I am not an expert gear reviewer, but I have put in a lot of miles on the trail this year and have developed some opinions on the gear I have been using this year, and in many cases, for the past several years. These reviews are not exhaustive, and are just my opinion but hopefully they will be useful. And, for what it's worth, I'm 60 years old, 6'1", 170 pounds and have been tramping the back country for a couple of decades.
I have been using this backpack for two years now and it is without doubt my favorite all time pack. I like the big mesh pocket in front, the side pockets are easy to get to and pull quart Gatorade bottles out of, the hipbelt pockets are convenient and the large main compartment is spacious enough for all my gear, generally with room to spare. After 2 years and over 1100 miles, the pack shows no sign of wear. My only gripe about this pack is the fit. I have a large, based on an incorrectly measured torso length, where I should have purchased an extra large (I have a very long torso). I also have very bony hips and the hipbelt on pretty much every pack I have ever had becomes uncomfortable after a few hours of use. I will likely get a larger pack before next year, and have learned to live with the hip discomfort.
I have been sleeping and lounging in this hammock for four years now. And it is, without doubt, my favorite piece of gear. I spent years of sleepless nights on the ground; but no more. Hammock sleeping takes a little to get used to, but I now sleep as well on the trail as I do at home. The Blackbird has an integrated bug net, ridge line and tieouts that make it the Cadillac of hammocks. In addition to a restful nights sleep, it also makes a superb camp chair. I can, and have, lounged in it for hours at a time. And if the bugs are bad I can pull my feet in and zip up the bug net. The best camp chair I have ever had. It's not the lightest hammock around, but it is well worth the few extra ounces.
Cuben Fiber Hammock Hex Tarp
A tarp is a tarp is a tarp. It covers the hammock in case of inclement weather. But this tarp from Hammock Gear does a better job than most for three season hanging. It is a hex cut tarp, meaning that it uses less material than a rectangular tarp, while still providing good coverage. It is made of Cuben Fiber, so it is very light, only 5.2 ounces. And it has pull outs built into the sides of the tarp to give more room inside when hung, as well as prevent a breeze from pushing the tarp into the hammock. It you have the money, this is a very good hammock tarp. It has not gone up many times this year, but has performed well when it has. And even when not used, its weight makes it easy to carry.
Sawyer Squeeze Filter
I have been using this filter for two years now, for pretty much anytime the water is not coming from a faucet or directly from a spring. It's easy to use, appears to be effective, lighter than mechanical filters, and adds no taste to the water. This year I replaced the original mylar bag I used last year with one from Evernew. While I have never had one of the mylar bags pop a seam, many seem to have so I opted for a bag that was a bit sturdier. I reviewed this filter last year at http://aclayjar.blogspot.com/2012/09/sawyer-squeeze-filter-review.html and will be updating that review soon.
BugsAway shirt, pants and hat
Over the past several years I had been treating my clothes with permethrin to keep the mosquitoes at bay. This year I opted to try a shirt and pants, along with a hat, from ExOfficio with the permethrin applied during manufacture. The shirt was a bit heavier than I would have liked, and ended up badly stained. But all three pieces seemed to work well and warded off the few mosquitoes and flies that came my way. And all three ended the trip in good physical condition and will likely be used next season.
Brooks Cascadia 7
I joined the herd this summer on the PCT, wearing what seemed like one of the most popular shoes on the trail. Not a whole lot to say about these shoes. They worked, felt good and after nearly 600 miles, they only have a single small hole. I ended up with my first blisters in several years, but I believe that was because I bought a pair that was a size too large and then spent over a day traversing along the same side of the slope. I ended up with a blister on each foot on the uphill side. As an aside, I bought a pair of Cascadia 8's when I got home, and when I got ready to lace them up the first time, discovered that one of the lacing loops was broken. They seem much flimsier that they did on the 7's.
Canon PowerShot SX260 HS
I have been using this camera for 2 years now, and have really enjoyed it. I like to take pictures along the trail, both so I can remember what I saw, as well as to share with others. And this year I took nearly 1000 pictures along the PCT, almost 2 a mile. But I don't like spending a lot of time fiddling with the camera. I want to just pull it out of the pack, zoom in on the object of my desire, and snap a shot. The faster I can do that the better. And the 260 does that well: seldom do I spend any time fiddling with settings, apart from going into macro mode to take a picture of a flower or a bug. While it has some issues getting the color of a sunset right, pale pink flowers look white, and close up focusing can be a challenge; in general it takes very good pictures with little effort.
One of my favorite features of this camera, and the primary selling point, is its zoom capability. It has a 20x digital zoom, and will go out to 39x when digital zoom is added. With every point and shoot camera I have had in the past I was limited in what I could shoot; if the bear was not too close for comfort, it was just a dot in the picture. Now if I can see it, I can get a picture of it. In fact, I have started to use the camera to zoom in on stuff I could not clearly see with my naked eye. Very cool!
Battery life is good. 1000 pictures over 6 weeks required one recharge. It might be nice to use AAA or AA batteries, but the life is so good, and the batteries so small, that I just carry a spare. The camera also has GPS tagging, but this is a feature I have never used so cannot comment on it. I also cannot speak to its ruggedness since I have never dropped or banged it on anything, being very careful with it whenever it is out of its bag. But after 2 years and over 1000 trail miles, it is still performing flawlessly.
My son gave my wife the original SPOT for Christmas about 6 years ago; a gift that I was expected to carry for her whenever I went out into the great unknown. This was a peace of mind gift that has meant a lot to her. I replace this original SPOT with a Connect a few years ago, and still take it with me when I am out. The Connect is smaller than a regular SPOT, and requires an Android or iPhone to be very useful. The phone has SPOT software loaded and makes a blue tooth connection to the Connect. When you have done that, you can send a variety of text messages from the phone to the Connect for transmission to a predefined list of recipients. The messages can either be ones that you prepared ahead of time, or 45 character messages that you type up on the spot. Like SPOT, the Connect also has a tracking mode, where it will send a position message every 10 minutes, allowing folks back home to track your progress as you wander the wilderness.
In theory this all works great, but there are some issues. Blue tooth paring can be painful, sometimes requiring multiple reboots of the phone and the Connect. The Connect is very sensitive to its orientation. You really need to have it laying flat, so I usually carry it connected to the top strap on my pack, pointing up. And even in ideal circumstances not all messages will make it out: I have sent messages from high above the treeline with an unobstructed view of the sky, that did not make it. I suspect that the GlobalStar network of satellites is either having reliability issues, or coverage holes. And there is no feedback provided that will let you know if the message transmission was successful or not. It is sent 3 times, but with no assurance that any of them made it out.
Another shortcoming in my mind is that the unit cannot be used to receive a message from home. Carrying it gives my wife peace of mind, and she is fully aware that no message does not mean a problem has occurred But I have no way of knowing if some disaster has occurred at home. It would be nice for me to have the same peace of mind that she has.
For all of these reasons I am looking at the new InReach SE. It is a bit heavier, but uses the Iridium satellite network rather than GlobalStar, it will receive messages from home, and it provides confirmation of message receipt. It is more costly with a pricier subscription plan, but may well be what I take into the wild next year. This device will also provide a certain amount of GPS data to the phone, which the SPOT devices do not.
Droid Bionic Smart Phone
I have had this phone for a couple of years now, and it has as many miles on it as my backpack. I know that whether or not to take a phone, and what kind of phone to take are highly personal choices and few are likely to agree with my choice. But for what its worth, this is my everyday phone, and it works well for me in the back country. I have an a pair of extended batteries that go with the phone, one installed and the other as a backup. I generally get a couple of days out of a battery, but it is really dependent on how much I use the phone and what services are turned on. I primary use the phone for:
- Navigation using Backcountry Navigator with half mile way points loaded. I also have half miles PCT app installed and use it just as much. Seldom are these apps really necessary, but they do give me assurance when a trail junction is not well marked. I have yet to take the wrong turn, but I have frequently felt the need to check out my choice to avoid possibly walking the wrong direction for an extended period.
- SPOT: Sending out status messages on SPOT is a primary use of the phone.
- Text Messaging: For those times that I have cell coverage.
- Kindle: While I seldom use it for this, I can access the trail guides or just something lite to read.
Battery life is the biggest constraint on using the phone in the back country. I have tried a couple of solar panels but never have been able to find one that was actually useful. Until now, that is.
I encountered a number of people with solar panels strapped to the top of their packs this year, and finally asked someone about theirs. They were using a Suntatics model and really liked it. So I ordered one and picked it up when I passed by the house on the way from California to Washington. I only have 4 days on the trail with this unit, but am fairly confident that I will be able to use it to keep devices charged in the field.
It does not do a very good job of directly charging my phone while directly connected to the panel and marching down the trail. Every time a shadow passes over the panel my phone disconnects and then reconnects when back in full sun. In testing, it seems like the phone gets very little, if any, charge while connected this way. Fortunately I had taken along a USB battery pack, and it was able to slowly charge this device, even under low light conditions. The phone, as well as any other USB chargeable device, can then be charged from the battery at night. I have since bought a Black Diamond ReVolt headlamp that will recharge off of a USB cable, and the new InReach SE will also charge off of USB. Looks like only my camera will not be chargeable from the panel.
The big downside is the weight of the device. The panel is 8 ounces and the battery and cable add a few more. Extra batteries are lighter, so long as the trip is short. But for longer trips, the panel should be useful and not so much heavier than all the extra batteries. It will also ensure that I am able to get at least a little charge on the phone in an emergency.
Labels: gear review, Pacific Crest Trail