Thursday, August 27, 2015

PCT Thru Hike Gear Review - The Big 3 (plus 1)

Like many hikers, I chose my gear after doing considerable research and testing. I don't think there is the "perfect" gear choice. There are always trade offs. Do you go for less weight, but perhaps have less durability? Is the product backed by a company with great customer service?

The "big 3" are the three pieces of gear that are often the heaviest and often the most expensive pieces of gear taken on a hike. This is what I used on my 2015 through hike of the Pacific Crest Trail.

ULA Catalyst
ULA Catalyst backpack
The ULA Catalyst is a work horse. It is certainly not the lightest pack on the market, weighing in at 48 ounces.  I chose it because it can hold a large bear canister horizontally, is relatively light weight, and has a track record of being a very durable product. And, if popularity has meaning, there were a lot of ULA packs worn by through hikers on the trail.

The pack can handle loads up to 40 pounds. While hiking through the Sierras, this was important to me. The added weight of a bear canister coupled with carrying many days of food meant pack weights leaving town were heavy. This pack was able to handle the load and didn't make me feel like a pack horse! The pack has a wide waist belt to transfer the pack weight to the hips and the belt comes with two zippered pockets. I used the zippered pockets to carry snacks and my camera. There are side pockets are big enough to hold a 32-ounce Gatorade bottle. I carried one on each side filled with drinking water. There is also an inner pocket that can hold a large water bladder. I chose not to use this, but saw a lot of others who did. I removed the inner pocket and attached it to my shoulder strap and carried a water bottle.
There is no way to access items in the bottom of the pack without opening the pack from the top. It would have been nice to have another access point. Also, I was not able to reach back and retrieve my water bottle while wearing the pack. Perhaps it was just me or the shape of the bottle? I did have a problem with the waist belt size. As I lost weight during my through-hike (30 lbs!), my waist belt could not longer be tightened enough to carry the weight of the pack on my hips. I had to contact ULA customer service several times to identify the problem. They sent me a smaller belt and it corrected the problem. It also took me a long time to understand all of the adjustments required to get a good fit. ULA has a video which explains how to adjust the pack each time it is worn. I finally got to understand that adjustments were needed, especially when I changed the pack loads. To me it seemed overly complicated, and I had a problem at first finding the correct straps to pull while wearing the pack.
In Retrospect:
If I had to choose again for a pack to use on a long through hike, I would consider getting the ULA Circuit. It is a bit smaller and lighter, and can handle loads around 30 pounds. Most of the time my pack weighed under 30 pounds. Also, many hiking the trail used a small bear canister (BV450) for their food, rather than the large canister that I chose (BV500). That would solve the issue with the fit of the bear canister in the pack.

ZPacks Hexamid Solo-Plus
ZPacks Hexamid Solo-Plus Tent
The ZPacks tent is made from Cuben Fiber material. It is waterproof and does not stretch when wet, so readjustment of the tent guy lines is not necessary in rainy weather. It uses one trekking pole for support, so no extra support poles are required. The tent has a "beak" that can be deployed during driving rain to provide more protection. The tent is fully enclosed with a bug screen and has a removable bathtub floor. I also opted to get the V-shaped titanium tent stakes, rather than the round ones. The V-shaped stakes held much better in most types of soil. The tent with tent stakes weighs just 19.6 ounces!
I loved that the tent weighed just 19.6 ounces, that includes the stuff sack and tent pegs. There was enough room inside for everything I carried, including my backpack. The material dried quickly in the sun and the bug netting was a life-saver on those buggy evenings when I was tired. It became my sanctuary. The removable bathtub could be removed and used separately. I never used it that way, but would save having to carry an extra ground cloth when cowboy camping. The front entry has a dual zipper on the bug netting. I could unzip just a portion of one side to enter the tent or add/remove items. The zipper was well made. I never had any problems with zippers, unlike others with different tents. The tent is provided with repair tape, should it be punctured during use. I carried the tape with me, but never had to use it. With practice, the tent can be put up or taken down quickly. Zpacks has an instructional video that should be studied and practiced before heading out for the first time.
The tent requires more space to erect than other free-standing tents. A few times I found a perfect campsite, but was unable to set up my tent because there was not enough room for the guy lines. In regards to set up, it takes practice to get the right height for the tent pole and for setting the guy lines. The spacing between the two front guy lines is critical. I marked my second guy line with a black permanent marker so I could put in the second tent stake at the proper location each time.The tent is completely open in the front, allowing for lots of ventilation. The downside to this is that there is not a lot of privacy from the front. In addition, on windy nights, there can be too much ventilation. I had to use my Zlite sleeping pad propped up on the inside of the tent to block some of the breeze during cold breezy nights. On windy nights, I also noticed that the fabric wrinkles would vibrate, creating additional noise. I could find no way to reduce this and couldn't see any difference when readjusting the guy lines. Also, being a single-walled construction, I got freezing condensation on the inside of the tent and frost on the outside of the tent on several cold nights in the Sierras. I envied those who had rain flies who could just shake the frost off. When the frost melted on the inside, it got the bathtub floor wet. In regards to the entry-way zippers, I found that I could not zip them shut using just one hand. It takes two hands; one to hold the fabric below the zipper and one to pull the zipper. On rainy evenings, I also found that there was back-splash that splattered through the front screen and into the bathtub. This was especially true on hard ground. I came to look for campsites with soft ground or pine needles, especially if rain was in the forecast. Finally, at the end of my hike, I noticed wear on the tent fabric and around the doublers where the guy lines attached to the fabric. With additional use, I suspect resealing or patching would be required to keep the tent water tight. The Cuben Fiber stuff sack had the most wear by the end of my hike. It would need to be replaced before my next excursion.
In Retrospect:
ZPacks makes great products, and is updating them all the time. I would seriously consider one of their newer products or perhaps their Duplex Tent at just 20 ounces! At a little more weight, I know of many people who used Big Agnes or the TarpTents, and they were very happy with them.

ZPacks 10-degree Down Bag
ZPacks 10-degree Down Sleeping Bag
This sleeping bag combines the best aspects of a down quilt and a down sleeping bag at an unbeatable weight. The bag opens up underneath like a blanket for easy temperature control when it is warm out, and a 3/4 length zipper and neck elastic allow for bundling up when the temperature turns cold. ZPacks uses premium 900 fill power goose down. I chose the 10-degree bag with water-resistant down, a draft tube over the zipper, wide width and extra long (6 foot 5 inches).
This bag is light weight at 28.8 ounces, yet kept me warm on freezing nights. The wider width gave me more room to thrash about during the night.  I used it both as a quilt when evenings were warm, and enjoyed having the neck elastic so that I could bundle up and trap heat on the coldest nights. The black inner liner made it quick to heat up when I would lay it out to dry in the sun. The black color also hides the fact that I didn't always change into my sleeping clothes every night. I presume a light colored liner would show a lot more dirt! The bag comes with a Cuben Fiber stuff sack. I stored my sleeping clothes in the stuff sack with the sleeping bag, making it easier to find them on cold evenings. I am glad that I got the 10-degree bag; there were some nights that I was cold in the bag, even though I was also wearing a down jacket and a fleece jacket.
I have very few negative comments. This is an exceptional bag. One problem I did notice was that the zipper, which is designed to be underneath you as you sleep, put pressure on my Thermo-rest NeoAir mattress. I ended up with three separate holes in my mattress, all aligning with the position of the zipper on my sleeping bag. My theory is that my feet put excessive pressure on the zipper, which, over time, pushed a small hole in my mattress. When I used the bag with the zipper on top, I never had any problems with holes in my mattress again.
In Retrospect:
I would get a 10-degree bag again. I would not get the water-resistant down. I understand that the treatment can make it harder to fluff up the down, and has minimal effect on keeping the down dry. I would not get the draft tube option. This is a piece of material that covers the zipper. I thought the zipper would feel cold without one. In reality, the draft tube became a nuisance because it kept getting caught in the zipper. I ended up having my wife double-back tape the draft tube to the bag to keep it out of the way.

Thermarest NeoAir Xlite Sleeping Pad
One of the main functions of a sleeping mattress is to provide insulation between the sleeper and the ground. The other is comfort. I got the regular size mattress, which is 20 inches wide, 6 feet long and 2.5 inches thick. I has an R-value of 3.2. It takes several minutes to inflate. For me, it was about forty lungs-full. I always tried to keep it clean and folded it up and kept it in its carrying bag while hiking. I also took the extra precaution by putting my Tyvek ground sheet under it, even when using it in my tent with a built-in bathtub ground cloth.

This mattress was like heaven. I loved it. It made for restful sleep. Some have complained that there is a crackling noise whenever the sleeper moves on top of it. I heard it at first, but it seemed to diminish after several uses. I have used my Thermarest Z-lite pad on occasion while cowboy camping, and it is not nearly as comfortable. I also placed my shoes under the head of the mattress, to elevate it. Then, using my clothes bag as a pillow, I was able to do my blogging with great comfort every night. It was a perfect set up!
Almost everyone who uses a mattress like this ends up with a puncture at one time or another. I thought I was really careful, but my zipper-pull on my sleeping bag managed to poke three holes in my mattress. Fortunately, I had brought along my field repair kit. I found the holes by submerging the mattress in a lake and looking for bubbles. The leaks are hard to find otherwise. The repair consisted of applying a special tape, which worked well and stopped the leaks. I wish the mattress was more robust and less likely to get punctured. There is nothing worse than to wake up in the middle of the night and realize the mattress has deflated.
In Retrospect:
I would get a shorter mattress. The regular-size six foot length is not needed, and adds weight. The smaller size (47 inches long) would have been adequate, and the weight would have been 8 ounces rather than 16. I regularly used sleeping socks, so I wouldn't need my feet elevated on a mattress. It would also have solved my issue with the sleeping bag zipper poking on the mattress.

I'll post more gear reviews in the coming days. Still trying to put some meat on my bones!

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