Non-Essential/Optional Gear

Non-Essential/Optional Gear

Trekking Poles

These are telescoping lightweight metal poles resembling ski poles which turn your arms into quasi-legs. If you watch your dog or cat run around the yard, you will notice that four legged animals don’t fall down that much. Four legs are better than two for pure locomotion; nature knows this. With poles, the hiker effectively moves backward on the evolutionary tree, away from bipedal walking and towards a hybrid form of upright four-legged walking.

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Like most hikers, I started out ‘three-legged’ (with a crude wooden stick for support) until finally I had that ‘where have you been all my life’ epiphany moment. For me this moment occurred on the slopes of Mount Webster in New Hampshire, after a difficult day on the trail when I met a veteran hiker using poles who basically claimed they had changed his life. I bought a pair, took them with me on a trip to Wyoming, and from then on, Life Was Good.

I recommend hiking poles to any hiker, with one caveat. If you are a young, strong hiker with excellent poise, good knees and a good back, and you don’t think you need poles, then I would advise you not to use them until you feel you have to, for two reasons:

  1. Once you start relying on something you become dependent on it. I would not even consider hiking without my poles, but generally speaking, it’s not a sound idea to enter into co-dependent relationships if you can avoid doing so.
  2. There are times when the poles get in the way. This is mainly during rock scrambles. I can easily just fold them up and put them away but…it would be more convenient not to have to.

With that said, for the rest of us, which amounts to 95% of the population…those of us with bad knees, bad backs and people of a ‘certain age’, or those of us who do not have outstanding balance…poles can REALLY make a difference.

  • Poles help to better distribute the load of your pack
  • They make climbing uphill a little easier
  • They make going downhill a LOT safer and easier
  • Poles can help you to avoid mechanical injuries
  • They can assist in crossing streams
  • In a pinch, you could use them as a weapon or defensive stave

Though not considered essential gear, I do not believe my hiking career could have continued as long as it has without trekking poles, so they aren’t exactly optional for me.

As far as recommendations goes, the biggest name in the pole tent is Leki, which is also the most expensive. I own a pair of Leki’s but have owned other brands as well, and my advice to hikers is, don’t spend a ton on poles. You don’t need to.

 

Stove

A stove is, as may be inferred, the thing that cooks your food. Or so you might think.

 

Most modern backpacking stoves are designed to heat water to a boil. NOT cook food, at least not directly.

Simply stated, if you want to attend the Cordon Bleu Academy, follow in the footsteps of Anthony Bourdain, have your own TV show on Food Network, then perhaps backpacking is ne vous convient probablement pas. If on the other hand you want to backpack, then you better get used to the joys of dehydrated food in a hurry. The idea of these stoves is to be lightweight, durable, and functionally effective in a variety of conditions. Most backpacking stoves work very well, within certain limits, at being all these things. They generally do not work very well at being things they are not designed to be.

Stoves are not considered essential gear, as you don’t NEED a hot meal to survive. In certain situations they could be essential, or the lack of them would at the least be very constraining. For example, in an area with contaminated water where boiling was not optional, or in alpine conditions to melt snow for water.

They come in several types. Let’s deal with the popular ones first.

Gas Stoves: Most backpacking stoves sold these day in the US and Europe operate with gas fuel. This is so called ‘compressed gas’, a butane-propane mix sold in ubiquitous mushroom shaped containers available at virtually every outdoor retailer under the sun. Members of the outdoor fraternity will instantly recognize these as the “MSR Isopro” (red can) type fuel. It is available in any major 3-letter-acronymn Outdoor Retailer and comes in 4, 8 ounce and larger sizes. The product specs put the average burn time on an 8-ounce canister at about 60 minutes, enough to boil 16 liters of fuel (2 liters per ounce.)

In good conditions, a compressed gas stove can bring water to a boil in just minutes. My own observation is that the 4-ounce size is good enough for most multi-day backpacking trips, while the 8-ounce can last for a week if expeditiously used. Conditions and altitude could impact the burn time so take that into account.

Years of personnel experience with these canisters has convinced me of their reliability, safety, and general effectiveness. Performance does vary with the brand but I have yet to try one that hasn’t worked at least tolerably well. (There is no great benefit in paying more for the high-end models, IMHO.) I strongly recommend a gas stove that uses this type of canister.

Note that these canisters can be hard to find in general…Big retailers like Walmart, Target, Sears, and the home improvement megaplexes don’t always cater to the serious hiker. Also, it can be VERY hard to find these overseas, particularly in developing nations.  At any rate, these canisters are generally cheap so my advice is to stock up on them.

 

Liquid fuel stoves

Once the primary type of outdoor stove, the liquid fuel stove has declined in popularity as the outdoor retailing market has shifted from catering to the classic ‘sportsman’ to the modern outdoor recreationist. The main reason is that gas stoves and components are lighter and easier to use than liquid ones.

The most common type of liquid fuel stove uses what is known as “white gas”, IE naptha, sometimes also known as camp gas, though it isn’t a gas in bottled state. It is typified by those ‘green drum’ Coleman gas canisters sold everywhere in America. Backpacking models usually have a long, tubular bottle for a fuel source which sits on the ground or a little bipod, and is connected to the burner by a short hose.

Liquid stoves do have three advantages over compressed gas:

  • Superior performance in very cold temperatures
  • Per amount of fuel burned, they burn hotter and cleaner
  • The bottles can be refilled, making them more eco-friendly.

Because it generates more heat per ounce of fuel, liquid fuel is more cost effective than gas. However, a single bottle can be more expensive than a gas canister.

The drawbacks of liquid fuel:

  • It is heavier than gas, primarily because the cannisters are heavier
  • The stoves are also heavier
  • It is much trickier to operate liquid fuel stoves (pumping may be required)
  • Getting them ignited is sometimes problematic
  • They often have an unpleasant odor
  • If the bottle leaks, liquid fuel can ruin everything it comes into contact with

The advantages described above make them good choices as ‘workhorse’ stoves for mountain guides and expedition cooks, who must quickly prepare large meals for groups in very extreme conditions. The average backpacker doesn’t require this level of performance, but does desire light weight and ease of use. If you plan to do a lot of winter camping, you might want to invest in a liquid fuel stove…but my advice is, start off with gas.

Other types of liquid fuel stoves are available. These include kerosene and alcohol. Kerosene stoves are generally not for backpacking so I won’t get into them here, but alcohol stoves are worth a mention.

Alcohol stoves are actually the lightest weight type of stoves, being very small in size. For this reason, they are popular with long distance thru-hikers. Another reason very self-sufficient hikers like them is bottled, denatured alcohol can be found virtually everywhere, even in small general stores in rural areas and third world countries. An alcohol stove is so simple that many hikers actually make their own at home, cobbling them together from soda cans and various other household items.

The major disadvantage of these stoves is that they are much less robust than the commercially made types described above, burning at considerably lower temperatures, which means slower boil times even in good conditions, and generally poor operation in high winds. Alcohol also can be a real mess if it spills inside your pack. I do not personally recommend an alcohol stove, but many people do, and the reasons for doing so are sound.

It bears mention that in addition to liquid and gas stoves, there are solid fuel ‘tablet’ stoves and even backpacking wood stoves. I have had only poor experiences with the former and none at all with the latter; both stretch the definition of the term ‘stove’ somewhat. Neither are in my opinion reliable, but they are out there as alternatives.

My advice for backpackers is to use a compressed gas stove for most types of backpacking because it is safe, convenient, easy to use and lightweight. For winter or alpine expeditions, you may want to consider a liquid fuel stove, but I would still use the gas one as my standard equipment.

For the stove itself, the hiker will note that today’s market is saturated with sleek, high-end, fast boiling stoves designed for mountaineering, usually with a high price tag. My cautionary advice is that there is no absolute need for a high-end stove. You can boil water perfectly well with a lower end one, though it will take a bit longer and you may need to fashion a crude wind screen in poor conditions.

I recommend almost any of the easy to use lightweight ‘screw top’ stoves manufactured by MSR that affix directly to the top of the Isopro fuel canisters. These things are small, simple, devilishly clever and generally perform very well…with the caveat that their high profile makes them susceptible to high winds and can make balancing a pot on them somewhat of an acrobatic act. I recommend the tried and true MSR Pocket Rocket or almost any of its more modern variants, such as the SuperFly. I used a variant for 15 years and it never failed me; it still works to this day.

With the above said…my advice is to save up and, when you can afford to do so, do yourself a MAJOR favor and purchase the single greatest invention in history, the integrated canister stove…IE, the Jetboil. The JetBoil is the BEST THING EVER and if you don’t have one, you’re not cool and all the other kids will laugh at you. A Jetboil is expensive (especially high-end models) and somewhat bulky (though not overly heavy) but can justify its extra weight and size by quickly, easily and safely heating water to a boil in half the time of a regular stove and do so in any amount of wind or adverse conditions. I have experience only with the Jetboil line of products, but MSR makes its own line of competing high end stoves which are well rated.

Basic items in the modern backpacking chuck wagon

My advice, as always, is build the empire slowly. Yes, you will look and feel cooler with a Jetboil, but you also need other things, many of which are more important. My advice is to start off with a Pocket Rocket or equivalent and jump aboard the Jetboil bandwagon when budget allows. Keep the old stove as a backup.

My final advice concerning stoves is that a stove is a purchase you should need to make very few times during a hiking career. A good stove will last, if not a lifetime, then a substantial part of one. In fact, I am convinced a Pocket Rocket, properly cared for, will likely outlast its owner. So choose carefully; if you do buy a new stove, it should happen only when you are ready to upgrade.

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Where have you been all my life???

 

Sleep Pad

A sleeping pad is basically something that rests between your body and the ground in lieu of a bed. It has two functions: comfort and insulation. Technically speaking I do not consider sleeping pads to be essential gear, though this is partly because I don’t do a whole lot of backpacking in extreme winter conditions. if you remember your basic science classes from high school, solids conduct heat and cold much more efficiently than the air. Which means that lying on cold ground will make your body cold MANY times faster than standing in cold air will. In short…if you plan on sleeping on cold ground, some insulating layer will be required, or else you will be completely miserable at the very least.

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Apart from the insulation, I still consider sleeping pads to be ‘quasi-essential’ gear. Even in ideal conditions, most people who are used to a soft bed will find sleeping on the open ground extremely difficult. For the first few years of my camping/hiking career, I put up with this believing such manful suffering built character. But after a few years spent  building up enough character to rival The Most Interesting Man in the World, I simply bought a sleeping pad and stopped suffering. I miss the days of manful suffering not at all.

Sleeping pads generally come in two types…foam pads that either fold or roll up, and inflatable models. I have used both types.

Foam pads: These are relatively cheap and lightweight. The best models are those which compress into a sort of brick; less optimal, but still viable, are the models that roll up like yoga mats. The rolling type was what I used for several years before finally switching to…

Inflatable pads (AKA the ‘camp bed’): These are lightweight, self-inflating pads we’re talking about here. Not the larger air mattresses that require a pump to inflate which are for car camping. ThermaRest makes a whole line of these products, ranging from very light and somewhat comfortable to somewhat bulky but very comfortable.

Inflatable sleeping pads at first blush might seem an extravagance and perhaps even dangerously close to glamping. My answer to this is, trying spreadin’ out yer bedroll direct on the open ground, partner, and then come back and tell me about extravagance. Mostly likely you’ll be too busy headed to the nearest outdoor outfitter as fast a person bent over like Quasimodo can hobble, fixin’ to get yourself an air mattress.

All kidding aside, either type will do the trick. The foam mattress is in fact the gear of choice preferred by very basic, ultra-light hikers; it is lighter, cheaper, and has the added benefit of never becoming punctured (which any air mattress inevitably will.) I personally use a lightweight air mattress; if you have a body of a ‘certain age’ as I do, this can make a significant difference. I seldom get a bad nights sleep in a tent these days, and much of this I credit to the ThermaRest sleeping pads I have owned. Don’t leave home without one, or at least without SOMETHING…believe me, you (and especially your back) will regret doing so.

Lightweight, self inflating sleeping pads of good quality are not cheap; my advice is to start off with a foam pad and spend the money on other more necessary gear (boots, tent, sleeping bag) before making the investment in one. I would definitely NOT advise hiking with a low cost/quality inflatable sleeping pad as it is likely to be unreliable and more trouble than its worth for the weight.