opening, as is common on a Nalgene bottle, for example. This is important as the size of the opening effects how easy it is to fill your bottle with water from a lake or stream. Receptacles with smaller openings, especially on a flexible bottle, are more difficult and time consuming to fill.  Rigid bottles with a wide-mouth opening are the quickest and easiest to fill.

The BeFree’s opening is wide enough to make it somewhat easier to fill than many other bottles, but it’s not as easy as a rigid wide-mouth bottle, for sure. In other words, the BeFree is not perfect in this regard but it’s really not a big deal at all. It’s a small tradeoff for such an easy and quick filter to use.

Despite how durable the BeFree’s Hydrapak bladder is, I do worry about it being punctured or otherwise damaged over time. For that reason, I always carry Aquamira water treatment drops or tablets with me as backup (though I always carry Aquamira drops with me no matter what filter I bring on a trip). I think it’s smart to carry drops or tablets as a backup option. They weigh very little, especially the tablets, and I don’t want to get stuck in a situation where I can’t drink clean water.

The BeFree also comes in a 3-liter size (can be used as a gravity filter) and a 0.6-liter size. I don’t recommend the 0.6-liter option as your weight savings over the 1-liter option are negligible. The 3-liter version only weighs 4 ounces, which is pretty light! For a group of two or more backpackers, or for backpacking in arid backcountry where more water is needed, this would be an ideal option.

The filter is expected to last for 1,000 liters or 264 gallons. If I backpack 15 days per year and use 3 liters of water per day, the filter will last me more than 22 years!

All-in-all, the Katadyn BeFree is my favorite water filter of all time (so far). It’s far superior to the MSR Trailshot I reviewed last year (and thought was pretty great). For now, my quest to find a lightweight, easy-to-use filter with an amazing flow rate is over!

Disclaimer: I purchased this piece of gear on my own and all opinions about it are mine. I was not given any product or compensation by Katadyn or Hydrapak (darn it!) in exchange for my review.

Water is life. And clean water means health. – Audrey Hepburn

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Bridger-Teton National Forest

Trek, Trek Trekking Poles: Top 5 Reasons to Use ‘Em

I adore my trekking poles.  I can’t imagine any backpacking trip without them.  I don’t always use them on day-hikes (unless the hike is very long and very hilly), but I would certainly shed more than one tear if I forgot them at home during a backpacking trip.

Not all backpackers agree about poles. Some backpackers find them to be an unnecessary, useless item.  I think that’s either an ego thing OR it’s because the nay-sayers don’t actually know how to use them properly.

There is a right and a wrong way to use poles. They have wrist straps and I see those straps dangling and unused more often than not.  Or I see them causally looped over the hiker’s wrist as if to just ensure they won’t somehow drop a pole without realizing it.  When used in such a way, yes – trekking poles are pretty useless. And dangerous.  If you fall forward and use your hands to catch yourself, having the wrist straps on wrong can actually cause you to break or dislocate your thumb.  Right is right.  Wrong is wrong.

But when used properly, with the wrist securely “locked” in to the wrist strap with the strap properly tightened, poles become part of your body and assist you in many ways.

Another thing I see somewhat commonly is ONE pole.  Using one trekking pole will ensure that your body eventually becomes unbalanced.  Sure, it might make you feel more confident going down steep terrain, but only on one side!  Is it better than nothing, sure, but in order to get the full benefits of poles, your left side and ride side both need one.

Top 5 Reasons to Use Trekking Poles:

  1. So that you can still be hiking and backpacking when you are 60 (or 70, or 80): Backpacking is tough on your joints, especially if you are backpacking in hilly or mountainous terrain.  Remember, it’s not just your body weight putting stress on your knees, it’s also the 30-40 lbs of extra weight in your pack that your body isn’t used to. Even if you are young and strong with no aches or pains in your joints now, think long term.  Trekking poles will increase the life of your body.
  2. So that you can still hike tomorrow: Backpacking can be so strenuous and tough on your joints that you can get an injury suddenly.  One minute you are galavanting down a mountain, singing the Sound of Music soundtrack in your head (or out loud).  The next, it hurts to tack a single step.  Or, you have a great day going up and down, up and down, only to wake up the next morning wishing your trip was done already and dreading the hills ahead.  Trekking poles not only protect your joints for the future, they protect them now! When I abandoned my JMT thru-hike attempt at mile 105 due to smoke, a strong, fit, young man in his 20’s was experiencing knee pain and was using KT tape to wrap them each day.  He had no poles.  I sold him mine so that he could actually finish the trail. Which he did, thanks to the poles.  He later told me he didn’t think he would have made it without them.  I’m such a hero 🙂
  3. Efficiency: When used properly, trekking poles actually assist you on the uphill sections by allowing you to “push off” with the poles behind you as you walk.  When going downhill, the poles are out in front of you, taking on substantial weight as you head down steep terrain.  You will be able to hike longer and more comfortably if you use poles.  It’s not cheating, you young folks, it’s just smart!
  4. Water Crossings: When you use trekking poles, you essentially shape-shift into a four-legged animal.  You have three points touching the ground at all times as you walk.  When crossing rivers, streams and creeks, this four point system can literally save your life.  You are more balanced and have more points securing you to the creek bed.  Without poles, each step you take means you have literally one foot on the ground, and nothing else.  You could easily get swept away, even in water that doesn’t seem that strong.  But with poles, each step you take allows for one foot and two poles to continually, securely keep you facing upstream.  If you are crossing on rocks or a fallen tree, you can use the poles to help balance you by finding a secure place for them to dig in on the river bed before taking your next step or by using them as balancing poles as you walk the seeming “tightrope” of a log high off the river.

    Using poles for balance on a creek crossing.
    Using poles for balance on a creek crossing.
  5. Tents and Tarps: Some lightweight tents and most tarps allow (or require) poles for setup.  While I don’t recommend that new(ish) backpackers forgo a tent in favor of a trap (think: complicated and less “homey” at night), I do highly recommend the Henry Shires Tarptents for beginners.  These tents work with tent poles and stakes, like traditional tents, but also can work with tent poles and your trekking poles! Last August, I left my tent stakes behind at a campsite.  Ten miles later (most of them uphill), I realized my mistake as I wearily went to setup my tent for the night.  Thankfully, I had two spare stakes in my Ten Essentials Kit and my trekking poles, because going back wasn’t an option! I was able to erect my tent each night of the trip using my trekking poles and my two spare tent stakes.  Some people like bringing a dining tarp with them backpacking.  A dining tarp is a small, ultra-lightweight tarp used for cooking/eating under when it’s pouring rain.  Or just as an easy-to-setup dry place to sit while waiting for bad weather to pass.  These dining tarps require trekking poles.
  6. Bonus Tip — Safety: In a pinch, a trekking pole is a weapon. ‘Nuff said.

Want to SEE how to wear your poles properly?  Check out this informative video from the knowledgeable (and handsome!) Chase Tucker.

So, now that you’re convinced, what poles should you buy?

If you’re backpacking, you want them to be STURDY!  Yes, you want lightweight poles, but sturdy is most important.  Ultra-lightweight poles (carbon composite) were designed more for fast-packing (going as fast as possible or even running with very little weight in your pack or no pack).  Backpacking poles need to hold your weight with your pack should you stumble (and you will).  They need to get you cross that raging river.  You need to be able to accidentally drop your pack on them and not have them bend.  So look for durable poles.  Aircraft aluminum is best.

You also want them to be adjustable and collapsible so that you can lengthen and shorten them as needed based on the ascent or descent and so that you can collapse them down and stow them away in or on your pack when you don’t want to use them.  There are two main types of locking mechanisms that allow you to adjust and collapse your poles: twist locks and lever locks. I prefer lever locks.  I know too many people who have had their twist locks fail.

And what about the grip? Cork? Foam? Rubber? Unless you plan to backpack in the snow, don’t get rubber.  Stick with cork or foam.  Each has their advantages and most backpackers would be happy with either.  Cork tends to be more expensive and can “form” to your hand shape.  But some foams are becoming more “advanced” and claim to absorb sweat better.

Either way, I highly recommend sun gloves!  Sun gloves protect your hands from the sun and absorb sweat and prevent chaffing from your pole grips.  If you visualize using poles all day long, you’ll realize that your hands will have constant exposure to UV rays.  Do you want to apply and re-apply gross, slimy sunblock in SPF 1,000,000 five times a day? Sun gloves will protect your skin beautifully and are fingerless, since you don’t need the material on your fingers.  There is something so gross about sweaty hands on sweaty grips, even if the grips are cork and are supposed to absorb all that sweat.  Sun gloves wick all that moisture away from your skin and it evaporates out of the gloves quickly.  I recommend Outdoor Research’s ActiveIce Spectrum Sun Gloves, but any glove meant for the sun will do (especially if it has little grippy bits on the palms to help you grip your poles).

Sun gloves and my trusty poles.
Sun gloves and my trusty poles.

Now you know everything there is to know! Get your poles and get out there – you won’t be disappointed.

In skating over thin ice safety is in our speed. — Ralph Waldo Emerson

 

 

Stopping for a poo break in the Boundary Waters of MN

Everybody Poops: Digestion in the Outdoors

In my last post I discussed making your own backpacking food, so it makes logical sense to post about what to do with that food when it comes out!

If you are going to backpack, you’ll need to get over any squeamishness you may have about bodily functions.  They happen and they are hard to hide on the trail.  There are definite, clear-cut rules regarding how the process of elimination should be handled, and then there are personal choices.  I’ll try to cover both.

Peeing is pretty simple, especially if you are male.  There are things to consider, however, regardless of your genitalia.  You should never pee near a water source. Although specific park rules and regulations may vary somewhat, be sure you are at least 200 ft. (about 70 adult steps) away from any water source when you pee.  This protects the water and the organisms and animals that live in it.  Remember – you filter or treat water to drink and you don’t want people peeing in your drinking water!  So don’t pee in someone else’s.  By the way, the 200-foot rule also applies to poop (and bathing and washing dishes or clothes).


Women and peeing

There is much discussion as to how this is best handled.  Most women remove their packs, find something to hide behind, pop-a-squat and let loose.  Me? I rarely take my pack off because I want the extra challenge of doing the squat (and standing back up) with my heavy pack on. Or perhaps I’m just lazy.

Some brave women use a device designed to let a woman pee like a man.  That is: standing up and through the fly.  There are a surprising number of products on the market to make this happen, and women who use them debate as to which is better. I tried the pStyle, and it was not pretty.

I tried. But I failed to pee with this without embarrassing (hilarious) results!

 

Like the box recommended, I first tried it in the safety of my own home. Easy enough.  No problem.  I peed standing up and it all went into the toilet!  I was an expert after just one try …

… or so I thought.  On day 2 of my John Muir Trail trip, I was hiking with two male strangers quite a bit older than myself.  I had to pee really badly, but we kept meandering through open meadows with nowhere to hide.  So I finally used my pStyle.  I ducked behind a skinny tree for some semblance of privacy, unzipped my fly and attempted to replicate my one use of the device at home.

Things seemed to be going OK for about 4 seconds.  Pee was funneling down the pStyle like it was supposed to.  Suddenly, I felt that signature, unwelcome warmth down both legs.  Uh oh! I had only been getting some of my pee into the pStyle!  The rest was flowing down my legs.  Flowing.  Did I mention both legs?  My hiking pants were soaked.  My legs were wet.  I stopped, mid-stream, and resorted back to the tried-and-true squat to finish, no longer caring if my new friends saw me peeing.

Then I did what any self-respecting woman stuck in the wilderness with two strange men would do: I stepped out from behind my tree and announced that I had pissed all over myself.  Oddly enough, they seemed unfazed and we continued on our way. I washed my pants that night and ditched the pStyle in a trash can at Tuolumne Meadows.  I wasn’t going to carry that extra couple of ounces all the way to the top of Mt. Whitney!  I don’t blame the pStyle, and neither should you.  Practice, practice, practice.

My terrible sister catches a photo of me doing the deed.

Wiping is another issue women must decide on.  Some women do a little post-pee ‘twerking’ move to drip off as much as they can, and that’s it.  Others carry a pee rag.  Yes, a pee rag.  This is actually what I do.  Liteload makes these nifty 12″x12″ compressed towels that open up and expand with water. They’re disposable, but durable.  I wet one slightly to decompress it and use it throughout the day to lightly dab myself.  Some women hang their pee rag on their packs to let the UV rays kill the germs and keep it sanitized (which is a legit method but is just a little too “in your face” for me).  I just fold my pee rag in on itself after each use and keep it in my pocket.  I wash it at the end of each day.  On longer trips, I break open a new Liteload towel every few days.

 


Pooping, for both sexes, gets a tad more complicated.  You can’t hide the fact that you are going to poop. Go ahead and try, and good luck to you.  You know what’s up when you see a fellow backpacker wander off into the woods, alone, with a bag of “supplies”.  They are going to poop and everyone knows it.  So get over any worries about privacy real fast.  It ain’t gonna happen.

Pooping in the wilderness is a joy.  Haven’t done it?  Just wait – you’ll see.  The views are frequently incredible and the birds chirping while you squat and do the deed make it sublime.  In case you didn’t know (and why would you?), science says that squatting to poop creates a better, more nature angle in your colon, making elimination easier and more “complete” (Be sure to watch this Squatty Potty commercial for proof!).  Also, your entire digestive system is working like a champ because of all that walking and healthy food (assuming you made it yourself).

My husband is a meanie!

All poop must be buried and you’ll need a tool for digging the hole.  Some people use thick sticks, but what if none are available?  Instead of buying a special pooping shovel (called a “cat trowel” or “cat-hole trowel”), just buy a tent stake designed for snow camping.  They are super lightweight, incredibly cheap and take up very little space. Plus, they just work well.

 

Make sure you dig the hole at least 6 to 8 inches deep.  Make it deeper or wider as needed (only you know how big your hole needs to be).  Your waste should be truly buried when you are done.  In most places, your hole must also be big enough to accommodate your toilet paper, so keep that in mind when digging.

In some wilderness areas, TP must be packed out.  No burying it.  There are several reasons why, but it’s important enough that I pack out my TP on ALL trips, even if it isn’t required, because it’s just the right thing to do.  Where do you put your used TP? In a zip-lock bag.  And then put that bag into another bag.  Want to be super environmentally conscience? Wipe with what the good earth provides – leaves, sticks, stones.

What about biodegradable TP, you ask? In areas where TP must be packed out, that goes for biodegradable TP as well.  No exceptions.  Don’t be the selfish ass-hat who breaks the rules.  Despite all those participation trophies, you’re not special.

Make sure you have hand sanitizer and please – for the love of God, PLEASE – use it every time you go to the bathroom.  Most stomach illnesses on the trail are due to poor hygiene among hikers.  Gross.  Giardia sucks.  Don’t spread giardia.  Read my post on backpacking equipment for a nifty, homemade sanitizer hack.

In some heavily-protected areas, you have to pack your actual poop out, not just your TP!  These areas are rare and usually you are given a special WAG (waste and gel) bag to put your poop in.  Don’t think about this too much (it’s gross).  And it’s rare, so moving on …

Here’s another tip: don’t burn your used TP!  This happened to me once. A woman was running out of room in her zip-lock bag for TP, so she just started burning it on the group’s fire, without telling anyone first!  Don’t do that.  TP “embers” can also drift and start wildfires.

So there you have it! Everything you never wanted to know about pooping and peeing in the wilderness. Life skills, people. Life skills.

Next up: I’ll cover more Leave No Trace principles.

Tread softly because you tread on my dreams. – William Butler Yeats

Lots of Backpackign Gear

Essential Gear Guide, Tips and Hacks

Simply put, backpacking gear can be hard to get right! In the world of backpacking, there is this triangle often referred to with regards to gear.  The three sides of the triangle are cost, comfort and weight.  Here’s how it works: things that are cheap tend to be either uncomfortable or heavy/bulky (or both!), while things that are very comfortable and/or very light tend to be very expensive!

Only you know the gear strategy that will work best for you. If you can afford it, get the very lightest, most comfortable gear you can find.  Assuming you are like most people and can’t shell out that kind of dough all at once, you’ll need to strategize.  If sleeping in comfort is of utmost importance to you, invest in a better, thicker sleeping pad and perhaps go cheap on a tent.  If having an incredibly lightweight tent is important to you, perhaps your sleeping bag can be a bit bulkier and heavier.  Does anyone really need a sub-3lb backpack for just weekend trips? And do you really need 850-fill down or will the cheaper 600-fill work just fine?

Tequila and Juice on the JMT
Some of the best “gear”! A gift from a trail angel on the JMT.

Bottom line is that most “wrong” gear decisions will not ruin your trip (unless you let them). Most people get what gear they can afford and upgrade over time.  Of course, buying used and on clearance is always an option, too.  Please see my “recommendations” page for more information on where to research and buy gear.

As someone who’s devoted more time to researching backpacking gear than I care to admit, part of the “problem” with backpacking gear information is that there is just SO much out there! It’s hard to know where to start or who to trust.  Sometimes we need to take things down to their most basic parts, and then go from there.

Here is a (very) lengthy list of essential gear items you need to experience successful backpacking trips. I’ve included some of my favorite gear as a starting point, and only if I truly love it, but what works for me is not necessarily right for you!  There are huge variations on all of the below, but I’m sticking with the mainstream basics here.

  • Backpack: First things first – go to REI or a similar store and get sized and fitted for free! This is crucial. A poor-fitting pack will ruin your trip, and there is a science to correctly adjusting all those straps. While there, try on a bunch of brands and see what you like, even if you don’t buy it there. TIP: Most regular backpackers (i.e., not ultralight thru-hikers) opt for the versatility of a 60-70 liter pack.
  • Rain Cover for Your Pack: Some packs come with this as an integrated attachment. I would cut that off as the cover might be heavy and it definitely wont work well. This doesn’t mean you need to buy a fancy rain cover; in fact, definitely don’t buy a fancy one. TIP: Instead, buy either a trash compactor liner bag OR a heavy-duty landscaping trash bag (Gorilla Glue Company makes the best ones and this is what I use). Use the bag to line the inside of your pack (a bag inside a bag!). Sure, your actual pack will get wet on the outside, but everything inside is going to stay dry.
  • Shelter: I recommend a regular tent. Go for a 2-person tent for a bit of extra space or if you will backpack with others. I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE my Henry Shires Double Rainbow Tarptent, but you have to pay him extra to waterproof the seams or learn how to do it yourself from info online. TIP: Do add in the extra condensation barrier for a few extra $$.

    Double Rainbow Tarptent and NeoAir Pad
    My fabulous Double Rainbow and using my sleeping pad as a lounge chair.
  • Tent Footprint: This goes under your tent and protects it from damage from little rocks or sticks. In some situations, it may not be necessary, but why risk it? It also helps during rain. But do not get suckered into buying one of those expensive footprints that is matched to your specific tent! TIP: Instead, for just a few bucks, buy a piece of Tyvek from Amazon and cut it to size (a footprint should always be slightly SMALLER than your tent’s dimensions). Tyvek is amazing and has multiple uses in the event of an emergency on the trail.
  • Sleep System: This includes a sleeping bag or quilt (research the difference) and a sleeping pad (commonly inflatable). There are a zillion options out there. Know that the temperature rating of a bag is never going to be accurate. If the sleeping bag claims it is warm down to 30° F, don’t count on it! I hate sleeping bags and will be upgrading to a quilt. I really like my Therm-A-Rest NeoAir inflatable pad, though, because it’s super thick and very light (admittedly, it’s also expensive and a tad noisy, but still worth it). Camping pads and backpacking pads are very different. Camping pads are way too big and bulky for backpacking. TIP: Need a pillow? You can just use your down puffy jacket or other clothes. Or buy a pillow designed for backpacking.  I splurged in cost and got a heavenly, but bulky Nemo.
  • Cooking system: This includes a backpacking stove, gas canister, cooking pot, lighter and spork. I also carry a tiny, plastic, liquid measuring cup (1/4 cup) and a lighter. The main consideration here is: do you want to be able to simmer, or only boil? Most backpacking food simply requires boiling water and pouring it into the bag. I usually dehydrate my own food and like to simmer sometimes, so pay attention to what you’re buying as many cooking systems don’t allow for a simmer. I use the MSR Micro Pocket Rocket stove (cheap and reliable) and I love it. TIP: For pots, some finishes stick, some don’t. If you are boiling water, who cares, but if you are cooking food in the pot then a non-stick finish is critical!

    MSR Micro Pocket Rocket
    Love my MSR Micro Pocket Rocket!
  • Water: The essence of life! There are lots of great options for filtering or purifying water and I still haven’t found the perfect one for me. I have an MSR gravity filter (best for groups but bulky and heavy) and a Sawyer Mini filter (not good for filtering a bunch of water at once). I also have used just Aquamira purifying drops or tablets in the Sierras since the water isn’t gritty. My next purchase will be a UV purifier – super simple for one liter of water, not so good for a big bladder of water. TIP: I ALWAYS carry water purifying drops or tablets as a backup and insist you do the same! Safety first.
  • Rain Clothing: This is a tough one. Do NOT believe the hype – nothing is waterproof AND breathable. Not even Gore-Tex’s latest creations that claim otherwise. And rain gear is insanely expensive. I use Frogg Toggs. Crazy cheap, and they work (though it ain’t pretty). They aren’t very durable, however, but at this price, oh well! Fact is, you’re going to get wet if it’s pouring, there’s no way around it. TIP: Many thru-hikers wear rain skirts. Yes – skirts. The skirt allows the air in from underneath and can, therefore, be impenetrably waterproof without making you sweaty. I’ll move to this one day or perhaps make my own!

    Frogg Togg rain gear on laundry day
    When you do laundry on a thru-hike, this is all you have to wear! Frogg Toggs rock.
  • Footwear: I recommend you only shop at a place like REI with a very forgiving return policy. Footwear is a very personal, very subjective choice and, if you haven’t backpacked before, you’re liable to get it wrong! Many thru-hikers hike in trail runners. Great for them. They also carry tiny packs and very little gear. And if they hike the PCT, trail runners work great for the soft desert and then many hikers make the switch to something more durable/stable in the Sierras. I tried nine – literally nine – pairs of shoes and boots before I found the right ones for me (sorry, REI!). I ended up with a pair of Oboz and they’re the best (for me). Contrary to what you might think, you do NOT want to feel the trail beneath your feet when you are carrying 35+ lbs over long distances and rough terrain. My feet rarely hurt at the end of a day of backpacking. TIP THAT I CAN’T EMPHASIZE ENOUGH: Always buy your backpacking shoes at least one full size bigger than you normally wear! This will prevent your toenails from falling off when hiking downhill and as your feet swell – trust me.
  • Camp/River Shoes: You will likely have to cross streams and you don’t want to do that in your hiking shoes or boots. Going barefoot is sometimes too dangerous or slippery. Some people wear just socks for extra grip and it washes your socks at the same time! But depending on the stream bed, this could cause a twisted ankle. I carry Keen’s for water crossings. As for comfort, I love my Oboz so much I rarely feel a need to take them off around the campfire. TIP: Most people carry a pair of hiking sandals for water crossings and/or comfy camp shoes for the end of a long day.
  • Socks: I recommend you always wear two – a liner and a hiking sock made of a wool blend. The liner prevents blisters in two ways: 1) the liner wicks all that sweat out to the outer sock, keeping your feet dry(er) and 2) the liner creates a barrier between all that friction going on between the shoe and the outer sock. My absolute favorite liners are the Injinji toe sock liners. Can’t say enough about these weird socks. It’s all I wear anymore. Wool blended, outer hiking socks rock! Wool really inhibits bacterial growth, so they don’t smell (or don’t smell as bad). Wool also dries very quickly so washing them is a cinch. Never wear cotton or cotton blend socks because cotton doesn’t dry easily and doesn’t wick away sweat. TIP: I always bring three pairs of socks and two pairs of liners. One pair of socks is dedicated for sleeping. I wash a pair of socks and liners each night.
  • Sun protection: Always important, but especially if you hike at higher altitudes where the sun’s rays are stronger. This could consist only of sunblock, but I’m not a fan of slathering that goo on day-after-day with no shower! I generally opt for protective clothing, and I most frequently wear an SPF, long sleeve, wicking button down. It really doesn’t make me any hotter than I would be. I also have one of those caps with side and rear flaps. Again, none of this is pretty, but who cares? TIP: I recommend sunglasses with polarized lenses because they’re better for appreciating nature’s impressive array of colors and seeing deep into alpine lakes!

    Sun protection on the trails
    No skin cancer for me!
  • Hiking poles: I honestly don’t know how or why anyone would backpack without poles! Even with a perfectly-adjusted pack, your center of gravity is a bit off. Poles are an essential piece of safety gear for me as they have saved me from rolling an ankle more times than I can count. And when I have actually fallen, they allowed me to break my own fall and fall slowly (elegantly, if you will). Also, poles help immensely on strenuous uphills and prevent knee pain on steep downhills. TIP: There is a very specific way to hold and use poles, and it’s not intuitive. Ask someone at REI or look on YouTube. Improper use renders them useless and makes you look goofy! (By the way, hiking poles also double as a weapon and add versatility to some tents, including my aforementioned Double Rainbow.)
  • First aid kit: YES! Consider the basics plus any medication you need. I also bring an antibiotic, Diamox (altitude medication) and Hydrocodone (or a similar narcotic). Next time you see your doctor, tell your doc what you are doing and ask what type of prescription he or she recommends, and then request a prescription. TIP: Start taking the Diamox two days before you reach elevation – do not wait for symptoms to start!
  • Poop: Shit happens. And when on the trail, you must handle it properly. In most places, poop and TP can be buried. In some places, TP must be carried out. You need a device for digging a hole, but instead of buying a poop shovel (yes, there is such a thing), just buy a single tent stake designed for snow camping. Snow stakes are very durable and much cheaper than a special shovel. And lighter, too! Bring biodegradable TP and scent-free sanitizer (you don’t want to attract bears!). If packing out your TP, like I do, bring good quality Ziploc bags. TIP: Sanitizer hack: buy 70% isopropyl alcohol. Regular alcohol evaporates too quickly to kill germs, but 70% is perfect. No scent. Super cheap. Buy a tiny spray bottle to put it in.
  • Headlamp: Nothing fancy needed here. TIP: Do buy one with a red lamp, though – much better for night vision and it won’t kill your fellow campers’ eyes!
  • Clothing: Less is more! You can really save weight here. TIP: For a three-day weekend, I only have one main outfit, two pairs of underwear and two sports bras. And my socks as above.
  • Jackets: This depends on the weather where you are going. Lightweight, puffy down jackets are all the rage for a reason – they provide exceptional warmth at a very low weight, and they’re compressible. But they are useless in wet weather. Fleece jackets are also wonderful for trapping heat and keeping you warm. TIP: As mentioned before, both types of jackets can double as pillows at night (unless it’s so cold that you need to wear them!).
  • Long underwear/base layers: Most backpackers pack base layers for both sleeping and for layering on cold days. Go for a wool blend set! They aren’t itchy, don’t smell, wash and dry easily and are versatile. They aren’t cheap but are worth it and can easily be found on clearance online and in stores. TIP: I like a 250 weight layer so I can be sure I’m warm when I want to be.

    Expiring the Tuolumne in my base layer
    It ain’t pretty, but I’ll explore in my base layers! Photo by Andrea Ou
  • Duct tape: You have to have this. Duct tape is good for blister prevention, but it’s also great for repairing holes in everything from your inflatable sleeping pad to your down jacket to your rain gear. Also a zillion other uses. TIP: Wrap plenty around your hiking pole or a water bottle instead of carrying a roll.
  • Mosquito “stuff”: In addition to repellent, consider a head net (requires a brimmed cap underneath) and/or mosquito repellent clothing. TIP: You can actually buy Permethrin to treat your clothing at home!
  • Map and compass: Always. TIP: A compass only helps if you actually know how to use it (in other words, take a class).
  • Essential/Desirable miscellaneous items: Safety pins, waterproof matches, cotton balls with Vaseline on them (best fire starter), emergency blanket, KT tape, etc. TIP: Search online for something called a “ten essentials” kit for ideas.
  • Bear “stuff”: Depends on where you are going. There are specific regulations for certain areas prone to bears. Bear canisters are required for lots of places. There are different types, the most popular (and my favorite) being the Bear Vault BV500 or BV450. You can usually rent bear canisters, too. There are also bear-proof sacks for hanging made by Ursack, but they aren’t allowed in some areas (usually because hanging food isn’t allowed). Bear spray is not permitted in many places, including the Sierra Nevadas, but bear spray is usually used in grizzly country, not black bear country. TIP: Some hikers wear bells while in bear country but, again, it’s more of a concern in grizzly areas than black bear areas and the sound can really be a buzz-kill.

    img_0450
    Tons of food and gear for the JMT. BV500 Canister.
  • Knife/Multipurpose tool: Take your pick. Make it a folding knife so as to not violate certain states’ laws. TIP: I carry a multipurpose tool so that I have little scissors, a knife, a toothpick, tweezers, etc., all in one.
  • Pack towels: I carry a small, microfiber towel for scrubbing myself at the end of each day. I also carry compressed, coin-shaped, reusable towels made by Liteload that expand in water. I carry at least one Liteload towel on every trip and use it for when I pee. This is a topic that could take up an entire blog post, but suffice it to say, I like to wipe so I don’t get an infection. I buy the hand towel-sized Liteloads and dab throughout the day and then wash the towel each night. TIP: I fold the towel in on itself after each use to keep it “fresh” for the next pee session, or attach the towel to the outside of my pack to let the UV rays sanitize it. Kinda’ gross, I know, but very common and it’s worked for me and many of my friends. (I once tried a ShePee device with VERY EMBARRASSING results, which is a story that I’ll tell another time!)
  • Whistle: Why not?

    pStyle female urination device
    I tried. But I failed to pee with this without embarrassing (hilarious) results!

This is a long list, but it’s by no means definitive and I’ve likely forgotten something. You’ll find variations all over the internet and people debating vehemently about this piece of gear or that piece of gear.  It’s a lot to consider and a significant number of things to purchase, which is why some people make their own gear!  But think of the cost of a one-week vacation, with flights and hotels and all that comes with traditional trips.  Once you buy your gear, the world is your playground and every trip you take is incredibly cheap compared to traditional vacations.

Questions? Use the comments section below to ask and I’ll answer as best I can or point you in the right direction.  Want to ask something private? Email me at bugbehiking@gmail.com.

The old school of thought would have you believe that you’d be a fool to take on nature without arming yourself with every conceivable measure of safety and comfort under the sun. But that isn’t what being in nature is all about. Rather, it’s about feeling free, unbounded, shedding the distractions and barriers of our civilization—not bringing them with us. – Ryel Kestenbaum, The Ultralight Backpacker: The Complete Guide to Simplicity and Comfort on the Trail    

 

Trail Runners and Day Hikers and Boots, Oh My!

Talking about hiking footwear can be exhausting.  Trying to find the right shoes for you and your trip can be downright frustrating.  But it’s probably the most critical piece of equipment and can make or break your hike. Get it right and your tootsies will thank you after putting in some grueling miles over rough terrain.

lounging
Still in my comfy shoes after a long day of hiking in the Sierra Nevada mountains.

You’ll find a ton of advice suggesting you should wear trail runners on your backpacking trip.  You’ll find an equal number of experts saying you should wear hiking boots.  Others suggest day hikers. Still others suggest barefoot hiking!  You can read as many articles and listen to as many experts as you like, but the bottom line is: you simply won’t know what’s right for you until you start trying out the options.  And don’t think, for one second, that whatever you hike in normally is guaranteed to work.  It quite possibly won’t once you factor in many miles over a period of days AND a heavy pack.

Let my story be the perfect example.

I wanted to backpack in trail runners.  That’s what I hike in and they are comfy.  I had read so much about the joys of backpacking in trail runners.  I even researched the most popular trail runners amongst successful Pacific Crest Trail thru-hikers the previous year. I ended up with a pair of trail runners that came highly recommended by one of my favorite gear review sites (outsidegearlab.com).

The next weekend, I packed my backpack with 25 lbs of gear and out I went.  And within six miles, I knew the shoes were going to be terrible.  The bottoms of my feet were so sore from a lack of cushion and support whilst carrying weight.  I promptly returned them.  From there, I tried a pair of day hikers that offered more support and rigidity.  But with a heavy pack, I still felt like my feet were too sore by the end of a long hike.  Returned.

A lovely sales person at REI suggested I get real hiking boots.  She said what I needed was to NOT feel the trail beneath my feet.  I needed shanks and lugs and support.  And I did, indeed, love those boots.  Sure they felt kinda heavy compared to the trail runners and day hikers, but that was a small price to pay for happy feet at the end of the day.

But then I began to developed a heat rash of some kind around my upper ankles every time I hiked, where the top of the boots touched my legs.  No amount of creams, lotions or spiritual tonics stopped it from happening.  So I returned those, too.

sandal-hike
Hiking in sandals due to an ankle rash in Henry Coe State Park

By that point, I knew I needed a shoe that would act like a boot, but not be a boot.  My quest continued through a total of NINE pairs of footwear before I got it right.  Thankfully, REI has a very user-friendly return policy for reasons like this (and amazing used gear sales!). All that testing and returning was worth it.  My feet did not suffer one bit during my first long trip.  I watched other hikers desperate to get their hiking shoes off at the end of the day while I was happy to just loosen the laces and wear them around camp at night.

So what did I end up with?  Oboz.  I love my Oboz.  A shoe that is built like a boot.

Fall seven times, stand up eight. – Japanese Proverb

Next Up: The Dreaded Permit Process