Monday, September 20, 2010

Gear for a PCT Repeat: What I'd change

Here are some things I've learned from the last two years of hiking that would influence my ideal gear choices if I were to do the PCT again.

1. The real goal for selecting gear is to maximize speed, not minimize packweight.
The addition of 100 grams of weight to your pack translates into less distance traveled per day -- roughly what you'd cover in 5 minutes of walking. So, if the addition of 100 additional grams of gear saves you 10 minutes (in cooking, getting ready in the mornings, setting up camp, sleeping better, etc.), then you are in effect adding 5 more minutes to your walking day.

Using this logic and a bit of personal experience, you might decide to switch some ultralight options for somewhat heavier, but quicker and easier to use options. For instance:

  • A separate rain poncho (~200 g) and tarp instead of a poncho-tarp (I have become deeply disappointed in poncho tarps) or simply using an umbrella alone and quickly setting up camp if hard slanted rain or extended drizzling hits. Considering the summer weather of the coastal ranges, it might be better to set up camp and wait through the 10 cumulative hours of such weather during your PCT thru-hike rather than carry a 200 g poncho that translates into 2 x 5 minutes x 120 hiking days = 1200 minutes or 20 hours lost.
  • Wind pants made of a slightly heavier fabric than Momentum (keep the light stuff for your wind shirt which is less prone to tearing on rocks, snow, and branches).
  • Dedicated tarp pole/s if you don't carry trekking poles (save time looking for branches or trees spaced correctly), but only if you will need to set up your shelter most nights (otherwise the weight may not be justified).
  • Just a down quilt instead of a "wearable" down quilt (e.g. the Jacks R Better quilts). The cost in weight (velcro, fabric, cord, etc.) of the extra functionality is about 100 g. The conversion time between quilt and serape is too long to do often, so you'll wear it about 1-3 times the whole hike. But you can also wrap a quilt around you and get a similar, if not perfect, result.
  • A large stuff sack for your sleeping bag/quilt instead of a small one. You lose time stuffing it in and taking it out, are much less prone to do so during the day if it takes time, AND you progressively lose loft in your quilt, meaning that it does a poorer job of keeping you warm. Instead of getting an 800 g quilt, stuffing it into a 20 g stuff sack and storing it at the bottom of your pack, consider a 600 g quilt stored loosely in a 60 g stuff sack on top of your heavy stuff. Here you save both weight and time (both in storage and in lost sleep/lost warmth)!
  • A thicker sleeping pad instead of a thinner one. Instead of one 100 g Gossamer Gear pad, how about 2 or 3? Trust me, you'll get more than 5-10 additional minutes of deep sleep, so it's worth its weight. You may be tempted to get the NeoAir and will surely love it and reduce time lost on low-quality sleep... UNTIL it gets a micropuncture that you are unable to locate. Then you'll curse it. That's the only thing holding me back from getting one. That and the time spent inflating and deflating it (5 minutes per day? How about getting yet another Gossamer Gear pad for the same time/weight?).
In addition, you might want to choose a packing style that allows you to set up camp and go to sleep without taking everything out of your pack. This could save you 5 or more minutes a day. Using a shelter option that doesn't require you to set up a full-blown tent every night is also wise, since the vast majority of the time you'll only need bug protection, if any. Something like the A16 Bug Bivy might be well justified due to the high speed of use, even though it weighs more than something like the minimalist Gossamer Gear bugnet.

2. Pack needs to be higher volume and comfortable above 20 lbs.
Higher volume in order to make packing quicker (see point #1), and also to store quilt/sleeping bag loosely. Very rarely are PCT thru-hikers able to consistently keep their packweight under 20 lbs. including food. Let's say on a typical day you've got a 9 lbs. baseweight, 2.5 days of food at 3 lbs. a day, and water weighing 2 lbs. That adds up to 18.5 lbs. Probably 40% of the time your pack will be over 20 lbs, meaning some discomfort if you're using a frameless pack. Discomfort can also translate into lost time. Therefore, the ideal PCT pack might be something with a frame of some type that makes it comfortable to 30 lbs, a volume of maybe 60 liters to allow for looser packing, and as light a weight as is reasonable. Such a pack might conceivably weigh 600 grams.

I could compensate for the increased weight of such a pack simply by switching to an ultralight camera.

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