Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Hiking Gear Reflections - backpack(s)

 Okay, so more musings on camping gear, this time backpacks.

Strangely enough, given my experimentations with tents, I only used one backpack for the entire PCT.

I did, however, use a couple belts, because while I started out with an XL hip belt on the pack, I ended up with a Medium.

The pack I used was a Unaweep from Seekoutside.


I think I might have seen one other person on the trail with a Seekoutside pack.

So, how'd I end up with that pack? I read a bunch of reviews of packs online, and liked the ones that I read about this pack.

However, at the time I was purchasing gear, the selection was limited, and the pack that I got was fine, but it had a big zipper on the pack bag that I didn't really want, but that's all they had. I was really buying the suspension system, the pack bag was a secondary consideration.

Why a zipper? I suppose that someone thought it was a good idea, with the zipper you can get to things in the bottom of the pack without unpacking everything.

Why didn't I want a big zipper on the side of the pack? Zippers aren't in general waterproof. So, if it's raining and there's a big zipper on the side of your pack, you're going to have to use a pack cover to keep the water out. And a pack cover is an extra piece of gear, taking up space and adding weight.

If you use the appropriate sealant on the seams and threads of the pack you can make it basically waterproof, especially on a pack like this one that is, in essence one big bag with a roll top closure, like the design of a dry bag that you'd use for a rafting trip.

But, since I had the zipper, I carried a pack cover.

There are a bunch of things that I looked for in a backpack. I actually have several different packs that I've accumulated over the years, but I wanted something new, and more focused in design.

Thing that I wanted:

- Reasonable weight - I didn't go for the lightest pack available, but didn't want to carry too much extra weight.

- Capable of carrying extra weight while remaining comfortable - Some days I carried over 12 liters of water, that's a lot of extra weight and some ultralight packs don't make for good carrying when the weight gets past a certain point.

- A single compartment - Some packs have a separate compartment on the bottom for a sleeping bag of whatever, I didn't want that. Basically a single big bag with a couple water bottle pockets sewn on is what I wanted. I got a zipper, but only because the pack bags without the zipper were out of stock. All my gear was in stuff sacks, so it was kind of self organizing, I didn't need the pack to have compartments that might or might not fit the stuff I was carrying, which did change from time to time.

- Simple pack bag closure system - a roll top with buckles is going to be more reliable long term than something with a zip. My bag had a zip on the side that I used a few times, but the top entry was a roll top that let you roll down more with a a smaller load, or just roll a couple times if you really had a lot of stuff inside the pack.

- A design that wasn't necessarily reliant on the stuff inside to support the shape of the pack - some of the lightest packs are reliant on the hiker using a specific type of sleeping pad, since the foam pad provides the structure of the pack when it is packed. I used an air inflated sleeping pad (although I added a foam pad towards the end for more insulation), so I wanted something that had structure on its own.

- External water bottle pockets that were reachable without taking the pack off - for the PCT, I think almost everyone uses water bottles, not camelbacks or other bladder systems. And the water bottles were almost always 1 liter Smartwater bottles. Yep, the disposable water bottles you might buy at the supermarket if you were into buying water at a huge markup for no good reason. I'll talk about why I used those bottles later, but between the Smartwater bottles and Gatorade bottles, that's pretty much all I used, and what I saw the most of on the trail. And the pack needs to have pockets that you can not only get a bottle out of, but put it back into. The pockets on my pack will each carry two Smartwater bottles, and that pockets are situated so that I can get the bottles out and put them back while walking. Very important.

- A couple small pockets either on the shoulder straps and/or the waist belt to hold snacks and a camera and phone - My pack didn't have any of these, so I found some very light pockets online and strapped them to the waist belt and shoulder straps. Sewn on pockets would have been nice, but these mostly worked. A bag of peanut M&Ms in the belt pocket is a great thing when you need a little bite but don't want to stop and take the pack off and dig around inside.

- A comfortable waist belt - Some ultralight packs don't have much of a belt, I wanted something that would kind of cup my hip bones, taking the weight of the pack. This might be a personal thing, but it's what I've found worked for older packs. Unfortunately waist belts with nice padding add weight, so some makers skip them in the interest of keeping the weight low.

- Some way to hold wet gear separated from stuff that needed to stay dry - My pack has an external pocket that clips onto the back of the pack bag. The pocket can hold stuff, plus bulky things can be stuffed between the pocket and the body of the pack. Some days my tents went there, when it was wet and I didn't want it to be inside the pack.

So, most of my older packs have a plethora of pockets and lots of corresponding zippers. As I mentioned above, zippers aren't particularly waterproof, and if used a lot when dirty, they tend to wear and possibly break, and when a zipper closure breaks, it's a pain to deal with.

The current trend in lightweight packs is toward packs that have as little structure as possible, or at least as lightweight a structure as possible.

The packs we used to use when canoeing had strong, rigid aluminum frames that the pack bag was pinned to. Other items like tents and sleeping bags and pads were then strapped above or below the pack bag. This basic design goes back a very long time, the old trappers and traders used external frame packs, albeit wooden ones, to carry outrageous loads. It's a proven design.

However, external frame packs tend toward being weighty by themselves. And when you are hiking, it's nicer to carry as little weight as possible.

Here's the only external frame pack that REI has on their web site.


I actually have an older version of this behemoth, the Dana Designs (they changed into Mystery Ranch at some point in time) Terraframe. It's heavy. REI lists the current one at nearly 6 pounds.

My pack is actually considered heavy compared to many others, at 3.4 pounds.

But, It'll carry basically any load that I can lift without collapsing on itself.

If I had more packing discipline, or I didn't need to occasionally carry crazy amounts of water, a lighter pack would have done fine.

I would have saved about a pound and a half with something like this:


But, you have to be more careful with packing, and how you distribute weight, and if you have to carry a bear canister, the size and shape of the bear can may make packing the rest of your gear awkward.

Basically, I like the extra room that my pack has. I have space to carry a lot of stuff, but I tried not to do too much of that. But toward the end of the trail, I was carrying bulky items like a fleece jacket, and that takes up a stupid amount of space in the pack if you're not wearing it. Which is why almost nobody uses fleece jackets on the trail, but that's a topic for a different post.

So, I used a weirdo external frame pack designed by people who typically design hunting packs meant to carry dead animal parts. What did the sane backpackers use? Well, obviously, not that.

Let's look at Mighty Mouse's pack.


That's a ULA Circuit, which I'm pretty sure is what she has.

It's also right around 2 pounds, a very nice weight.

It obviously works for her. She bought it for her 2014 PCT attempt, and kept it for all of this hike without any problems, or at least nothing major.

And lot of other people used ULA packs. I'd say they were one of the most used packs.

But, packs are very individual things, and there are lots of makers out there. On the trail, there were lots of different packs being used. Most people seemed happy with theirs, although there were a couple that had issues.

Would a pack from REI work? Sure, but most of those are meant to survive a level of abuse that most PCT hikers aren't going to give their equipment, and thus end up weighing more than needed. Interestingly, the gear that PCT hikers use is quite often going to require gentle treatment. The fabrics used in the packs, and the tents are thinner and more delicate than what you'd use in something designed for a Boy Scout. So, the packs from small makers like ULA or Gossamer Gear or Hyperlite are in general going to be a little delicate. They'll last for their intended use, but you're not going to want to drag them across rocks too much, or toss them down without looking out for pointy things.

I might have carried an extra pound or so in pack weight, but I didn't mind that because I felt that the comfort and carrying capacity afforded by the frame and a good waist belt were worth it.

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