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Last update 27/03/2018 (Whitehorse, YT)

 
 

Oliver's Pack – Hyperlite Mountain Gear 3400 Southwest Black – L (953g)

Oliver’s rating: ★★★★★

Bring it again?: Maybe

I spent a lot of time thinking about packs before this hike. I knew this would be a critical decision, but without any previous long-distance hikes under my belt, I had a hard time evaluating what my priorities were (Internal frame v. frameless? How light is light enough? How small is too small?). There’s a degree to which it’s like choosing what torture method you’d like to be subjected to over the subsequent weeks.

In the end, after much consideration (and buying and returning an Osprey Atmos), I went with the HMG 3400. As we’d worked out most of our pack list by then, I could narrow this down as the right size to hold everything, the reviews were solid, and the minimal frame sounded like the right mix of load support for the weight I was going to carry. I went with the Southwest’s solid-fabric pockets (as opposed to the Windrider mesh pockets), and the thicker black cuben to maximize pack longevity and durability (at relatively small weight cost). And speaking of weight; at <1 kg, this pack is mind-blowingly light.

Also, going for the HMG meant that I now possess one bit of fancy thru-hiker cuben bullshit. Downside, though, was that it was ridiculously expensive.

My impression, after the hike, is mixed.

Fancy little backpack.

It wasn’t the most comfortable. I hover between a Large and Tall, and I might have benefited from choosing the larger pack. I had pretty sore shoulderblades through a lot of the hike, which might have been a pack issue. My average load at the beginning of each leg (~15 kg), though, was around the maximum I’d want to consider for a pack like this. All this is to say, my (moderate) discomfort is something I may well have brought upon myself.

It let in a lot more water than I’d initially expected. As in, a pourable amount after a day of rain/snow. Coupled with my faulty DIY silnylon dry bag, this meant a lot of stuff I’d hoped would be dry was pretty soggy. I know – it was naïve of me to expect watertight performance (it’s not), but with the cuben body, sealed seams and rolltop, I’d expected a bit of moisture, not a puddle. If I were to modify this, I’d seal up the hydroport (where I expect most water entered the pack).

It’s tough, but not indestructible. By the time the hike was done, the bag top has become pretty sun-faded, and the top of one of the frame stays had worn a hole through the cuben. I suspect another hike of the same length would be the end of this pack (or at least mean considerable repairs).

Also, on the inside of the hip pockets, there’s a useless zipper pull that does nothing but get jammed when you try to close the zip. Cut that off and throw it away.

All of this being said – there’s plenty going for this pack. I expect other packs (the Osprey Atmos, for instance) would have been shredded by our route. I appreciated the simplicity of this pack’s design; wet tent, dirty ground sheet and water bottles lived in the outside pockets, and almost everything else tucked nicely into the large internal compartment. The inner mesh hydro sleeve held our paper maps (which also acted as a makeshift frame component), as well as ID, cash, and other seldom-used valuables.

I also appreciated how easily I could grab and stow my water bottles while wearing the pack. Piia (who couldn’t do this with her MyTrailCo pack) had to either take off her pack or wait for me any time she wanted a drink.

And, did I mention it was light? It was very light. Hyper light, even. I suspect I’d have ached and grumbled more about a heavier pack.

Would I use the same pack again? For my initial investment, I’ll keep using this same pack for as long as I possibly can. Once it’s done? Well, I’ll have a good look to see what else is on the market.

2019 update: By mid-2018, the hole worn by the stay was a reasonably big problem - the stay would work its way up and out of the hole while I used the pack, meaning it was uncomfortable and not functioning well. I contacted Burkett at Hyperlite Mountain Gear, and he asked me send the pack in for repair. He hadn't seen a failure like this one (maybe I use my pack like a weirdo...). Anyway, Hyperlite worked hard to make it right, and I was really impressed by their customer service - responsive and easy to talk to. Thanks guys!

Oliver's dry bag 1 – Sea to Summit Lightweight – 35l (165g)

Oliver’s rating: ★★★★★

Bring it again?: No

A mid-trail purchase, I added this dry bag to my kit in Pucón. This was a remedy to my less-than-waterproof DIY silnylon gear bag, and surprisingly permeable HMG pack. This dry bag was fine (and I was pleased to find something like it in Chile), but hindsight being 20:20, I should have brought a lighter one from home.

If you’re going to search for outdoor gear in Chile, though, Pucón’s your town.

Oliver's dry bag 2 – DIY silnylon (30g)

Oliver’s rating: ★★★★★

Bring it again?: Yes (but with modifications)

Part of the homemade silnylon triad of mitts, socks and gear bags, these would have been perfect if the seam-sealing had worked. As it was, they were somewhat leaky. Nevertheless, having a lightweight bag made the single large internal compartment of my pack more useful – I could segregate clothes, food and other gear such that they were easy to access individually. With some better seam sealing, this would have been a perfect piece of gear.

Sleeping bag – ZPacks 900 Fill Twin Quilt 20F – Long (715g)

Oliver’s rating: ★★★★★   Piia’s rating: ★★★★★

Bring it again?: Yes

This was a fantastic piece of gear. We spent a long time researching sleeping bag options, and deciding to go for a) a quilt, b) a two-person quilt, and c) one as spendy as ZPacks’ took a couple of hard swallows. In the end, though, we couldn’t be happier – our whole sleep system worked really well, and the quilt was an integral part of it.

There were two major benefits to the two-person quilt.​

Sunshine and roses in two-person quilt land.

First, quilts cover only your top and sides, relying on other insulation (in our case, torso-length NeoAir XLite mattresses and our empty packs) below you. Compressed sleeping bag that you’re lying on provides little or no insulation value, and so by eliminating the useless bits, quilts save on weight without sacrificing warmth. There is a wrap-around foot bag, though, which we appreciated – we suspect quilts that were top-only all the way down would result in cold toes.

Second, snuggling is warmer. Oliver tends to run warm, while Piia’s a nighttime heat sink. Sharing space under a two-person quilt means we can equalize to a happy medium; Oliver has plenty of heat to share, and Piia’s happy to take it. Also, who doesn’t like snuggling?

Coupled with our mattresses, packs and sleeping clothes, this quilt provided just the right amount of warmth for our time on the trail. Lows reached -5 °C on several nights, but we stayed comfortable. On a test hike in Kluane National Park before our departure, we spent a couple of -10 °C nights under this quilt with our GPT sleeping system – It is safe to say that this was at (or slightly below) the minimum we’d like to use this particular system for.

One consideration, though, is that this is not a piece of gear to treat roughly. The fabric is light, and seems pretty fragile. We’ve been gentle with it, and it’s still in good shape. Piia nearly draped it over a rose bush to air out once – this might have very well been the end of it.

We’re glad we got the Long. Oliver's a little over 6’, and this was only just long enough to tuck up under his chin.

We suspect we’ll keep using this until it dies, and replace it with another of the same.

2019 update: Still in great shape, though it's had only infrequent use since the GPT.

Tent – Tarptent StratoSpire 2 (1300g)

Oliver’s rating: ★★★★★    Piia’s rating: ★★★★★

Bring it again?: Yes

Tent was another one of those linch-pin components we spent a long time thinking about before making a decision. We tried a few, but the Tarptent StratoSpire 2 was the obvious winner.

This tent was great. Light, exceptionally roomy, sturdy in the wind, and held up admirably to some monsoonal downpours. We brought and used both the rain fly and the internal bug nest/bathtub floor.

Our little portable home.

We couldn’t get over just how much room (both within the inner bug nest and in the vestibules) there was in this tent. For the weight, it felt palatial. This was particularly useful as all of our gear and food lived inside the tent with us along the GPT (unlike at home in the Yukon, where bears are a consideration and food has to live outside and up a tree or in a canister). Also, in a month and a half on the trail, we figured we’d probably encounter a moment or two when a little personal space could be desirable. Thankfully, this wasn’t the case (or was it? It's hard to remember – guess that amounts to about the same…), but we're sure we’d have appreciated the option.

Wind is a near-constant companion along the GPT. We initially had some doubts about the Tarptent’s ability to withstand big gusts. Through a mix of tent design and campsite choice, however, we never ran into trouble. Using the beefy pegs that come with tent, we could make a pretty bombproof setup. We did lengthen the stakeout cords that extended from the top of the tent poles – this gave us more flexibility in stake location, made for a longer clothesline for drying clothes, and kept the guy line out of the way when we entered and exited the tent.

While it didn’t rain often, we did encounter a few rainy spells (including one magnificent downpour, in which it felt like we were being attacked with multiple firehoses for ~18 hours). While we did get some condensation inside the fly, for the most part it ran harmlessly to the outside edge. We were amazed at how dry we stayed under such a thin fly. Staking out well, so that the tent is pitched tight, was an important component of staying dry.

We also appreciated the versatility of setups the tent offered. We could set up tight and snug, with only a little air gap under the fly on cold and windy nights, or stake the fly up high and open both door wings up wide for an airier pitch on warmer nights. We never did use either the bug nest or the fly on their own, but could see enjoying the nest by itself on warm, starry nights. As advertised, the doors open in such a way that rain doesn’t enter the internal nest (unless it’s really windy).

We also liked having two doors. Crawling over one another would have gotten old, and we more or less discounted any tent that would have required this.

Setup took a bit of getting used to – we were clumsy at it the first few times – but we quickly got the hang of it.

Both doors fully opened for a warm night.

Downsides to this design are the flimsy little zippers, and the fragile bug netting. While neither failed on our trip, we could imagine the zippers breaking easily, and we had to be very careful with the netting to avoid holes.

Before we left, we reinforced the corners of the fly with additional silnylon and silicone at the guy-out points, after noticing some small tears after our test hike. These points take a lot of stress if you’re making a tight pitch. We’re glad we did, and we had no further problems.

After ~55 nights’ use, this tent is starting to show its age a bit. There are a few small holes in the bug netting, and some stretching (and a small tear near one of the peaks) in the rain fly. Because of the design, it’s possible to put a lot of stress on the fly by making a really tight pitch – it’s worth being cautious, rather than yanking everything as tight as it will go.

All around, we’re really pleased with everything this tent has to offer, and we highly recommend it.

2019 update: This tent is still a winner for us, though we've had only occasional opportunity to use it since. It's rare to have gear that makes you smile to think about it, but this does.

Tons of room.

Sleeping pad – Therm-A-Rest NeoAir XLite – S and DIY straps (240g)

Oliver’s rating: ★★★★★     Piia’s rating: ★★★★★

Bring it again?: Yes

We used these torso-length pads as part of our sleeping system. We made two DIY straps (modeled on ZPacks’ straps) to make sure our pads didn’t slide apart. The straps were indispensable.

For Oliver (6'1"), this pad extended from about his neck to just below his knees. For a pillow, we’d use our food and clothes bags covered with our down jackets, and we’d put our packs under our calves and feet.

Oliver was initially skeptical of using torso-length pads like this. For him it seemed crazy to carry so little padding (and rely so much on a partially-empty pack as insulation for legs and feet). After a test hike, though, he was sold – this method works for the conditions we encountered on the GPT.

All strapped up.

The NeoAir mattresses provided the right amount of comfort and insulation for us – we could sleep on smallish rocks and sticks without feeling them, and we don’t remember feeling cold from the ground.

We’d initially worried about durability of these pads, and carried repair supplies with us on the trail. In the end, we never had to use them.

We incorporated these pads into our pack cushioning; with a little air left in them, we’d fold them multiple times, and then slide them into our packs between our backs and the rest of our load.

We'd go this route again for light and fast hiking – it didn’t feel like we sacrificed much comfort or warmth at all, despite using such a small mattress.

We did test the Therm-A-Rest Z Lite mattresses before the hike, but we (okay, mainly Oliver) found them too uncomfortable to use for more than a night or two in a row.

2019 update: These pads continue to be remarkably durable, even in tough conditions. We've since discovered that they fit perfectly into the floor of our Alpacka packrafts - we now use them as much for this as for sleeping on. Getting up off the floor of the rafts is particularly nice when paddling our cold Yukon waters; takes longer to freeze your bum with a bit of air between it and icewater. I guess they'll fail eventually, but we've gotten our money out of these many times over.

 
 

Piia's pack – My Trail Co 50L (918g)

Oliver’s rating: ★★★★★

Bring it again?: Yes

I did my previous long-distance hike with the backpack from My Trail CO's predecessor GoLite. Their Jam (50L) had some great qualities and luckily the MTC have the same style backpack still available. The pack is lightweight with simple design. I like the zipped outer pocket for secured storage and easy and fast access. The waist pockets are big enough for small snacks, buff or a small GPS. For frameless backpack it's comfortable as long as you pack right kind of items (not bulky) next to your back. It's also very affordable comparing to some of the bigger brands. I like the simple closing system, too.

 

Downsides include fragile mesh side pockets (poked a hole the first day I used it) and challenging sizing. Both My Trail Co and GoLite packs (size S) were a bit too big from the waist (which was the reason I felt I needed a new one). At the end Oliver's mum shortened the waist band (about an inch on both sides) and it fit so much better. I think 50L is enough to pack gear and food for up to 15 days at the time and MTC pack can carry 15-20kg (30-45lb) comfortably.

Piia's dry bag 1 – JR Gear Pack Liner 70L (124g)

Piia's rating: ★★★

Bring it again?: Yes

Having a pack liner is handy for couple of reason. Firstly, obviously, it offers extra protection against water (the quality of the fabric determines how much water) during hiking. Secondly, I can use it to cover my wet backpack during the nights when my sleeping bag and my legs lie on top of the pack. This approach isn't ultralight but gives me peace of mind.

 

JR Gear 30D silnylon liner is fairly durable and holds a few hours of heavy rain. Eventually it will let water in, especially the corners are weak spots. But it performs as well as you would expect from light silnylon.

Piia's dry bags 2, 3 and 4 – SeaToSummit 20L, 13L; Outdoor Research 15L (51g, 35g, 49g)

Piia's rating: ★★★

Bring it again?: Yes

Even though these silnylon dry bags aren't totally waterproof they are enough to do the job, at least on the GPT. If you're hiking in areas where you expect constant, daily, heavier-than-drizzle rain then heavier duty bags are more apt.

These bags were used for our sleeping bag, Piia's clothing that she wasn't wearing (inside the liner for extra protection) and Piia's camera. After a long-distance hike we would seal the seams again and use fabric tape to fix the holes that eventually form when dealing with a lightweight fabric.