I've been meaning to write some observations about backpacking gear successes and failures from the Sarek trip this year. Unfortunately, because of too many other commitments, things fell by the wayside a bit, and it's taken me this long to clear some much-needed head space and return to thoughts of backpacking and picking apart equipment.
I made some comments on a few items in the trip report, so some of this will elaborate on that. If you've not read it yet, it will give you an idea about the environment and conditions faced during a week-long trip in Sarek National Park. Incidentally – I just had a different report of the trip published in Outdoor Enthusiast magazine, which you can read online for free here.
To begin, here's the full list of gear taken (excluding camera gear). Click on it to enlarge it.
You can see from that list that the total weight was 15.29kg, which includes clothes worn. The pack weight was 13.5kg, give or take a few grams here and there.
I carried my Nikon D800, 28-300mm lens, and a few filters and bits in a waterproof Ortlieb V-Shot bag attached to my shoulder straps. This is my preferred method of carrying heavy camera gear: it's accessible, doesn't flap around, and seems to balance the weight distribution rather well. I tried the Ortlieb Aqua-Zoom but found the zipper really annoying, especially the gloop used to lubricate it that somehow gets all over your camera. I prefer to travel with only one lens, and the 28-300mm covers everything well enough. It's not a brilliant lens, but its idiosyncrasies are manageable.
Eagle-eyed spotters will see I don't carry a big tripod but a teeny-weeny UltraPod II. It's a sacrifice I'm willing to make because for general shots I rarely use a tripod. The only circumstances I'm likely to need one is if I want to do a long exposure or shoot the northern lights, and in most cases I'll either use something in the landscape to support the camera (MUCH sturdier than any flimsy lightweight tripod or stick adaptor), or use the UltraPod, which has a surprisingly tight grip. I see no need on longer trips to carry anything more. If I was heading out to take a shot of a specific feature, and not for walking enjoyment, that would be a different matter.
Also, permanently attached to the lens is a B+W Polarizing Filter. I used a cheapo Cokin polarizer before, but the B+W is leagues ahead, and makes a world of difference.
I was on the fence about taking a spare pair of trousers, and indeed which trousers to wear, until the last minute. The weather conditions looked like they would be all over the place, but wetness would certainly feature heavily. In the end I opted for a pair of Montane Terra pants. They're not an all time favourite, but they are rugged enough, fairly quick drying, comfy enough, and have venting zips.
Why didn't I take a spare pair? Well, I figured if it rained a lot, I'd wear my Rab Drillium waterproof trousers, and if necessary I could wear them over long johns, so there were plenty of options. It turned out OK – while it did rain a lot, and I got the Terras wet plenty of times crossing rivers, they never wetted out, and dried soon enough.
I've yet to find the perfect pair of hiking trousers. I have a Haglofs pair that are close, but they are a touch heavy, more suited to slightly colder conditions. I like that the Terras have zippered pockets, but I wish they had cargo/thigh pockets, and had a slightly longer leg. Still, they did the job, so I'm not complaining.
As for the Rab Drilliums and Rab Demand (waterproof smock top), both did an excellent job. They're pretty basic, and sadly they don't make them any more, so you've either got a set and you love 'em, or you're flat out of luck and have to go for something more up-to-date. In general though, when it comes to waterproofs, I'm a big fan of Rab. The British know something about wet weather, trust me.
On most days, I wore my i/o Bio Merino hoody base layer, under either the Rab Boreas, or Rab Baseline, depending on the weather. The Baseline is an old favourite: a microfleece top that takes the chill off on cold mornings. The Boreas has been in the past a bit of an odd piece for me. Some love it, but I was ambivalent. On this trip it came into its own: it's very thin, but was just enough to layer over the Bio Merino and cut the breeze when working hard on the hills or terrain. It seems to me better suited to more strenuous hiking where you generate enough heat to compensate for it's lack of warmth, but don't necessarily want the full on wind shirt effect.
My good old and battered Haglofs Intense MicroFleece beanie saw use every day. It's such a basic hat it hardly needs mentioning, but at the same time it's one of my most frequently used pieces of gear. As a powerful bald man (read: evil mastermind) I need something to keep my pate warm, and I've not yet seen a decent UL backcountry toupée (there's a Kickstarter idea...). I also took my Black Rock Down Hat, but as I had plenty of other gear with built-in hoods to layer up with, I didn't use it.
Other "not used" clothing items included a Merino T-Shirt base layer (it was too cold most of the time to need it); shortie gaiters (we'll come to them in a minute); and a headnet (the mossies were not that troublesome).
On the whole, I have to say that nearly everything I took with me was used – the only other unused items were my puukko knife (overkill, but I like to have it in case I need to skin a reindeer or eat lobster), and my compass (and it's more of a good thing that I didn't need that).
Now, onto the big clothing failure: my shoes.
If you've spent any time on this site you'll know I'm an advocate of wet shoe hiking, and the Sarek trip was no exception. In general, I was happy with this decision: it was a very wet hike, and at times I got a bit fed up with my feet just getting dry as another river loomed into view, but I was able to dry my feet at night. However, it was far from perfect, and things went wrong. The specific nature of those things I will now try to outline.
I was wearing the recently redesigned inov-8 295s and my beloved Bridgedale X-Hale Speed Demon socks. The previous version of the 295s and the Bridgedales have served me well, and I (perhaps foolishly) thought they would be fine in Sarek. However, at the end of the week I was limping painfully with a 10cm x 4cm blister on the sole of my foot, and believe me, that wasn't much fun.
How did that happen? I believe it was a combination of several factors.
I've never needed gaiters before: ingress of dirt hasn't been much of a problem for me. However, the newly designed 295 seemed to let in a lot more dirt. The main reason for this is that the tongue doesn't stay in place, but slips to the side, leaving a large gash through which grit and shit can enter. Had I been wearing the Shortie Gaiters, less dirt might have entered.
So, with small pieces of dirt in the shoe, when I came to the boulder fields and I needed to continually twist my feet, the grit rubbed against my sole. A secondary effect of the 295 redesign, and I might be wrong, is that the insole feels much thinner and less forgiving. Unfortunately, the Speed Demon socks are also very thin on the sole (apart from the ball and heel), which probably exacerbated the rubbing. In retrospect, along with the gaiters, I would have chosen more padded socks (maybe the Trailblaze).
After the boulder field, I could feel soreness on my sole (and soul), but chose to ignore it. More fool me. After another 20km, there was nice small blister. Had I then put a Compeed on, I might have mitigated any further problems. But no.
Next day, the blister was bigger, and at lunchtime I made the bizarre decision to burst the blister using my Puukko (a-ha! it was used after all!). After stabbing away at it I reduced it a bit, and stuck an Adventure Medical Kits gel pad on it. Later after a couple of swamps and a river, I checked my foot and found it covered in gel crystals. Yuck. The lesson here, folks, is use Compeeds.
I don't feel that having wet feet made any difference – if anything, after a while I looked forward to cold water as it soothed the pain and gave some relief. I started wearing two pairs of Speed Demons at the same time, for extra cushioning, and that helped a bit. I also took to wearing NRS Hydroskins while hiking as the neoprene was especially spongy as well as nicely warm in the glacier stream crossings.
So, lessons learned, mistakes made. It was by far the biggest gear failure of the hike, and while I have to take some responsibility in the events and results, I was a bit disappointed in the new inov-8 295s, and probably won't buy them again.
I wrote in the report that the "gear of the trip" award went to the 2014 Laufbursche huckePACK. It is simply the most comfortable, well designed pack I've ever used. I've long been an admirer of Mateusz's work at Laufbursche, and bought on of the first edition huckePACKS back in 2010. At the time, this was the height of design, and a very desirable pack. Place it next to the new 2014 version, however, and the leap in design is astonishing. It's like a small piece of the future has made its way into the present.
The pack is extraordinarily comfortable, somehow shedding weight from the pack through distributing it via the very decent hip-belt (a vast improvement over the original) and a shoulder straps. The pack uses the now ubiquitous airframe as an optional structural element, that slips into its own pocket. I was sceptical, but it works and is very comfortable. I was worried the frame would lose air over the week , but it didn't. The only thing I don't like about it is that you need to carry the little puffer ball to inflate it: it's one more thing that is not really needed. You can always use a foam mat as a frame instead though.
There is none of the sagging that I experienced with a fully-loaded Mariposa – the hip-belt is firmly attached and the bag carries as it should. I ordered 1l and 1.5l pockets for the belt, and they are huge. Loads of room for all the essentials. I could probably have managed with two 1l pockets.
The compression cords work very well. At the start of the hike the pack was fat and loaded. By the end I could compress it to a thin, sveldt, back-hugging package with ease. The lid closure is better than ever, and the lid pocket zips in a sensible manner (i.e. horizontally). Everything is finished off in a lovely black/red colour scheme for a bit of flash.
The pack isn't waterproof, but dried exceptionally quickly. After the massive downpour it didn't seem wet, but you'll want to keep everything in an inner bag (I used a cuben sack).
If there was one thing I'd change, it'd be the bottom of the outer mesh pocket, which narrows quite a lot to the point where it becomes less useful. You can squeeze things in, but it is a very tight squeeze. This is such a minor thing however, as the pocket is ample otherwise.
There's not really much more to say: this is the creme de la creme of UL backpacks. Frankly, Mateusz deserves a design award for it.
SHELTER & Sleeping
Bob and I split the WickiUp SUL3 between us. I carried the fly and stakes, he carried the inner and pole. We used the inner all the time as added protection from the often savage winds. The shelter shook and wobbled, but after all points and cords were staked out, it was solid. For me this was the ideal shelter for Sarek, especially for two persons. It's quick to erect, sheds wind in all directions, and remains taut overnight. I've seam-sealed it, of course, and had no leaks. I also had no trouble with condensation, but that was probably thanks to the wind.
I'd still like to roll back the door a bit more, and some of the tie-outs could be repositioned, although even in the strongest gusts it still felt pretty secure, and I'm not 100% convinced that mid-panel tie outs would add much in the way of security. When the wind really hits it, the pole does get thrown around furiously, but the bounce back is good because of the circular design, and tensioning it gives; the pole just can't really go far.
With GoLite now out of business, the WickiUp takes the SL3s crown. The king is dead; long live the king?
Speaking of GoLite, I used their venerable Ultralite 3 Season quilt, along with a NeoAir Xlite and Exped pillow for sleeping. For me, it's a tried and tested combination. Sure, there are lighter quilts out there, and newer pillows, but this works for me. Until one of them dies, I see no reason to play the constant upgrade game.
I wanted to test the TiTri Sidewinder in all its modes, to see how useful it would be on a longer, tougher trip. I started using alcohol, but found the wind was too strong even with a windscreen, and getting to a boil took forever. On calmer days it was a pleasantly silent way to cook (well, boil water), but most of the time I had to refill the burner.
After switching to Esbit I had more success, and after 7 or 8 minutes I had a guaranteed boil without any fuss (except for the clean up – Esbit leaves a messy, sticky residue that I prefer to clean off as soon as possible).
The weight of the Sidewinder kit and fuel (I carried more than enough alcohol and Esbit for the week) came to 550g, appreciably less than the 629g for the SolTi and 2 fuel canisters (again, to be on the safe side, and as I suspected I'd be using it too). However, cut the SolTi to 1 canister for a solo trip and it's just 439g.
I did use the inferno wood-burning insert for the Sidewinder on a couple of occasions, and it worked well, even if setting it up was a bit finnicky.
In the end, though, there were plenty of occasions when I wanted a meal or hot drink quickly, and resorted to the JetBoil. A 2 minute boil is much faster than an 8 minute boil with alcohol, and when you're hungry, the waiting around and fussing is, frankly, not worth the few grams saved.
Mateusz sent me a free UL "jerry can" for water when I ordered the huckePACK, and I found this to be quite useful. It allowed up to fill up with water and camp wherever we wanted, away from streams and water sources, which was quite nice. Everything seems to come with a small spout these days though. The "jerry can" was a bit hard to fill; I used my plastic bottle (also with a small spout, but more easily submersible for filling) to refill it most of the time. I'd take it again though: it's 30g and carries 2.5l.
Other than that, my good old Kupilka Kuksa served as my drinking vessel, as it has done on many trips now.
As for food, breakfasts were my regular mix of porridge oats boosted with a few additions. Even with variety of flavours, porridge gets a bit monotonous, but it is at least a hearty breakfast the keeps you going through the morning.
I finally got my GORP levels down to the minimum (about 113g a day if I recall), and only came back with a small back of leftovers. Supplementing this was an array of "special treats": jerky, Alpen and other trail bars, etc.
Lunches were mainly protein bars, but I decided to take along a few packets of noodles, and these were truly appreciated. Protein bars are OK for short trips, but they're not exactly something you look forward too with glee (even the good ones have limited appeal after a while). So on cold and wet days, it was great to have a hot meal with lots of soupy, salty liquid. Tom Yum Mama noodles were my favourite, and I'm robably going to switch back to them for lunches. They are much lighter than protein bars, more flavourful, far cheaper, and offer about the same calorific value. Plus you can always add bacon or onion or other additions for a bit of variety. I was pleasantly surprised, and it's an indication that sometimes the old ways are better. I'll happily stick a few protein bars or power snacks in the pack as an energy booster, but from now on it's ramen all the way when it comes to lunch.
For dinner I ordered us a collection of Fuizion freeze-dried meals, and they ranged from absolutely spectacular to reasonably good. Bug chunks of meat and vegetables, with real flavours, excellent calorific value (averaging around 560 cals per meal), light (about 120g each), and something to look forward to. They knock Real Turmat out of the game, in my opinion, and are cheaper anyway. I agree with Roger Nielsen that some of the larger chunks of chicken don't rehydrate that well, but I grew to like their crustiness.
Naturally, I made steamed brownies on a couple of nights (the cakes, not the result of too much dehydrated food), and some other kind of freeze-dried dessert – I can't recall what it was, only that it was surprisingly good.
I was testing a fair bit of electronic kit on this trip. I'm not big on staying "connected" while in the wilderness, but both Bob's and my family appreciated knowing we were still alive, courtesy of a DeLorme InReach Explorer GPS. I looked at a lot of one- and two-way satellite communicators, but the choice came down to a SPOT 3 or DeLorme. The Spot is cheaper in the short run, but with DeLorme's new Freedom Plan it works out a lot cheaper in the long run, because you only pay for the service when you use it.
DeLorme's global coverage is reputedly 100%, while Spot has a reputation for failure in high latitudes. DeLorme's battery life is also slightly better, and with the latest firmware update gets even better still with an extended tracking interval for very long trips. The battery lasted the full week and still had about 25% left when we got to the trail head. I found it very easy to use, 100% reliable, and reassuring to have with me. It was great to receive the occasional text message weather report from mission control, and nice to share my location on twitter without the need to respond to anyone ;).
I also carried my Garmin Dakota 20, on which I loaded my own maps, made after some considerable effort. As usual, it came in handy on a couple of occasions, and the rest of the time sat hidden away. Sarek is place of such large and obvious geographic features that navigation is not difficult most of the time. The GPS was useful mainly for checking how far we were from a particular target.
In order to maintain power to these devices, I was also testing a solar panel and a couple of chargers. Bergzeit had sent me a GoalZero Guide10 Adventure kit earlier in the year, and while it's a good charger, it's a touch on the heavy side at around 700g for everything. I thought I could find something cheaper and lighter, and after some research and help from WattGeizer, I ordered a lighter (221g) 5W panel, a RavPower 3000mAh power bank, and a Pixo USB Battery Charger. Total weight about 400g.
I found this combination of charging gear to be excellent. The panel is large enough to charge quickly and, while WattGeizer offer a smaller, lighter panel (the 03), the sun is weaker in high latitudes, so a larger panel is better for those of us "oop north". I also found a rather natty way of attaching it to the WickiUp so it charged while I was off exploring.
The RavPower powerbank charges in about 4-5 hours on a sunny day, and is solidly constructed with a built-in LED (not that you need it in the land of the midnight sun). It's essential for charging phones and devices that benefit from a constant charge: you charge the power bank first, then the phone/device.
The Pixo charger charges AA/AAA batteries (for the Dakota, headlamps, etc), but, brilliantly, can also charge camera batteries. I charged my D800 battery with it, which is a stroke of genius.
I plan to write a comparative review of solar chargers soonish. If you're on a longer trip they have clear benefits. On shorter trips, you'll probably find carrying spare batteries or a charged power bank reserve is lighter.
I'll end with more mundane matters – walking poles. Earlier this year, one of my trusty GossamerGear LT4s broke inexplicably with a gentle tap against my boot. I couldn't afford the postage fees form the US to Finland, so had to take my Komperdell Carbon Ultralight Varios. They're a but heavier than the LT4s, but a lot sturdier and more rigid. They were fin during the whole trip, but right a the end, one of the section link mechanisms snapped. They look overly complicated, with lots of plastic bits and ridges, so I'm not particularly surprised, just a bit disappointed as they are not cheap. Carbon poles are fragile beasts, and get put through a lot of extreme pressures. Fortunately Komperdell have a lifetime warranty, so I'll send them back and see if that works at some point.
I think that just about covers it. If anyone has any questions about specific pieces gear from the list that I didn't cover, please ask in the comments.