In our preparation for a couple of weeks in the Alaskan wilderness Hamish outlined some thoughts about gear. We share them here in case they help you in your own gear considerations.
I’m just going through some gear prep notes for the upcoming trip. I thought I would think out loud and keep you all in the loop as to what I'm doing. From what most of the weather charts look like we could be in for some weather similar to Melbourne winter. As most of you are from Sydney that means rarely getting above 18-20 degrees celcius. The other thing I have noticed is the extended daylight period means more sunshine and inherently more hours of warmth from the sun so if it’s a chilly night it might only be for about 5 or 6 hours.
Nonetheless it is always best to cater for your coldest climate when considering gear. I have been caught out before. There is a lot of gear available in the hiking retail world, some cheap, some really expensive but it’s not always the expensive stuff that is best so I will aim to help you try and save some money and point you in the direction of value as well as try and maintain a focus on quality for those wishing to invest in gear for the future.
Hike Pack or Ruck Sack
Considerations: Size/Volume (Litres), Canvas vs Nylon, Harness suitability, Travel friendly
For those of us wishing to do overnight hiking and trekking it's important to pay particular attention to the size, quality and load carrying ability of our packs. If you are thinking about some serious walking then something at least 50 litres in capacity should be okay. Exact volume will depend on your strength and experience. The biggest pack is not necessarily the best. If you are doing multi-day treks you will discover that a pack with multiple external pockets can be very convenient. A proper fit is most important. Females usually have a short to medium back length and this means finding a pack with a shorter back length range. This doesn’t mean you can’t have a large capacity pack. It just means you need to ensure the correct harness option and fitting. Canvas is naturally rainproof and quite harder wearing when compared with some nylon packs however it is slightly heavier and in some cases more expensive. Canvas packs are a good long term investment and you could expect 10+ year lifespans from them.
Regardless of whether you have a Canvas or Nylon pack it is always good to ensure your gear is dry by using a pack liner. No pack is entirely waterproof (as a general rule) so invest in some bag liners. A cheap but effective option is to use garbage bags and ziplock bags. Garbage bags are prone to tearing so don't rely on them too much. Having a few bag liners came in handy as extra protection for the blizzard that caught some of us on the Salkantay Trek in Peru. While a strong garbage bag is more than enough, there are more durable options on the market. Dry Sacks are pretty handy too, they come in sizes from 1 litre through to 35 litres and are good for separating gear making it easier to pack and find while hiking.
It is good to aim to distribute items in your pack to assist with weight distribution. It can be hard to achieve but this diagram is a good guide as to how best to load your pack.
These days there is a multitude of options when it comes to packs. I would probably start with working out what the maximum weight you want to carry is. Realistically I am comfortable with 20kg+ but I am grateful for every kilogram beneath that figure, where possible. It is possible, with some planning, to get your pack weight down a lot lower.
Finally, don't forget that pack cover. Further investment against rain. Make sure you have a cover that is actually waterproof (!) and one that covers your pack completely. Walking the Overland Track in winter with the wrong sized pack cover was not fun.
Shelter - Tents & Sleeping Systems
Considerations: Weight, warmth, Cost, Durability 3 season vs 4 season.
Starting with Tents. When researching tents you will soon find there is 3 Season, 4 Season and Snow or Alpine tents and in some cases Expedition or Polar tents. For the sake of this trip it would be fair to say we are looking at 4 season to Alpine options to be on the safe side but a 3 season may well suffice for the most part. A 4 season tent will usually have a full nylon inner rather than a mesh inner found in most 3 season tents and will have a heavier grade fly sheet compared to its 3 season equivalent. Other features may include a full crossover dome pole structure creating greater stability in high wind and heavy rain or blizzard. Alpine or Snow tents will usually have a fly sheet that stretches further to the ground to reduce draft and snow drift to the inner area of the tent and have thicker floor and fly fabrics. They are also quite heavy for hiking so if you don’t need it it is best not to lug it around.
Whilst I don’t think we will encounter blizzard there is a very good chance - as always in the mountains - that we will encounter unfavourable wind and rain. It is also likely that in the mountains it will be colder than what is forecasted at the lower altitudes where the townships are. There are some good cheap hiking tents on the market from about $200 to $400 and you can expect to pay upwards of $500 for a good quality top end 1 or 2 person hiking tent.
Considerations: Temperature, Down vs Synthetic, Weight, Cost
Quite often I get people saying “ I want a cheap light weight sleeping bag that packs down the size of drink bottle “ but they forget to mention that warmth. This is one area where it is important to consider the environment and climate you are traveling to. There is no point heading to the Alps with a summer weight sleeping bag. Down sleeping bags are the lightest option when it comes warmth to weight ratio and recently with the addition of water repellent treatments they perform quite well even in the event of being subject to wet conditions where previously synthetic bags were favoured in such conditions. Synthetics are much cheaper and for those wishing to keep the cost down they will be the best option. However they are much heavier to carry.
For example a -5 degrees down bag (RRP $400-$500) will weigh between 800-900 grams and a synthetic bag ( RRP$100 - $200 ) is likely to be 1.5kg! Again, the down bag is more of an investment but if you are only going to use it for this trip it might pay to start with a synthetic bag.
The other key factor in deciding between these two types of sleeping bag is that down will compress far more than synthetic making it easier to fit in your pack and make way for other things like food and water.
The shape of sleeping bags will effect their efficiency. Sleeping bags don’t warm your body up they merely act as a barrier to the external environment and allow your body to stay warm, so the less space there is for your body to fill the better it will maintain your body heat. In theory.
Considerations: Warmth, weight, comfort, durability and cost.
There are 2 or 3 types of hiking mat I will speak about. Self Inflating, Inflatable and Foam Mats. Most good quality hike mats will have a rating known as an R-value**, usually between R 2.0 and R 5.8 - without getting into the nitty gritty the higher the number the warmer they are. For the sake of Alaska I am recommending R 3.2 as a minimum ( 0 to -5 appropriate).
Self Inflating mats are your classic hike mat, you open a valve and the air rushes in to reinstate the foam inside to its natural state and thus “inflating” the mat. The amount or thickness of the foam and its density will dictate its comfort and warmth and inherently its weight. Appropriate mats for Alaska of this nature will be in the vicinity of $100 - $250.
Inflatable mats usually require the hiker to blow them up by mouth or using a stuff sac to force air into them via a port hole. The beauty of these mats is their comfort levels due to the thicknesses available without a major weight penalty. The flip side is they are harder to get warmth from and any amount of air beneath you will likely become cold in cold conditions. Thanks to some fancy technology and thermal coatings there are a few high-end mats on the market that are both lightweight and warm and small in pack size but you can expect to pay between $350 and $500.
Foam mats are the old school classic. Commonly referred to as “Yoga Mats” because essentially thats what they are. It is a piece of closed sell foam either rolled up or folded and place inside or on the outside of your pack. They are bulky but lightweight and they do offer good insulation from cold ground. The other thing is they are super cheap. For Alaska though they could be hard to travel with on flights so if it’s your likely option perhaps see if you can purchase them in country once we arrive. Usually between $20 and $50.
In addition to Tents, Sleeping Bags and Sleeping mats there are a few other items that can assist with ensuring you don’t freeze while hiking. First of all is a sleeping bag liner. These can be purchased for around $50-70 and will provide an amount of added warmth and comfort to a sleep system. There are more substantial thermoliners available that will add a good amount of extra warmth for those looking to boost an existing sleeping bag.
The other item is a Space Blanket or Insulated Ground Sheet. Commonly known as the foil space blanket as the cheap ones look like tin foil. The one I carry is a more continued usage style blanket with hemmed edges and eyelets so it can be used as a ground sheet, a tarp tent or shelter for a group in emergencies. It is thicker and quite well insulated and can even act as an aide to a deficient sleeping mat.
Thermarest - Trail Scout approx $110 R-value 3.2 weighs approx 600g, a great cheap but quality option.
Thermarest - Trail Lite Wr approx $169.95 R-value 4.9 weighs approx 800g The best value according to my spreadsheet.
Thermarest - Prolite Plus Wr approx $239.95 R-value 4.2 weighs approx 550g, . Light, warm and durable
Thermarest - NeoAir X-lite approx $384.95 R-value 3.2 weighs approx 340g, The ducks nuts, super light and small pack down size with reasonable warmth. Available in an even warmer version ($479)
Thermarest - SoLite Ridgerest approx $60 R-value 2.8 weighs approx 260g, minimalist light weight for those daring to risk it.
** pricing was correct as at 2018.
grabber-all-weather-blanket - my "must have" hike item. Makes a good picnic blanket too :)
Cooking and Water Carriage
Considerations: How much will you eat?, How much are you prepared to carry? and How much luxury are you prepared to forego?
I will continually look into this area as it is hard enough to prepare for in the homeland. A good amount of water to step off with for hiking is 4-5 litres with that made up of 2 x 1 or 1.5 litre water bottles and a 2 or 3 litre water bladder in your hike pack. If we are in the snow line there would be an option to melt snow with a stove but it would be wise to consider other options like hiking close to rivers and having filtration and purification methods present amongst the group.
Water bladder. It’s good to get into the habit of sipping water as you go and you are more inclined to do that if you have a water bladder in your pack with the tube rigged to be near your mouth. As a general rule we have found many bladders branded for generic camping stores fail early. It is worth spending a few extra dollars investing in specialist bladders.
Water bottles. Bladders are for water only. Have a couple of bottles for mixing up your hydralytes and other drink additives.
There is a difference between filtration and purification but as it’s science based I will leave it to the professionals in a nifty link below. I think as a potentially large group we should classify for some of the larger group oriented water filter and purifier systems available.
MSR are leading the way with regard to research in the hiking field,. They have many quality products ranging from snowshoes to hike stoves and in this case water treatment options.
Where do I start? I have used 3 different types of stove in my hiking experience. Gas canister system by JetBoil, a crappy hexamine stove issued by Defence and my recent purchase a MSR Whisperlite liquid fuel stove. There a thousand ways to skin a cat and same goes for hikes stoves.
Once again I will pop a link below from the MSR web page about choosing stoves. I will speak about my thoughts on how Alaska and travelling in a big group might affect how we go about stoves and cooking.
The availability of fuels is usually a big factor. Canister stoves use butane/propane mixtures and the cans cannot be carried on aircraft. In order to rely on a canister stove you must ensure that there is fuel cans available at your destination. There is also an issue with the carrying of empty cans and trying to dispose of them when they run out.
Liquid fuel stoves are easier to find fuel for as white gas, sheltie and kerosene are usually commonly available from gas stations, hardware and camping stores. Some of them even run on unleaded and diesel! They also have refillable fuel bottles and 1 litre of fuel can last 2 people up to a week of use hiking.
Most liquid fuel stoves are well set up for group cooking as they usually have broad areas for resting large pots on for boiling lots of water or cooking big meals. From a group point of view i think it would be wise to try and have one stove between 2 or 3 maybe 4 people. We can fine tune this closer to the date. If we work in groups it will likely be easier to plans meals as well.
https://thesummitregister.com/which-type-stove-bring/ - a good resource for stove selection.
https://thesummitregister.com/5-advantages-of-liquid-fuel-stoves/ - and this one too
There is a stigma surrounding Walking Poles and people think they are for crippled old people. NOT TRUE! They are for crippled young people too :) but the fact of the matter is they are good for preventing crippling injuries later in life. When descending mountains with a hike pack on the stress placed on the knees, hips and back is far greater than at any other point in a trek. Whilst it might be a pain to lug around walking poles that might only be handy for descents they will significantly decrease the likelihood of injury and delayed onset pain post hike. I resisted using them and for the heavier pack carrying period of my life I wasn't afforded the option of using them and I have since had a hip operation which was my light-bulb moment. They are available in many shapes and sizes ( and weights ) but can be picked up for as little as $80 on sale.
Personally I use a Helinox branded pole as they are very lightweight and reasonably priced. Black Diamond make an extensive range of poles ranging from lightweight 3 season style poles to Alpine and Mountaineering style poles for use with heavier packs and snow and ice.
For Alaska I am imagining a 3 season lightweight pole will suffice. As a side note some good tent and shelter systems actually work in conjunction with walking poles and they can reduce the weight of your overall hiking sleep system by negating the need for tent poles. This pathway would be for those intending on becoming ultralight hikers and takes a bit of practice and getting used to. I have not trialled it so I cannot speak from experience but many companies have a tee pee type tent that can be used with walking poles.
Repair Kit misc
I carry a few bits and bobs for basic field repairs and the items are specific to the gear I carry. I have a multitool, Goretex patches for repairing Rainwear, Nylon patches for tent repairs, cable ties and nylon cord for a multitude of uses and a sewing kit for clothing fixes.
This trip might call for some unusual safety measures due to flora and fauna but from a personal point of view there are a few good get out of a spot items.It’s safe to assume that every single item you carry when hiking in the wilderness is essentially going to be a safety item.
PLB ( Personal Locator Beacon ) - Can be purchased, rented or borrowed. Our preference is to own one. Don't forget to keep its registration up to date.
Insulated Space Blanket - Every hiker should carry one, the don’t weigh much and have many uses.
Emergency Bivvy Bag - A more specific alternative to carrying space blanket, can boost the warmth of a sleeping bag too.
First Aid Kit - We should all have some basic but useful First Aid supplies at hand. Bandages, Panadol & water treating tablets.
Headtorch - Get a good one, if not for safety but for good night wildlife spotting or finding things in the dark. All 5 hours of it. There are many rechargeable options available and some that even have rechargeable battery packs and can also use AAA batteries.
Once again it is good to keep your coldest potential climate in mind without being excessive and uncomfortable in warmer climates. It makes sense to layer up. It’s in just about every hiking blog or book under the sun. Dress in layers.
I try to keep clothing to a minimum from a packing point of view. I take as little underwear as possible and try to buy things that can wash and dry easily. Merino is great for warmth and will not get too smelly should you wear it for a few days in a row. From socks to thermals and even gloves, beanies and t-shirts you can get some really nice merino wear. Some people don’t like the feel of merino but fear not, as there are some merino/poly blend and just plain old polypropolene will do the job.
Ex-Officio make nice undergarment that are easy to wash and dry very quickly. You can get a pair of undies for about $40. I have 3 or 4 pairs at home and usually wear one pair and have 2 spare. Same goes for socks, wear one pair and carry two spare and they are usually all merino wool unless i’m going somewhere warm I have a pair of Coolmax.
Beanies and buffs don’t need to be outrageous but are usually nice at night and in the morning to keep you warm. A buff, which is like a tube scarf is also good for wind protection on your face and neck.
I’ve got a great pair of gloves by a company called Sealskin. They’re waterproof, fleece lined and not too bulky so you maintain usage of your camera and Magnum .357. I will put a link for somewhere to get them online. The cycling ones are better as they’re not as bulky as the general hiking ones. Hot tip.
A good pair of sunglasses can be very handy when looking at snow or glaciers. In fact they are not an option if on ice and snow. Without them you can succumb to snow blindness in minutes. I invested in some mountaineering sunnies for the Peru trip and they were great. In saying that even a regular pair of sunnies is more than adequate but if you are on ice or snow for any length of time invest in glasses that are 'wrap around' and ensure they prevent light seeping in from below as well. Even good quality fashionable sunnies which are good for the street won't help prevent reflected light from ice and snow dazzle and harm you.
Gaiters. They come in many shapes and sizes. Some are thin and light others are heavy made of canvas. They all offer varying degrees of protection from scrub and animals. They also provide waterproofing for your lower leg and boots in soggy wet conditions. Some people wear them for snake protection too. Thankfully in the Americas a lot of the trails are so well blazed you very rarely need gaiters for scrub bashing so I would only consider them from a water proofing point of view. There are no snakes in Alaska.
Hike pants/shorts are best to keep as light weight and quick drying as possible. There are heaps of brands doing this stuff but i have found Mont to be reasonable quality and reasonable price. Patagonia are making really nice hiking clothing so if you are looking for something nice and half decent in appearance I would check them out too.
Underwear. Best to wear cotton if you can. It breathes better than synthetics and is less prone to encouraging ’crutch rot’. Having said that. once you get to altitude best to try and avoid any cotton clothes altogether. Once wet, cotton is cold and can exacerbate hypothermia.
Waterproofs and Down Jackets
There is a bit of brainwash thing going on and a lot of people think if your jacket has Goretex emblazoned on it you will be dry. Which is true to an extent but the name Goretex is a brand, not a guarantee of dryness. The patent on the fabric that Goretex once had was lifted some years ago and there are now many very suitable alternatives and some are better than most of the current iterations of Goretex.
Essentially what you should be looking for is a 3 layer waterproof fabric.
There are some budget options with regard to rainwear and overpants but be careful and consider the breathability as well as the waterproof rating. 5000mm Waterhead rating and above should keep you in the high and dry.
Down jackets are a nice to have but may or may not be entirely essential for this trip. If you don’t have one or don’t want to buy one I would highly recommend a nice polar fleece to substitute. If you do pack a down jacket then consider bringing a light weight fleece otherwise you will be bringing too much bulk and it will be unnecessary.
http://www.alaska.org/assets/content/related_items_pdfs/What-To-Wear-Hiking-Alaska.pdf - what the locals say. Very handy and a no nonsense guide to hiking gear in Alaska.
My usual layers are as follows:
Merino/Poly 50/50 blend thermals - because I don’t like the feel of 100% merino these suit me and they are lightweight and I don’t often use them so they pack away at base of pack.
Merino Coolmax Polo Shirt - Reversible for warm weather and cold weather. Merino lining one side and breathable coolmax fabric the other. Comfortable.
Columbia Omnidry Silverridge Shorts - Lightweight quick drying hike shorts, very comfy.
Mid-Weight Polartec 100 Fleece Half Zip - One of my favourites. Super light but very warm when used as a layer. Also available as a track pant, heavenly.
Inversion Down Jacket - suited to Alpine conditions. Has a water resistant outer fabric, great in snowy conditions and very cold weather or when stationary.
Cactus Mountain Jacket (WTF-3)- Cactus' take on Goretex. Highly waterproof, highly breathable and hard wearing. Requires less washing and care than other waterproof breathables.
Waterproof Overpants - As above. Very easy to put on and take off thanks to leg zips. Were very handy in Peru when it pissed rain for 3 hours straight.
Probably your best investment. Get the best boots you can afford. If you are serious about this walking thing we recommend leather boots. If you are going to buy good sturdy leather boots do it soon and get used to wearing them before we go. Otherwise there are lots of lighter weight alternatives that will be fine to wear in closer to the date. There are many shoe companies begging for your business however shoes are very important to get right so don’t buy one just because you get a good deal. Shop around and find something that suits your foot. I would advise to be careful not to get them too small. 1 cm of room in front of your toe is not a bad thing but your toe touching the end of the boot is going to cause many issues. If you pull the insole out of a boot and stand on it as if you were wearing the boot you can visually check the amount of room in front of your toe. I use my pinky finger as a gauge Your foot will tend to slide slightly forward when walking down hill so you need that room to allow the movement without hitting your toes on the end. Your foot will also expand and swell as the day goes on from heat. This means it is a good idea to try boots on in the afternoon after a day on your feet. It’s also good if you take your own hiking socks to try with boots so you get a clear indication of how they will feel for you.
https://www.tegere.com.au/collections/hiking/products/mens-fusion-light- my favourite hiking sock
https://www.tegere.com.au/collections/socks-dress/products/merino-fleece-originals - My favourite all-rounder socks, don’t get smelly.